Commentary

Ah, the mind games on eve of Game 7

Updated: April 27, 2009, 3:48 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- John Tortorella looked around the group of reporters Monday and asked the question.

"OK, I'll poll you right now," said the New York Rangers coach. "Who thinks we're going to win tomorrow?"

Not a single hand was raised.

"There you go. There is no pressure on us," said Tortorella. "We're going to go there and try to relax and compete in a Game 7 because everybody thinks we're done. It falls back on them. They have the advantage because it is a home building and that's what they did this year. They deserve that seventh game, but it's funny what happens with the pressure."

Ah, the mind games on the eve of a seventh game. It's universal in all sports.

It is true that very few people are giving Tortorella's men any chance of winning Tuesday night at Verizon Center. Not after the way the Washington Capitals dominated the last two games.

But that's the beauty of Game 7. Anything can happen.

"First of all, we know we can win there," said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the heart and soul of this team. "We won the first two games of the series there. We have to believe going into that building that we can do it.

"They're a good team," added Lundqvist. "They're not that good, though. I think we still have our best game in front of us. So hopefully we can have it tomorrow."

For the Rangers to have any chance, Lundqvist needs to bring his A-game back to the rink. People might see that as oversimplifying things, but it is the reality. Just like Alex Ovechkin is the engine that drives the Caps, the Rangers go only as far as their star goaltender allows.

"Hank's got to play better and he knows that," said Tortorella. "For us to have an opportunity, he has to be really good.

"Early in the series, he was really good and that's why we have the opportunity to play a Game 7 because we won some of those early games. It's been a little bit of a fight for him here, but I don't have to say one word to him. He gets it and that's what I like about him. I know the fight that he has in him."

The series has shifted on his play (mind you, the Caps deserve some of the credit for finally figuring him out). After giving up only eight goals on 149 shots through the first four games, and being on the verge of single-handedly stealing the series, Lundqvist has been victimized for nine goals on 34 shots in his past two starts and was pulled after two periods in both those games.

Lundqvist said it's time to wipe the slate clean. It's a one-game series now.

"It doesn't matter what happened in this series or even the season," he said. "Tomorrow is just one game. We know we can do better, starting with me."

That's the X's and O's part. Between the ears, who knows what's going on with this team. The Rangers have given up a 3-1 series lead in the backdrop of dramatic events surrounding the club. From benching Sean Avery to Tortorella being suspended for Game 6 after an altercation with the Washington fan to the team releasing a now-famous letter addressed to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, it's been a lot to digest.

"It's important that we put everything behind us here that's been going on the last couple of days," said Lundqvist. "I see a lot of opportunities here for us and we have to believe we can do it."

If the Rangers are feeling any pressure, they didn't show it Monday at practice. There were plenty of smiles and laughter. They looked like a relaxed bunch despite what's happened of late.

"It's one game, winner takes all. That's the beauty of the playoffs, for sure," said Rangers winger Sean Avery (he spoke!). "There's certainly a feeling of looseness. We're loose, we're just going to go out and play."

In Arlington, Va., on Monday, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau pointed to last season's Game 7 experience as a hopeful tool. The Caps rallied from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7 versus Philadelphia before losing in overtime in the decisive game. It's an experience that can be helpful.

"We've been there before, so we know how to act and what the situation is going to be like and what the pressure is going to be like," said Boudreau.

The stakes are bigger for Washington. The seventh-seeded Rangers were picked by very few people to win the series. If they pull it off, it's gravy. If they lose, they'll be credited for pushing the second-seeded Caps to the brink.

And understand this: Ovechkin and his teammates know how bad it would look to go out in the first round two straight seasons. They know Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins already have a Cup finals appearance under their belts and have again reached the second round this postseason. Those two teams get compared because of their similar rebuilds and young star power. Losing Tuesday night puts one team decidedly ahead of the other.

"Evidently, we haven't handled it very well," Boudreau said when asked how his team has handled the mantle of being the favorite. "We know that we haven't won anything or succeeded in anything. We just have to go out ... we're still playing for our survival."

From our vantage point, the first goal Tuesday night will be gigantic. If the Rangers can get on the board first, the young Caps may press a little in front of the home fans and stray from the game plan that has been so successful of late. The past five games have been won by the team that scored the first goal.

"It's a confidence thing," Tortorella said. "It just settles you down a bit when you're not climbing uphill right away. We are what we are. We struggle to score goals. It's gone on all year long. We need to try to get a lead in Game 7 just for the mindset of the hockey club. That's what it affects, your mindset."

Leave it to Avery to sum it up best.

"It's a hockey game, it's a game, and I think everyone loses that at times," he said. "You just have to go out and have fun."

Drop the puck. Time to put an end to a strange and wacky series.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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