In theory, a team never faces a “must-win” game until they face elimination from the playoffs.  In reality, the New York Rangers Game 2 matchup with the Buffalo Sabres is as close to a “must-win” as you can get in a non-elimination game.

No, I am not painting the Rangers season as done even if they lose, but a win would go a long way in stemming the tide against doom and gloom.

Playoff hockey is so much more about momentum than regular season hockey.  During the regular season, momentum tends to shift from game to game.  In the playoffs, it changes from period and even shift to shift.  Just look back at how Game 1 developed.

The Rangers managed to hold their own for a period and change against Buffalo despite the Blueshirts best efforts to screw things up with their undisciplined play.  However, Michael Rozsival gets hurt and is out of the game after a game try at the start of the second period.  The Sabres turn the tide of the game with their goals in four minutes and the momentum was theirs.

So how do the Rangers shift the momentum back their way?

There is an old adage in baseball that momentum is based on tomorrow’s pitcher.  In hockey, momentum is based on your goaltending.  Henrik Lundqvist did not play as bad as the five goals against indicate.  However, the Rangers will need him to raise his game another notch while the 18 skaters kick their up a couple of notches.  The Rangers must make the Sabres play from behind.  Buffalo does have a tendency to concentrate on offense and leave goaltender Ryan Miller on his own at times.

The Rangers need to emulate their AHL affiliate.  After Hartford lost Game 4 to the Providence Bruins by a 5-1 score, the Wolf Pack responded with a 1-0 victory in Game 5.  They should heed the advice Wolf Pack assistant coach J.J., Daigneault offered after the Game 5 win.

“Everyone reacted well to our last game’s performance,” Daigneault told Bruce Berlet of The Hartford Courant. “The guys realized they didn’t bring their best hockey, and in the playoffs, it’s important not to fall too low when you lose, but to always be ready to bounce back every game.”

They key to bouncing back for the Rangers is for their big players to step up.  Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan must take the lead on and off the ice.  As far as the rest of the team, the Rangers need to ratchet up their intensity while improving their discipline.

Much has been made about the Sabres speed – and quite rightly so.  However, there are ways to combat the speed disadvantage.  The main thing the Rangers need to do is prevent the Sabres speed from becoming a factor by picking up their forechecking.  While the Buffalo defense is steady, there are no game breakers on the Sabres blue line.  The Rangers have to work hard to slow down Buffalo in their own zone and through the neutral zone.

I am not calling on the Rangers to trap, just to be more aware of what is happening in the game.  It is possible the Rangers got away from the things they did right during the final third of the season because of their inactivity.  Shanahan expressed the correct view when he spoke with Jay Greenberg of the NY Post.

“Hockey is instinctive,” Shanahan told Greenberg. “A lot of what you do in practice and games is repetition, and in some ways we didn’t have that for a week.

“We had fresh legs for a good start, but the mistakes were signs of not being sharp mentally, what happens after a layoff. It seemed like the Sabres brought their A game, but I’m sure they had individuals who felt it as well.

“Did we lose because we had a week off? No. But there is a subtle difference in recognizing things you can do better and in making excuses. I don’t think this team is making excuses, simply identifying something that probably was a problem. It’s almost a way for players to Say, ‘We can get a lot better.’ ”

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