Unless the 2012 New York Rangers channel their inner 1994 New York Rangers, the Blueshirts season will end on Friday night at the Prudential Center – on the 18th anniversary of Mark Messier’s Game 6 guarantee game.

As bad as the Rangers start was in Game 4, their Game 5 start was even worse spotting the New Jersey Devils a 3-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the first period – and less than six minutes after coach John Tortorella had to burn his timeout.

If this had been a regular season game, the Rangers could speak of a “moral victory” in reference to how they battled back from their horrendous start to eventually take control of the game. However, that is not the case come playoff time. The only victories you can claim are the ones on the scoreboard.

Much has been made by the media and fans about the Rangers being tired – despite Tortorella’s assurances that they are not. Well, they may not be physically tired but being mentally tired would explain the Rangers inability to get off to even an average start in the last couple of first periods.

With the Rangers playing so many tight games during the playoffs, and having to grind out a pair of seven-game series to start the playoffs, I could see how the Rangers mindset might change. Instead of playing their game, the Blueshirts pay more attention to not making mistakes which, of course, leads to the Rangers making more mistakes.

The one thing you have to give their Devils credit for is their ability to make the Rangers pay for their mistakes – whether they are mental or physical.

Stephen Gionta’s goal just 2:43 into the game was a play that we have seen repeated over and over during the playoffs. The system that got the Rangers this far failed them as they got caught with all of their players down low – leaving the point wide open. To further compound the problem, no one picked up Gionta in front.

I know it has worked all season long, but Tortorella has to adjust it a bit so that two forwards play more towards the defensemen and the third forward can drop back in the slot area.

On the Devils second goal, they made the Rangers pay the price after Mar Stall lost his edge on a pinch deep in the New Jersey zone. As a result, it was forward Artem Anisimov battling Patrik Elias in front of the net. If Staal doesn’t fall and is back to check Elias, perhaps the puck doesn’t pinball past Henrik Lundqvist.

Even with that, the Rangers had a golden chance to cut the lead in half, but Marian Gaborik missed a sure goal about two minutes later when he shot a puck over the net – keeping the Ranger sniper pointless in the series.

The third Devils goal is all on Lundqvist. There is no way to explain how Travis Zajac’s shot eluded Lundqvist – a shot I am sure he would love to have back.

“They were opportunistic — a few seeing-eye pucks,” Brian Boyle said to Dave Lozo of NHL.com. “Sometimes that happens, but we stuck with it, continued to battle and played a pretty good hockey game.”

A funny thing happened on the way to the Devils cakewalk, the Rangers finally began to take advantage of some Devils mistakes.

The Blueshirts got on the board thanks to Bryce Salvador’s inability to get the puck deep and Brandon Prust’s good sense not to keep an eye on the puck. A poorly timed Devils line change later and Prust was able to beat Martin Brodeur on a mini-breakaway.

In the opening 32 seconds of the second period, the Rangers realized that good things happen when you put the puck towards the net and crash the crease as Ryan Callahan cut the deficit to one as the Rangers finally ruled the day on a playoff review involving a “distinct kicking motion” (unlike Game 3 against Buffalo in 2007 when Karel Rachunek’s second period goal was wiped off).

Callahan came within inches of tying the game with the Rangers on the power play as his sharp-angle rebound shot ticked off Anton Volchenkov’s stick and off the post.

The Rangers struck even earlier at the start of the third period as Brodeur got caught unable to play the puck out of the trapezoid. Gaborik threw the puck towards the net and Marty did the rest as Brodeur stumbled his way to Gaborik’s first goal and point of the series.

With the crowd revved up and momentum fully shifted to the Rangers, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Rangers improbable comeback victory – they eased up on the pedal.

“I felt when we tied it, we stopped making plays,” Tortorella admitted after the game. “Whether they picked up – I think we helped them a little bit. Where I thought we did a really good job of making plays and controlling some of the play tonight, and then I just felt we started batting around a little bit and allowed them to gain some forechecking. I didn’t think we were in real trouble. But they score a goal. They make a big play.”

That big play was a result of a team breakdown defensively. It started with four of the five skaters focused solely on the puck and continued when Carl Hagelin was late to picking up his check on Ryan Carter and culminated with Lundqvist not making an attempt to pokecheck Gionta’s centering pass.

“I thought we had the puck and I didn’t see their guy come back door,” Lundqvist told Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “I needed to look around in case something happened, and I didn’t.”

There are two schools of thought. The first says you want to make sure you are beaten by your opponent’s best players. The second says that you should never let the other team’s best players beat you.

I am not sure what is worse; getting beaten because of the play Devils stars like Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Elias or getting beaten by the play of Devils “foot soldiers’ like Carter and Gionta?

If the Rangers are going to take anything out of this game as they look forward to a true” must-win” Game 6 it is the idea that when they maintain puck possession and keep their level urgency high, they can match the Devils goal-for-goal.

They need to bring those two aspects of their game to the table right from the opening faceoff so that they can play with a lead. In the Blueshirts last 13 playoff games, the team that has scored first has won all 13 games – so that makes getting off to a fast start on Friday night an imperative.

The Rangers are going to need their best players to step to the forefront. While it is great to get secondary goals, this is the time when your best players must lead the way.

Callahan did his best Mark Messier impersonation and needs to bring that same ferocity to Game 6. Gaborik showed some signs of life as well and his goal, as flukey as it was, could be the start of a streak for him. Derek Stepan needs to get on the scoresheet and find a way to earn his first points of the series.

Quite obviously, the Rangers need Lundqvist to return to being The King. They can’t afford another game where Henrik is just a mere mortal.

Most of all, Brad Richards needs to be a force in this series. When your best chance to score is on your goaltender – as he Richards almost did eight and half minutes into the third period – then something is off.

If Game 5 showed us anything, it is that any shot on goal is dangerous when you get bodies to the front of the net. I still maintain the belief that Brodeur is beatable and susceptible to wraparounds and quick plays from behind the net to the slot.

Most of all, the Rangers must have a long-term memory to reflect back to what they did in the final two games of the Ottawa series and in Game 7 against Washington.

“Sure, you spend some time when you’re struggling in the game and learn from your mistakes. You can also spend some time with some of the good things you’ve done to get ready for our next game,” Tortorella stated.

“We’ve been here before. We were here before earlier in the Playoffs. And so we’ll just take the next game. It’s all we’re looking for is our next game.”

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