NEW YORK -- Mike Rupp has played parts of nine seasons in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup as a rookie with the New Jersey Devils in 2003. This season marks the seventh time he's reached the playoffs, so he's well-versed in the art of discussing what it means to stay on an even keel this time of year.
He was asked to compare this New York Rangers team to the others on which he's played following practice at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. He fumbled a bit for the answer before finding the best way to explain why the team has avoided peaks and valleys this season.
"This one, we have a real way of just kind of … I'll put it this way," Rupp said, "we don't get praised for a win."
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Rangers coach John Tortorella has a reputation for telling it like it is, but he's cultivated a locker room during his three-plus years with the club that doesn't buy into the hype or the criticism, and it's a big reason why they hold a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Capitals with Game 6 set for Wednesday night at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC).
That mental strength will be put to the test following one of the more stirring victories in the recent history of the Rangers in Game 5, when Brad Richards scored with 6.6 seconds remaining in regulation and Marc Staal won it at the 1:25 mark in overtime to move from the brink of elimination to the driver's seat in the series.
Rupp believes the mindset instilled into the team by Tortorella is why there won't be a hangover in Game 6.
"That's a good thing," Rupp said. "It keeps everyone level-headed. We don't get big heads in this room. We just find ways to cut the cord from the last game and move on. We can enjoy it this morning, but once you go out there and practice and get on this train (to Washington), it's business. We understand last game doesn't mean anything without coming up and stepping up our game in Game 6."
Rangers forward Brandon Prust said this didn't happen overnight, either.
"I think that's part of growing as a team," Prust said. "We've been together for a few years now and we're growing as individuals and as a team. I think that's been a big difference this year for us."
Following a triple-overtime, 2-1 victory in Game 3 at Verizon Center, the Rangers came out flat for Game 4 three nights later. The Capitals jumped to a 1-0 lead and outshot the Rangers 14-3 in the first period in a contest the Caps won 3-2 on a late power-play goal.
"We didn't do a good job coming out after Game 3, so that will be a focus," Richards said. "It will give ourselves a lot better chance, especially when they come hard. I think we've learned that lesson as we've gone through here the last few weeks."
The Capitals faced elimination just once in conference quarterfinals and emerged victorious against the Bruins by winning Game 7 in Boston in overtime on a goal by Joel Ward. It's impossible to discuss an elimination game with a player without being told how hard it is to win the fourth game of a series, but Rupp said the key to success is tricking yourself into believing it's your team playing the must-win game.
"I've been on teams that have lost being up 3-2 and 3-1, too," Rupp said. "You get a feeling sometimes if it's 3-1 and you're going into that Game 5, you have a feeling of, no matter what, you're going to see another day. I think we've done a good job here. We don't feel that now and I don't anticipate that being the feeling tomorrow.
"They're tough. I've said it 100 times -- every win is harder to get. If you get by a game with struggling for five minutes, you're not going to be able to get away with it the next time. We've got to find a way to win this series. They're going to come out, trying to set the tone like they did in Game 4 there. We have to recognize it and push back."
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