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Pressure mounts for Rangers after Game 5 loss

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- The players, coaches and systems change, but the New York Rangers continue to make their lives difficult in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Holding a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Final with a chance to close out the Montreal Canadiens and book their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years, the Rangers did not show up in Game 5 on Tuesday until they were down 4-1.

Though they managed to tie the game during a wild second period when the teams combined to score six times on the first 15 shots, the Rangers' poor start is what ultimately did them in.

The 7-4 loss puts the Rangers in a situation where if they lose Game 6 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), they will be forced to come back to Bell Centre and attempt to win Game 7 for a third time this postseason.

The Rangers have not won a series in fewer than seven games since defeating the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round of the 2008 playoffs. Though New York has won each of the past five Game 7's they've played, the Rangers will desperately want to avoid going for six in a row.

If the pressure was on the Canadiens to keep their season alive Tuesday, it could be argued it is squarely on the Rangers to prevent a return visit by winning Thursday.

"Obviously they're going to have life after a win like that," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "It was kind of like Game 1 for us, we had a lot of life going into the next game. We have to find a way to hopefully have a great start at home in Game 6. Hopefully we'll have a chance to wrap it up at home."

One of the big storylines entering the series was Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's poor history at Bell Centre. It was something he addressed by shining in the first two games of the series, stealing Game 2 with a 40-save masterpiece that seemingly put his demons in this building to bed.

But Lundqvist was not good Tuesday when it mattered most, though he was far from the only one in a Rangers uniform who could say that.

"The battle level has to be a little bit better. I have to be quicker. I was a little slow," Lundqvist said. "But I think as a group we have to come back with a better performance. Yeah, I know there's a lot of focus on me, but I think we all have to step up here."

Lundqvist allowed four goals on 19 shots in a little under 30 minutes before Rangers coach Alain Vigneault replaced him with Cam Talbot in an attempt to give his team a wake-up call.

It worked; the Rangers scored three times to tie it before going into the second intermission down 5-4. Rene Bourque's second goal of the game was scored 58 seconds after Chris Kreider tied the game on the power play.

Down a goal with 20 minutes to play, Vigneault said he never considered putting Lundqvist back in the game with the Cup Final within reach. Lundqvist agreed with his decision.

"It was better to keep Talbot in there, for me to get a little break there and start thinking about the next one," Lundqvist said. "Of course I was hoping for us to get back in the game, and we got close, but now we're going home for a Game 6 and it's going to be exciting and a great challenge for us."

Lundqvist might have mentally checked out of the game, but the Rangers needed their backbone and leader in this situation. The chance to clinch a trip to the Final does not come along every year. In fact, it has not come along for the Rangers in exactly 20 years, ever since Stephane Matteau scored in overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to eliminate the New Jersey Devils on May 27, 1994.

The Rangers had a chance to mark that anniversary in a very special way Tuesday. Instead, they find themselves in what could be seen as a must-win Game 6 on home ice Thursday to avoid a return engagement in front of the rabid fans in Montreal.

"We're not even worried about that stuff," Rangers center Brad Richards said. "We'll try to win it at home."

If they don't, the Rangers might find themselves with plenty of reasons to worry.

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