When the New York Rangers host the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference second-round playoff series at Madison Square Garden, two key questions will be answered.
Will the Rangers be able to replicate their dominating 60-minute effort from Game 3 and even this best-of-seven at two games apiece?
And will the Senators muster a better effort in their attempt to take a 3-1 series lead back to Ottawa for Game 5 on Saturday afternoon?
New York's 4-1 victory Tuesday night at The Garden featured elements from both of those questions. The Rangers played a nearly flawless game, a passionate and well-executed performance, while little went right for a Senators team that put up limited resistance and made a host of mistakes after winning the first two games of the series on home ice.
"We weren't too happy with our effort last game, and felt we could have played more desperate like they did," Senators veteran Alex Burrows told reporters on Wednesday. "We feel that we let one go away; and we have to bounce back (Thursday) night."
Senators defenseman Marc Methot added that the Game 3 defeat "is a wakeup call."
Of paramount concern for Ottawa is that it did not handle the Rangers' strong surge in the first period, negating any possible carryover of momentum from Saturday's wild 6-5 double-overtime victory in which the Senators erased three two-goal deficits, including one in the final minutes of regulation.
To a man, the Rangers fully expect the Senators' battle level to be back on track Thursday, making for a more competitive contest.
"That's a good team over there with a lot of pride, so it's going to be a tough game, for sure, to follow up, and we have to make sure we come ready to play," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said after the team's practice on Wednesday.
Following a strong game after being inserted on to the fourth line Tuesday, rugged winger Tanner Glass is expected to remain in the Rangers' lineup for Game 4. Several of his teammates praised Glass and linemates Oscar Lindberg and J.T. Miller for stepping up and delivering key hits early in the previous game, perhaps softening the Senators up for the four-line wave which was to come the rest of the night.
Former Senator Mika Zibanejad picked up an assist and recorded a team-high six shots on goal Tuesday while centering the Rangers' most effective line with Mats Zuccarello (goal, assist) and Chris Kreider (assist).
"We know it's just one game, we won one game, and now we have to win another one," said Zibanejad, who has three assists in this series and leads the Rangers with seven points during the postseason.
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault not only echoed Zibanejad's sentiments Wednesday, he took them a step further.
"At the end of the day, all we've done is win one game," said Vigneault. "(Thursday) is the most important game of the season for us."
Veteran winger Rick Nash, who scored his third goal of the playoffs Tuesday, did not practice ahead of Game 4, but Vigneault said he will play Thursday.
The Senators, meanwhile, have a mixed-bag of injury news. On the positive side, it appears defenseman Chris Wideman and winger Tom Pyatt, both of whom have been out since late in the opening-round series against the Boston Bruins, will return to the Ottawa lineup Thursday.
In addition, Senators head coach Guy Boucher is confident Bobby Ryan, who suffered a lower body injury in Game 3, will play, though he is less sure about the availability of Zack Smith, who was also hurt Tuesday.
No matter the lineup, Boucher is aware his team must give a more complete effort than it did in Game 3.
"To be fair, it's been a long, long time since we played a bad game," Boucher said. "(Thursday) we have to start at the same time as them, or else we have no chance. We have to have the urgency, the battle level, that we normally have. Then we at least have the chance to compete with them; and that's what we are looking for."
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