The last time the Rangers went to Montreal, they did so with a 9-9-2 record, coming off a stinker in Ottawa and quickly dug themselves a 4-0 deficit.
Thursday, they will take the ice at Bell Centre as winners of eight of their past nine and suddenly just four points out of the final playoff spot, having pinpointed that Nov. 23 game against the Canadiens as the turning point in their season.
The Rangers ended up winning that game 6-5 in a wild comeback, but it wasn’t just the result that still resonates with the team three months later.
“I think what happened in that game is there was a belief in each other,” coach David Quinn said Wednesday after a brief optional practice. “I just vividly remember being down 3-0 going into the second period, but we had played well. Just the feeling in the locker room, it felt different. Guys believed. … Then you get down 4-0 and you think all the walls are going to cave in and there’s going to be a little bit of a quit, but it never felt that way on the bench.
“I think that was really what we all allude to when we talk about the turning point — not only the fact that we won the game, but the internal belief in each other. You can’t have success if you don’t have that. We have it.”
That showed through again Tuesday night when the Rangers came out of the trade deadline by pulling out a 4-3 overtime win against the Islanders at the Coliseum even after blowing a 3-1 third-period lead. They got key goals from their top players — Mika Zibanejad netted the winner on a pass from Artemi Panarin, who scored earlier in the night — but also got clutch contributions from the rest of their lineup. The third line (Brett Howden) and fourth line (Greg McKegg) chipped in goals, the rookie defensive pair of Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren continued to thrive and Alexandar Georgiev stood tall in net.
“We haven’t had passengers,” Quinn said.
That depth will need to continue to show up down the stretch if the Rangers are to keep their playoff hopes alive. After the Canadiens, the Rangers will have another chance to make a dent in the standings with games against the Flyers (seven points ahead) on Friday and Sunday.
The time has come for scoreboard-watching with 20 games left, a long way from where the Rangers stood when they last arrived in Montreal.
“I know we had a lot of question marks before the season started,” Quinn said. “How was Fox going to be? How was Lindgren going to be? Was [Filip] Chytil going to make a jump? How good was [Kaapo] Kakko going to be? How was Brett going to fit in? How was [Jacob] Trouba going to fit in? Was Mika going to continue to move forward? How good was [Chris] Kreider going to be? How was he going to handle — there was a lot of question marks from our end of it. Luckily for us, they all worked out in a positive manner.”
One question now remains. Making the playoffs was never the end-all, be-all for this year’s team, but now that they’re in the race, can they actually pull it off?
“It’s hard not to look at the standings, but you try not to,” said Brendan Lemieux, who scored two goals in that comeback win over the Canadiens. “We’re close and we can smell it and we want to be there. But the only thing we can control is just playing good hockey and worrying about two points every time we get the chance. That’s what we’ve been doing.”