Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 13, 2012

With King Henrik In Goal, The Rangers Hold Off The Caps

No matter the sport, come playoff time there is nothing that can quite match the knife-edge excitement of a Game 7. Saturday night a packed house of 18,200 at Madison Square Garden and millions more watching on the NBC Sports Network witnessed something special as the top-seeded New York Rangers battled the Washington Capitals, the Eastern Conference’s 7th seed, for the right to move on to the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the end the home fans got to celebrate, thanks largely to the Rangers’ smothering defense backed by the resolute goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist.

It was the culmination of a tight see-saw series, the second of the playoffs for both teams. New York was fully extended by the 8th seed Ottawa Senators in the opening round, with five of the seven games decided by one goal. Washington’s first round series against the Boston Bruins was even closer. For the first time in NHL history all seven games were decided by a single goal, and save for a period of less than three minutes in Game 5, neither team ever led by more than one goal. Against each other, the Rangers and Capitals appeared very evenly matched, trading wins through the first six games. After New York won the opener 3-1, a virtual rout by the 2012 playoff experience of these squads, the next five were decided by, of course, a single goal. Game 3 went to triple overtime. In Game 5 the Capitals were seconds away from taking their first lead in the series, ahead 2-1 as the clock wound down the final seconds of play. But a shot by Brad Richards found the back of the Washington net with just 6.6 seconds to play, and then Mark Staal quickly netted the game winner in overtime, silencing the stunned crowd at the Verizon Center.

Saturday night the Rangers came out flying, and were clearly the superior squad in the early going. Once again it was the veteran Richards, lured to New York as a free agent with a $58.5 million contract before the start of the season, who provided the early heroics. From center ice he sent the puck deep into the Washington end, where Carl Hagelin outskated Washington’s Karl Alzner to reach it. Hagelin wound around behind the Capitals’ net and passed back to Richards, who was skating in near the left face-off circle. The center’s one-timer was past goalie Brad Holtby before the rookie had a chance to react. Just 92 seconds into the contest and the crowd at Madison Square Garden was in a frenzy. As omens go, the goal would prove portent. The first team to score had won each of the previous six games of the series; and since the start of last year’s playoffs the record for the team scoring first in a Game 7 was a perfect 10-0.

Play eventually evened up after the initial push by New York, and by the end of the first period shots were even at eight apiece. But the Rangers were back checking effectively and harassing any Washington skater with the puck, forcing the Capitals to take long-distance shots that Lundqvist handled easily. That changed in the middle period, Washington’s best 20 minutes of the night. At the five minute mark right-winger Alexander Semin broke free and skated in unmolested, snapping off a point-blank wrist shot that Lundqvist tipped high over the goal with his glove. Minutes later Semin was back on the Rangers’ doorstep, only to have the goalie reach out and poke the puck away before he could unload a shot. Then in the middle of the period the Capitals controlled the puck in the New York zone for a full two minutes. With all five Rangers skaters collapsing toward the net, Washington’s defensemen were able to freely pass the puck back and forth to set up shots in what looked like the equivalent of a full-strength power play. But despite sending a total of eleven shots in on goal in the period, the Caps were unable to get the puck past the 30-year old native of Sweden. With one period to play Richards’ early score remained the only goal of the night.

As the final period opened both teams started mixing and matching their usual lines, as Rangers coach John Tortorella and his Washington counterpart Dale Hunter each tried to find some offensive spark. With 13:40 to play Alex Ovechkin nearly tied it with a quick shot off a face-off, but once again Lundqvist came up big. It was one of just two shots on the night by the Capitals’ superstar, who was hounded and shadowed all night by the Rangers. Then at the midpoint of the final period the Rangers Michael Del Zotto knocked the puck away from Ovechkin. Marion Gaborik gathered the loose puck and carried it into the Washington end. Holtby stopped Gaborik’s shot, but Del Zotto came in behind and buried the rebound to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead.

Any sense of relief for Rangers’ fans was short-lived. Just 38 seconds later Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik’s shot from the point made it through a maze of players and past Lundqvist, who was screened and never saw the puck coming. Moments later a delay of game penalty was called on New York, giving Washington its best chance of the night to quickly change the complexion of the game. Unfortunately for Capitals fans, when they needed it to be at its best the Washington power play was disorganized and ineffective. The Caps nearly surrendered a short-handed goal, and managed just one shot on Lundqvist before Nicklas Backstrom was called for high sticking, negating the man advantage.

All 18,000-plus were on their feet over the final two minutes, a rhythmic change of “Hen-RIK, Hen-RIK” ringing through the old arena. When at last the final horn sounded and the streamers floated down from the rafters, there was both joy and a palpable sense of relief among the Rangers faithful. Their team moves on to face the New Jersey Devils, led by 40-year old four-time Vezina Trophy winner Martin Brodeur. It is a reprise of the 1994 Conference Finals, which the Rangers won in seven games. That may be a good sign; for that was also the year that the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup. On the other hand no team has ever won the Cup after being extended to seven games in both of the first two rounds of the playoffs. But with the redoubtable Lundqvist between the pipes, the only netminder in NHL history to win at least 30 games in each of his first seven seasons and nominated this year for the Vezina for the fourth time, the Rangers and their fans are no doubt willing to take their chances.

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