For the first time since 1997, the New York Rangers have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. It wasn't easy -- it took seven games -- but New York showed it was a top seed for a reason in Game 7 against the Washington Capitals with a 2-1 win. Never straying from their identity, the Rangers stayed calm amid another pressure-packed, low-scoring, tight-checking game. But that was OK with them. it's a style they've employed successfully all season.
From Day 1 of training camp, the Rangers' goal after a season in which they lost in the quarterfinals to the Capitals was to earn home-ice advantage in the playoffs. They did that this season -- and then some, narrowly winning the Presidents' trophy. The Rangers' focus shifted to how to accomplish that goal, and that was a game plan cultivated by coach John Tortorella in his three-plus years in New York.
Overall, the game plan involves doing the little things right -- the things that often aren't noticed from the casual viewer: forechecking hard, closing off the boards, being smart with the puck. Intelligent defense-first hockey is the key. All five players on the ice commit to defense or you don't play. It's as simple as that. You pick up your man in the defensive zone, you get sticks or bodies in the way of pucks and you use your body physically against the other team. Of course, there are lapses, so that's why all good teams need a good goaltender and the Blueshirts have a Vezina Trophy-worthy one in Henrik Lundqvist, who has bailed them out all season long.
Then, after this part of the game is executed, you concentrate on offense. Defense to offense. All season, New York has never employed an offensive brand that's fun to watch -- it's dump and chase, cycling and a grind-it-out style that isn't flashy but just wears teams down. The offense is opportunistic -- it's been that way all season, through this point of the playoffs. And it was in Game 7.
Brad Richards scored the game's first goal Saturday night 1:32 into the game, caused by Carl Hagelin's speed and puck-retrieval skills. He fetched a dump-in from Michael Del Zotto, then fed Richards for his sixth goal of the playoffs. It was the way the Rangers needed to begin the game -- the first goal was key -- and it allowed them to feed of their home crowd.
The game went scoreless in the second period, the Rangers clinging to their one-goal lead, with both offenses starting to generate a few more chances than the first frame. But, Lundqvist and Holtby stood tall. The next goal could be the dagger.
Or so the Rangers thought. Del Zotto potted what looked to be the back-breaking goal at the 10:05 mark of the third period. It was the Rangers' second two-goal lead of the series. It seemed insurmountable. But that lasted 38 seconds as the Capitals came back with a fluttering Roman Hamrlik marker. Then, the Rangers took a delay of game penalty after Ruslan Fedotenko, who played a brilliant game, batted the puck in mid-air over the glass in the defensive zone. Just like that, the Caps had seized some momentum. One goal, the tying one, could destroy the Rangers' morale.
But the ensuing penalty kill was key and quelled any of those fears. New York barely let the Capitals set up, they were relentless. The Rangers sapped the Caps' momentum from the Hamrlik goal. In fact, they were relentless and hard-working all period -- it was period, even with an early 1-0, that the Rangers did not sit back in. They didn't get too comfortable and they didn't fall into a defensive shell, just hoping to not let in a goal, instead of pushing the attack to try to get another one. The proof was in the shot totals for this period -- the Rangers had 11, the Caps four.
New York thoroughly outplayed the Capitals for stretches of this game. Sure, it needed Lundqvist's 22 saves, a number of them big ones. But the Blueshirts played to win the game and not to lose in the third period. And that's the mark of a good team.
Now, the top-seeded Rangers will begin a series with the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils on Monday, in a series that should be more gut-wrenching than the two that reached Game 7 before it.