Two straight series went to seven games for the Eastern Conference's top seed, the New York Rangers. With their latest thrilling Game 7 win in the books, a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, the Blueshirts now will battle their local rival, the New Jersey Devils, in the Eastern Conference final in a series that should be even more gut-wrenching than the two prior -- for both teams.
The series kicks off Monday night at Madison Square Garden, but let's first summarize ...
How the Rangers got here, four wins away from reaching their first Stanley Cup since 1994.
All the cliched words apply here: consistency, determination and focus. The Rangers of yesteryear used to be an incongruous bunch -- a group of mixed and matched stars with gaping holes at certain positions basically because they had no clear organizational focus. Rewind to about five years ago and the Rangers now have a plan in place and it starts with building from within, cultivating a top-to-bottom organizational structure by which all their staff and players adhere to.
This is important to point out because the 2011-12 Rangers -- even more appropriately, the Rangers under the three-plus years of coach John Tortorella -- have become younger. Their average age is 26.9 years old, sixth-youngest in the league. They now live and die by their youth. It's now a learning process. No longer just throwing money at every free agent on the market, Tortorella and general manager Glen Sather now have objectives in place for what they want to accomplish each offseason and how that will affect the youth process.
This past offseason, the Rangers rectified one of their biggest problems from a year ago and that was acquiring a front-line center and power play quarterback. They did that, signing Brad Richards -- and all his playoff savvy -- for nine seasons. It was a well-intentioned move: the Rangers weren't heavy on young centers and the players they had weren't ready at this point in their careers to assume the No. 1 roles. The next move was bringing in Mike Rupp, an enforcer-type with offensive skills who also has a Stanley Cup and playoff experience under his resume. No longer was it about signing every marquee free agent -- this team felt they had young players growing into solid (or better) NHL regulars and didn't want to block that process. That couldn't have been clearer around the trade deadline, when they refused to part with a number of young players for the quick-fix addition of Rick Nash.
This version of the Rangers under Tortorella also has that hard-to-measure attribute in team chemistry. Many of these players came up through the system together. In recent memory, never has there been such a tight-knit New York group before. Even the new additions are thought of as great locker room guys, despite their veteran statures.
The Rangers set out this past offseason with one goal: to earn home-ice advantage in the playoffs. They did that and then some this season, coming two points short of the Presidents' trophy.
The cast of characters that helped the Rangers reach this point include Richards, who had 25 goals and 66 points this season, with six and 12 in the playoffs. Marian Gaborik was one of the top goal scorers in the league with 41 and 76 points. Captain Ryan Callahan had a career-high 29 goals and 54 points, thriving as one of the best two-way players in the game. The defense was headlined by All-Star Dan Girardi and the stingy work of Ryan McDonagh. Michael Del Zotto also grew by leaps and bounds defensively and offensively, getting 41 points. Of course, the team's backbone was Vezina trophy-worthy goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had a season with a 39-18-5 record, 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. He has a a 1.68 GAA and .937 SV% in the postseasoon, as the Rangers advanced to the conference final for the first time since 1997.
When you're that good during the 82-game regular season, it's easy to dismiss the accomplishments. One of those accomplishments relates to the fact that these Rangers were remarkably consistent throughout the year. In October, they won four games, earning points in seven of 10. In November, the Rangers won nine of 11 games. December came and the Rangers won 10 of 15, accumulating points in 11. In January, the Rangers had eight wins in 12 games, getting points in nine of those contests. February rolled around and the Rangers collected nine more wins in 13 games, 10 of which they earned points in. Combining the playoff stretch run of March and April, the Rangers grabbed 11 more wins in 21 games, during which they had points in 12. To understand the consistency of the Rangers' season: They only lost three games in a row twice all season: to begin the year and and a short spell in March. This team withstood the long season, rarely losing focus and dipping in their overall play. Overall, it finished with a 51-24-7 record in the regular season, good for 109 points, the most since the 112 it earned in their 1994 Stanley Cup year. Granted, all of this means nothing in the playoffs, but it's still valuable to point out.
If the Rangers' success thus far this season isn't amazing enough, consider these potential roadblocks. The team began the season with seven straight road games as Madison Square Garden underwent Phase 1 of its renovation. The first two games (lost in overtime and shootout) were played in Sweden. The Rangers were also one of the teams, along with the Philadelphia Flyers, involved in HBO's all-access 24/7 series, meaning the cameras were around them -- at practice, in the locker room post-practice and after games -- for most of December. They then played the Winter Classic in Philadelphia and defeated the Flyers.
As the Pittsburgh Penguins peaked with incredible win streaks at the end of January and end of February through early March, the Rangers' grip on the top spot in the East became tenuous. They stuck with the game plan, though, and even as the season winded down and it was unclear if they'd get the No. 1 or No. 4 seed (division leaders occupy the top three spots), they didn't waver. Throughout the season, they never allowed one loss to snowball into the next, one win to get them too high. It has been a laudable trait for this group -- take one game at a time and allow the the big-picture focus to grow as the season progresses.
So when they ended the year with three losses in four games, there wasn't panic. There wasn't panic when the Rangers were forced to win Games 6 and 7 against the Ottawa Senators -- the first of which was played in hostile Ottawa -- or else go home prematurely and be upset by the eighth-seeded team. There wasn't any trepidation or worry when the seventh-seeded Capitals were going toe-to-toe, mimicking the Rangers' style. No worry in this group when they could never seem to parlay the momentum of a three-overtime win into another victory or the late heroics of tying Game 5 up with 6.6 seconds left, then winning it in OT into the series clincher in Game 6. There wasn't any nervousness that the Rangers played their worst game of the series in Game 6, with the chance to advance to the East final on the line.
All they did was "worry about their own business" -- a line Tortorella has patented at this point -- and get the job done in Game 7. Take one game at a time and not be demoralized by a loss or overly giddy about a big victory.
It's a mantra this team has lived by for 96 games now. And it will continue as the East final begins against the Devils on Monday.