New York – When it comes to the New York Rangers playing the Washington Capitals, most people would not remember the spring of 1994, when the Rangers beat the Capitals in the Conference semifinals en route to a Stanley Cup win. Instead, the mind would wonder to their last two play-off match-ups, both resulting in rather confident wins by the Washington Capitals. And then there were individuals games, like the last game of the regular season – an assertive win by the hungry Washington Capitals that allowed them to avoid a first-round match-up against the New York Rangers. Or the last game of last year in Madison Square Garden, when the Rangers, up 3:0 at the end of the second period, lost 3:4 in double overtime. Their common history was definitely on the side of the Washington Capitals.
Fortunately for the New York Rangers, play-off victories do not depend on history. In fact, as this series had showed, even each game had very little to do with the one that followed. Going into game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals, both teams knew that it really was anyone’s game. The strategy, according to Rangers coach John Tortorella, was simple: “Just staying with it, it was a series of back and forth series and we didn’t change anything, we stayed within our concept.”
Just like in the previous six contests, the team who scored first would go on to win. Brad Richards showed no hesitation when he beat Braden Holtby with a slap shot 92 seconds into the game. “It’s a big goal, not because it’s my goal,” Brad Richards said after the game. “Whoever scores that goal – the first goal for our team, in this game, on home ice – it’s a big goal. It gets the nerves out. You don’t exhale, but you have the 1-0 lead now, you got the crowd in it, they’re not waiting for something to happen. Then, you can play. They did it to us in Game 6, when they got an early goal, we did that tonight.”
The Rangers knew that the Capitals were not just going to let them win. They patiently defended, and, when all else failed, Henrik Lundqvist came up big, stopping nineteen shots through the first two periods. “I knew the next goal was going to be so important to this game. So I just tried to stay focused. They had a few chances but the guys worked really hard. They had a stretch there where they came hard and created some good opportunities. It felt good to go in after two periods with the lead,” he said after the game. For the first time in the series, the Rangers were ahead after going into the third period.
In the first half of the third period, the Capitals only had one shot on goal. In a brilliant defensive play, Michael Del Zotto left Alexander Ovechkin behind, and, flying to the net, snapped the puck past Braden Holtby. A 2-goal lead was something that the Rangers have not had since the first game of the series. It did not last long, as only 38 seconds later, another defenseman, this time Capitals’ Roman Hamrlik, sent a wrist shot past Henrik Lundqvist, cutting the Rangers’ lead in half. In a game seven, this was more than just a goal – it seemed that the momentum had shifted. In another 36 seconds, Ruslan Fedotenko was sent off for delay of game, which probably had the fans on both sides reliving a similar situation in game 5. There was no room for drama, as an unfazed Brian Boyle immediately stole the momentum right back, charging to the net and shoving a puck past Braden Holtby, a potential shorthanded goal that was immediately waved off because he also happened to shove Holtby in with the puck. “It’s a great feeling to see we stayed focused whatever happens. Yeah, we give up a goal and they get on the power play but we know what we have to do. We’ve been in this situation so many times this year and I think it helped us a lot today and moving forward as well,” said Henrik Lundqvist.
Eight minutes later, game seven was over. We will never know what was going through the minds of these players as they went through this gut-wrenching, nail-biting series. When asked how he dealt with the tension during the game, Artem Anisimov suggested we don the gear and play a game seven. Many would love to do that, but the lucky 18,200 spectators with tickets to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals will just have to settle for being extras off the ice.