Playing with passion, tenacity, precision---and the lead---throughout, the Rangers edged the Washington Capitals 2-1 in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, eliminating the Caps in an extremely tight, and hard-fought, second-round series. The victory propels the Rangers into the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 15 years, where they will meet the New Jersey Devils beginning Monday night at The Garden.
Michael Del Zotto notched the game-winning goal midway through the third period and also added an assist for the Rangers, who won three of the four games played at MSG in this series. Rookie Carl Hagelin was a spark throughout, finishing with a pair of assists. And Henrik Lundqvist was splendid in goal, stopping 22 of 23 shots as the Rangers ran their all-time Game 7 record on home ice to 5-0---including a pair of Game Seven wins already in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Leading 1-0, the Rangers doubled their lead at 10:05 of the third period when Del Zotto picked up a loose puck after Marian Gaborik's original shot from the high slot was blocked and zipped a shot past Caps goalie Braden Holtby. The goal was Del Zotto's second of the playoffs, and provided the Rangers a rarity in this series---a two-goal lead.
However that two-goal bulge did not last long as Washington's Roman Hamrlik floated a shot past a screened Lundqvist 38 seconds later to cut the Rangers lead to 2-1. Then 36 seconds after Hamrlik's goal, New York's Ruslan Fedotenko---who played a monster game, blocking shots and on the puck all night long---was whistled for delay of game when his pass sailed over the top of the glass.
The Rangers, though, were extremely aggressive on the successful penalty kill and continued their aggressive play the remainder of the third period en-route to closing out a Capitals squad that had eliminated the Rangers in both the 2011 and 2009 playoffs.
The home team got the early lead they so coveted when Brad Richards scored his team-high sixth goal of the playoffs just 92 seconds into play. After Richards tipped a long Del Zotto pass into the offensive zone, Hagelin flew past everyone on the ice to collect the disc, circle behind the Caps net, and proceed to feed Richards on left wing. Richards blasted a shot through a Gaborik screen and past Holtby, handing the Rangers a 1-0 lead just 1:32 into the first period. The winning team in all seven games of this series was the team that scored the first goal of each contest.
That 1-0 score held up through two periods of play, where momentum swung wildly back and forth---sometimes from shift to shift---with every inch of ice hotly contested by both teams. The Rangers held a 20-19 advantage in shots after 40 minutes, though it was Lundqvist---not Holtby---who was seemed to be the busier goalie, and the one put more to the test.
Lundqvist was particularly spectacular in the middle stanza, stopping all 11 shots he faced. Early in the period he made a scintillating one-on-one stop as Alexander Semin broke free near the net. And several minutes later Lundqvist fought his way across his crease to kick out his right pad and rob Troy Brouwer twice on the doorstep.
The Rangers did a tremendous job blanketing Alex Ovechkin, as the superstar forward finished with just two shots on goal while playing nearly 21 minutes. In all the Rangers suffocating team defense was fantastic on Saturday, standing out in the third period when Lundqvist was forced to face only four shots on goal.
The Rangers are now 3-4 in seven post-season series all-time against Washington. They are 4-1 all-time vs. their next opponent, the Devils.