After Sunday's heart-stopping 1-0 victory in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals prolonged their season, the Rangers tonight will face the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center in a seventh and deciding contest of an extremely even and intense playoff series. Not only will the Rangers be looking to avoid playoff elimination for a second straight night, as well as a chance to move on to an Eastern Conference Semifinal showdown with either the Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs, but the Blueshirts will be looking to make a break with 87 years of their own history. That is because the Rangers have never won a Game Seven of a playoff series on the road, instead posting an 0-5 record in such games in franchise history.
And in order to win tonight's Game Seven the Rangers will have to reverse a more recent course, one that has seen them lose all three games played in this series at the Verizon Center, so far. Though two of those losses came in overtime---they lost Game Two by the slimmest of 1-0 margins and Game Five by a 2-1 overtime final---the Rangers have managed only two goals in three games, and nearly 198 minutes of hockey, played at the Verizon Center this spring. Add to the mix that the Blueshirts have dropped 10 of their last 11 playoff games inside the Verizon Center and tonight's task seems the more daunting.
But as Rangers head coach John Tortorella was quick to point out prior to the must-win Game Six, "we just have to win a game", emphasizing the fact that it was only one game. He is sending the same message for tonight's seventh and deciding game, adding on Sunday night, "Game Sevens are unique." The Rangers won a pair of seventh games in the 2012 post-season, kayoing the Senators in the first round and these very same Capitals in Round Two with a pair of one-goal victories. The one difference was, of course, that both of those victories came on home ice at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers, though, are more than happy to face the prospects of needing to win a seventh game on the road tonight considering the fact that a loss on Sunday would have ended their season. That did not happen because the Rangers played their best game of this taught series, playing a smart, physical, defensively aware game, with Henrik Lundqvist brilliant when called upon, especially during the wild, scrambly finish in the closing minutes. Derick Brassard upped his point-scoring streak to four consecutive games by scoring the game's lone goal halfway through the match. Brassard leads the Rangers with seven points (2-5-7) in six games, having a hand in nearly 70 percent of the team's goals in this series (seven of 11).
While Lundqvist and Brassard starred---as did defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh in shutting down Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson---it was the Rangers foot soldiers who laid the groundwork for the Game Six victory, and will need to do so again tonight. Derek Dorsett played his most effective game as a Blueshirt. Brian Boyle was a physically imposing presence all night---right up until his last-minute blocked shot as the desperate Caps sought the equalizer. Taylor Pyatt and Arron Asham won battles all over the ice. Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan were in on the forecheck, finding ways to pucks ahead of their Washington counterparts throughout Game Six. And the defense corps did an outstanding job of getting pucks out of their own zone quickly and assertively.
The thing is, as good as the Rangers were last night, they are well aware they need to be that much better this evening because the Capitals have played their best hockey on home ice in this series, and their desperation level in Game Seven playing in front of their own fans will be extraordinarily high. Washington, which won a road Game Seven in Boston last spring before falling to the Rangers in seven games in the second round of the 2012 playoffs, is 2-6 all time in home Game Sevens, not exactly a great history.
Ovechkin enters play tonight coming off a strong performance in Game Six, but without a point in four straight games. It is not likely that Martin Erat (upper body injury) will be able to play for the Caps, but they could receive an emotional and on-ice lift should Brooks Laich be able to return to the lineup tonight, as has been rumored. Laich appeared in only nine games all season due to injury woes, but head coach Adam Oates has been saying that the veteran is getting closer and closer to a return.
Washington will need to show much more discipline than they have throughout this series. Penalized five times on Sunday, often on selfish retaliatory type penalties, the Capitals have handed the Rangers 26 power plays during this series. Of course the flip side of that is the fact that the Caps' penalty kill has been absolutely terrific in the series, allowing only two power play goals. The Rangers on the other hand have been very disciplined. The league's least-penalized team during the regular season, the Rangers did not allow a single Washington power play on Sunday, something the Capitals complained about bitterly following the contest. That likely will not be repeated this evening; and it should be noted that Washington is 3-for-9 on the power play in the three games played at the Verizon Center so far.
Game Seven. One team will win and continue their Stanley Cup dream. The other will head home knowing they came oh-so-close, but instead saw their dream shattered.
Are the Rangers advancing to the second round, or are they headed home, after Game Seven in Washington tonight? Share your predictions below.