Bring on the Penguins!
Less than 24 hours after a dispiriting Game Six defeat in Philadelphia the Rangers returned home to Madison Square Garden Wednesday night and took care of business, closing out their first-round playoff series with a thrilling 2-1 victory over the Flyers, continuing their home-ice Game Seven magic. The Rangers have never lost a seventh game on home ice, with Wednesday's victory improving their all-time record in such games to 6-0.
"You want to be at home in that situation and have the crowd behind you in Game Seven," said defenseman Marc Staal, who logged a team-high 24 minutes 28 seconds of ice time on Wednesday and finished the series a team-best +6. "In the second period we were all over them, and that crowd just piles it on. It's fun. A lot of guys in this room thrive on playing Game Sevens, and you come to The Garden and it's a big advantage for us."
The Blueshirts, who alternated wins with losses in this series and thus never trailed in the series after winning Game One, will next face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Rangers, who split their four-game regular-season series this year with the Pens, have never beaten Pittsburgh in the post-season, losing all four of their previous playoff series with the Penguins. The two teams have not faced one another in the post-season since the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, a five-game series win for the Penguins.
"We're battle-tested and ready for the next series," offered Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. "Philly was a real tough opponent, and you have to give them credit, it was a great series, but we know if you look on paper Pittsburgh is probably one of the best teams in the league. They were (13) points ahead of us in the regular season, so we're going to have our hands full."
Wednesday's contest turned in the second period, the exact same period which was New York's undoing one night earlier. Whereas the Rangers surrendered three unanswered goals in the second period of Tuesday's 5-2 loss, they dominated the Flyers during the middle stanza of Game Seven at The Garden, scoring twice to snap a scoreless tie while outshooting Philly 18-5.
Daniel Carcillo and Benoit Pouliot scored the second-period goals for New York, while Henrik Lundqvist was solid when called upon between the pipes. The Rangers quite possibly could have run the Flyers out of the building if not for the outstanding play of their goaltender Steve Mason, who made one acrobatic save after another to keep his team in the game--including gems against Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh with the Rangers skating shorthanded, and another where he fell into the splits to rob Marty St. Louis off a 3-on-1 one-timer.
"It's a sense of relief," offered Nash, who played a dynamic two-way game Wednesday despite being held without a goal for the seventh consecutive contest, but who had a team-high five shots on goal, five hits, and two blocked shots. "You have two chances at it, and we couldn't get the job done on the first chance so it's a moment of relief and excitement (tonight). We were a desperate team. An 82-game season came down to one game tonight for both teams, and we played desperate. We won. That's all that matters."
Both Ranger goals came immediately after the home team killed off Flyer power plays. Philly had scored twice on the power play Tuesday night, and entered the game 6-for-19 with the man advantage in the series, but not only did the Rangers hold them in check, they created their own momentum with dominating kills.
After serving the Rangers too many men on the ice penalty just 39 seconds into the second period, Carcillo emerged to join the play in the offensive end of the ice and one-timed a simply gorgeous blind backhand pass from Mats Zuccarello that rifled between a pair of Flyer defensemen into the back of the net at 3:06. It was the second goal of the series for Carcillo, who was playing in only his third game.
"Zucc makes a backhand pass off the wall, spin-o-rama, between two guys' legs, and right on my tape," explained Carcillo, who now has five goals in eight career games against his former club, the Flyers. "It was a special play by a really good player. Scoring first was huge, especially at home getting the crowd into it. Mason played great--we could've had four or five, but he kept them in there--but that first one was definitely important."
It was the fourth personnel move in this series that paid immediate dividends for Vigneault. He chose to go with rookie Jesper Fast among his top 12 forwards in Game One, and Fast contributed an assist. Two games later Vigneault replaced Fast with Carcillo, who scored in the Rangers Game Three victory down in Philadelphia. Then in Game Five the coach inserted J.T. Miller into the lineup and he had an assist. Finally in the decisive Game Seven Vigneault chose to go with Carcillo over Miller, and the former Flyer came through with the clutch game-opening goal.
"I just felt like a Game Seven like this I'd rather go with experience, and he had been in those situations before," Vigneault said of playing Carcillo. "He came up and did a good job, obviously scored that big first goal for us."
Pouliot was penalized for interfering with Mason at 8:37-though it appeared he was shoved into the Flyers goalie--and after a superb job by the Rangers penalty killers, which featured a pair of blocked shots by Anton Stralman and another by St. Louis, Pouliot buried a one-timer of his own at 11:46 to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. This time it was Derick Brassard with the brilliant pass between defenders to set up Pouliot's second goal of the playoffs.
Mason's terrific work in goal was rewarded early in the third period when the Flyers scored to cut the Rangers lead in half. Rookie Jason Akeson had his original shot blocked by Staal, but he quickly snapped the rebound past Lundqvist from right wing at 4:32 to put Philly right back into the game.
The Flyers surged after Akeson's goal, forcing Lundqvist into some of his best, and most important, work in the game. He frustrated Claude Giroux twice just moments after Philly's goal, so much so that the Flyers captain slammed his stick into the glass. Then at the ten-minute mark he denied Michael Raffl from point-blank range, and more than once had to pounce on loose pucks in the final minutes during scrambles in his crease.
"It's an unbelievable feeling right now, so intense to play a Game Seven," said Lundqvist, who made 26 saves while improving his record to 4-1 all-time in seventh games with a lifetime 1.00 goals against average in those five contests. "We played a really strong series. I think we were the better team. We definitely earned this one."
Lundqvist's counterpart in goal, Mason, admitted after the game that right up until Game Four he was still suffering headaches from a concussion suffered shortly before the playoffs started. That said, he was the Flyers best player in the four games he did start for Philadelphia, for sure in Game Seven when he stopped 31 of 33 Rangers shots in defeat.
The Rangers must quickly turn their attention to a Penguins team which ousted the Columbus Blue Jackets in a wild, back-and-forth six-game first-round series. The team will fly to Pittsburgh on Thursday and will play Game One on Friday night at the CONSOL Energy Center.
"It's time to exhale just for a bit," stated Rangers alternate captain Brad Richards, who tied for the team lead with six points in the series. "Just have to get home, get some rest tonight, and then it's off to Pittsburgh tomorrow; but I wouldn't have it any other way. This is a great time of year to be doing this and it's good, not much thinking, just right into the game on Friday."