What seemed so improbable--perhaps impossible to some--less than a week ago became a reality Tuesday night in Pittsburgh as the Rangers completed their comeback from a three-games-to-one series deficit to defeat the Penguins 2-1 in a thrilling Game Seven at the CONSOL Energy Center. With the series win, the Rangers advance to their second Eastern Conference Final in three years, where they will face the winner of the Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens series, which is currently tied three games apiece.
The series win was the first in franchise history for the Rangers in which they lost three of the first four games. They had been 0-16 when falling behind in a playoff series 3-1. The Game Seven win was the Rangers fifth straight such victory dating to the 2012 post-season; and they also improved their record to 10-2 in the last 12 playoff elimination games they have played, which includes a 4-0 mark in these 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"I can't tell you how much I've been amazed by this group in the last little while," said alternate captain Brad Richards, who scored the game-winning goal and improved his personal record to 7-0 in career Game Sevens.
Henrik Lundqvist established an NHL record for goaltenders by winning his fifth consecutive Game Seven. He is now 5-1 in six career Game Sevens. He was simply the best player on the ice Tuesday, making 35 saves. Lundqvist closed out the series allowing just three goals in total over the final three must-win games for the Rangers.
"Our goaltender took his game to another level," stated Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. "He was the difference in the game."
Added defenseman Anton Stralman, who himself had a huge game while logging 22 minutes 24 seconds of ice-time, : "It's not just tonight, it's been all series and the series before. He's been on top of his game; and he's the best in the world."
The Rangers star goaltender was at his absolute best in the final minutes of the contest with the desperate Penguins crashing his crease with abandon and the Rangers struggling to keep the puck out of their end of the ice. During one wild scramble, with bodies flying all over and the shots coming from all angles, Lundqvist made three or four game-saving stops, including one on Penguins defenseman Paul Martin after he had lost his stick.
"Those saves with five minutes to go, three or four in a row, those are the biggest saves I've seen him make I think since I've been here," offered alternate captain Marc Staal, who played a rock-solid 22 minutes 40 seconds on Tuesday. "Up one goal, five minutes left, and we needed a big save there, and he made a bunch. It's a good feeling knowing he's back there for you, competing like he does."
The Rangers top four defensemen did another outstanding job in helping to shut down the Penguins biggest guns--Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and James Neal. Malkin and Neal picked up assists in Game Seven, while Crosby and Kunitz were held off the scoresheet. Crosby finished the series scoreless in the last three games and with just one goal and two assists in the series. Neal and Kunitz had one goal apiece in the series, while Malkin stood out as Pittsburgh's best player, finishing with three goals and four assists.
Lundqvist was brilliant in goal, and the Rangers were opportunistic with their scoring chances, in taking a 2-1 lead into the second intermission. Goals by Brian Boyle and Brad Richards sandwiched one by Pittsburgh's Jussi Jokinen while Lundqvist was a brick wall between the pipes for the visitors, stopping 22 of 23 Penguin shots.
"Henrik had it going, and when he's got it going it's got to be frustrating to play against him," said McDonagh. "That's what he does, makes big saves, takes away confidence from the other team. He was just competing so hard, wanting to win, and that's what he's done all along."
Boyle opened the scoring just 5:25 into Game Seven, beating Fleury between the pads off a 3-on-2 rush. Boyle's takeaway in the neutral zone started the odd-man rush, and he finished it off after passes from Derek Dorsett and Dominic Moore left him free in front of the Pittsburgh net.
"Our line was jumping," explained Boyle, whose goal was his second of the playoffs. "We love contributing, and as we go further along here we'll see that the teams that have great depth will be the teams still standing. We want to make sure we give that to our team."
Instead of wilting, the Penguins came back with a venegence, controlling much of the remaining 14-plus minutes in the period, though the Rangers did limit Pittsburgh's scoring chances by blocking shots and passes and largely keeping the Penguins to the outside. Still, the Penguins owned the puck for much of the period, with Lundqvist making his best save on a Crosby snap show from between the circles--using his blocker to bat the puck away--midway through the period.
New York was outshot 10-7 in the first, and then 13-6 in the second period, but the visitors overcame Jokinen's game-tying score off a rebound 4:15 into the middle period with its struggling power play coming through just three minutes after Pittsburgh had tied the score.
Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen was watching from the penalty box after being whistled for tripping at 6:45 when Richards beat Fleury off a scramble at 7:56, restoring New York's one-goal lead. Richards' fourth goal of the playoffs--assisted by Martin St. Louis and Derek Stepan--was only the Rangers third on the power play in this series, but it held up to the second intermission as Lundqvist upped his game to more than match the Penguins, who had a string of quality scoring chances as the period wore on.
"As much heat as our power play has gotten during these playoffs, when we needed a goal (tonight) we got one," offered Staal. "It's a huge momentum swing, it stifles the crowd, takes them out of it, and gets (the Penguins) thinking again--we've got to get another one by Hank, and then another one. That was a huge goal."
The Rangers scored three power play goals in the series, and excelled on the penalty kill, stopping 19 of Pittsburgh's 20 power plays from scoring. Pittsburgh had only one power play on Tuesday night, while the Rangers had two.
Lundqvist stoned Chris Kunitz on a three-on-two down low 14 minutes into the second period, and then made a huge one-on-one pad save on James Neal, who was left all alone outside the goaltender's crease at 17:57 to make sure the 2-1 lead held up before turning in a perfect 13-save third period.
Fleury had his moments, as well, denying Richards cutting to the net and redirecting St. Louis' pretty chip pass midway through the opening period when a goal would have lifted the Rangers to a 2-0 lead, and then flat out robbing a wide-open Dan Girardi 6:18 into the second period. Fleury also was lucky when Benoit Pouliot's shot from ten feet out hit the crossbar less than a minute from the start of the second period.
In the third period Fleury was fortunate twice more. The first time was when there was a misplay after a miscommunication playing the puck in his own crease, but the Rangers could not chip it by him, then shortly thereafter at 8:17 St. Louis missed the net during a 2-on-1 odd-man rush with Carl Hagelin.
In the end the Rangers more than proved their mettle, winning three straight when facing playoff elimination against a team which finished 13 points ahead of them in the standings. After a day off Wednesday, it will be back to work Thursday with the Eastern Conference Finals set to begin at some point this weekend.
"We needed a lot of guys to stand up in order to come back against this team, and in the end we had a lot of bus drivers (not passengers)," summed up Vigneault.