For the third time this postseason the Rangers played in an elimination game, and for the third straight time, they prevailed.
Henrik Lundqvist stopped 22 of the 23 shots he faced on Saturday night, including all 12 shots in a second period that saw the Capitals pin the Rangers deep in their own zone on multiple occasions. Washington goaltender Braden Holtby once again did a great job in net, but the Michael Del Zotto snap shot that he let through halfway through the third period turned out to be the difference in a 2-1 Rangers victory.
With the Blueshirts up 1-0 and in search of an elusive second score, Marian Gaborik rushed into the Capitals zone against three defenders. With the numbers in Washington’s favor, it wasn’t surprising that Gaborik’s shot attempt was blocked. It was surprising that Del Zotto, who was trailing the play, scooped up the loose puck between the circles and whistled it past Holtby to put New York up 2-0.
The game wasn’t over, though. Less than a minute later, Roman Hamrlik entered the attack zone late and received a great feed from Brooks Laich. The defenseman patiently got in position and whipped a wrist shot past Lundqvist to put the game’s outcome back in serious doubt.
The Caps would be right back on the attack at the 11:19 mark, when Ruslan Fedotenko accidentally cleared the puck over the glass in his own zone for a delay of game penalty. Now with all the momentum in Washington’s favor, the Rangers did a phenomenal job killing off the penalty and even got a scoring chance of their own, but Brian Boyle was denied by Holtby (and the referee who blew the play dead) on a two-on-one rush.
All that hustle on the penalty kill paid off for New York when Nicklas Backstrom got whistled for slashing toward the end of the Washington power play. Although the Rangers only got only one real scoring chance on their man advantage, the important thing was that time kept creeping off the clock.
Watching the final minutes of any closely fought, important hockey game can be tough, but the Rangers played excellent defense down the stretch and made the countdown relatively easy for the fans at the Garden. The Blueshirts really seemed to buckle down after the Hamrlik goal and didn’t let Washington get another great scoring chance. In fact, the Caps only had four shots on goal for the entire third period.
The Rangers took the lead initially just 92 seconds into the game, when Carl Hagelin hit Brad Richards for a one-timer from the left circle. Richards blasted the puck past Holtby to give New York a much needed early lead. It was thanks to Lundqvist’s second period heroics that the lead held up until the Rangers were able to extend it in the third.
When the clock finally hit 0:00, the Rangers had clinched their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1997, when they fell to the Philadelphia Flyers. Of course, the Devils would be the opponent this time around, just like the last time the Rangers won the Eastern Conference Finals, in 1994. Amazingly, if this upcoming series were to go seven games, the final game would fall on the exact same date (May 27) as 1994’s Game 7, when Stephan Matteau beat Martin Brodeur in double overtime to send the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Game 1 is Monday night at 8:00 PM.