By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Some of the faces have changed, but the spirit remains the same.
Having eliminated the Washington Capitals in a win-or-go-home Eastern Conference semifinal Game 7 on Garden ice, the Rangers became the first team in NHL history to rally from 3-1 series deficits in consecutive seasons.
The Rangers are the NHL's escape artists, a Houdini team if you will. Ordinary clubs crumble when their backs are pressed against the wall. Not the panic-less Rangers. They chip away. A strong shift turns into a solid period, a solid period turns into a victory. No task is insurmountable. It might not always be pretty or eye-catching, but New York finds a way.
"I just think our guys stay in the moment, stay in the present and focus on what needs to be done," head coach Alain Vigneault said after Wednesday's win. "They go out and play and have fun doing it."
With Cup-winning heroes Mark Messier, Mike Richter, Adam Graves, Stephane Matteau and Glenn Anderson in attendance, the Rangers summoned a spirit that the boys from '94 would be proud of -- pure determination.
The Rangers had to dig deep after Alex Ovechkin pulled the Caps ahead at 12:50 of the first period. New York's uninspiring power play began the night 0 for 3, but frustration did not set in. Cool-as-a-cucumber rookie Kevin Hayes delivered an equalizing goal on their fourth try with the man advantage at 6:22 of the second period. Suddenly, the momentum was swinging in the hosts' favor.
As regulation went on, the Caps played with an increased focus on grinding the Rangers down. Brooks Oprik and Troy Brouwer took advantage of the refs' leniency with a collection of unpenalized nastiness and slashes. Undeterred, the Rangers headed into the pre-overtime break with the belief that they had to stick to their game plan.
"We were just getting some rest, getting the fluids," alternate captain Dan Girardi said. "We know what we have to do out there – just stay within our structure and not be too crazy, not grip our sticks, just play our game. Not much was said -- we just went out there and played."
When overtime got underway, alternate captain Derek Stepan transformed into Matteau by delivering the series-clinching overtime winner at 11:24. Stepan offered clutch moments in each of the Rangers' series victories. It was only fitting that he bagged the series-deciding goal.
"I thought Step was the best player all series," Hayes said.
When the Rangers returned to their locker room there were plenty of smiles, but also plenty of bruises after a grueling seven games against a punishing Caps team. J.T. Miller walked up to Chris Kreider and shared a joke. The two teammates began comparing bruises as Miller lifted his pant leg to reveal a large welt on the back of his leg.
There was a toll to pay for every goal. Nothing came easy.
"They're a big, strong team and they play physical," alternate captain Marc Staal said of the Caps. "They don't give you much and make you work for everything you get. They run a lot of interference, and it's a lot of grinding. Something that they obviously try to do is slow us down and we had to get into that game sometimes. I thought we did a great job when we had to play that way."
Henrik Lundqvist was again locked-in, saving 35 shots to win his sixth straight Game 7. Over this span, Lundqvist has produced a goals-against average is 0.81 and a save percentage .973. Lundqvist is now 10-0 with a 0.96 GAA and a .968 SV% in his last 10 elimination games at MSG. The King protects his castle.
UPDATES ON BOYLE, ZUCCARELLO
Brooks Orpik appeared to play with an intent to injure in the third period. After Martin St. Louis dodged an attempt by Orpik to go knee-to-knee, Orpik later lined himself up and launched his elbow into the dome of veteran defenseman Dan Boyle. It was blatant, it was obvious – and somehow it went unpenalized. Orpik was besieged by boos every time he touched the puck.
Boyle did not return for the remainder of the game, but was dressed in full uniform in the handshake line. Vigneault checked on Boyle after the game.
"He seemed fine when I saw him after," Vigneault said. "We'll know more (Thursday)."
Injured winger Mats Zuccarello watched on in a suit. He gave a double thumbs up when he was shown on the big screen.
"He's coming along," Vigneault said.
What a difference it would make for the Rangers if Zuccarello is able to eventually suit up at some point in the Eastern Conference finals.
Check back on Friday for a full Rangers-Lightning series preview.
Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey
for more features.