By Steve Silverman
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There were no secrets between the Rangers and the Capitals. Both John Tortorella and Dale Hunter knew what they were in for in each of the seven games of the series.
The formula was simple. Play physical hockey, get on the board early, continue to take the body and depend on great goaltending to finish the job.
The series never varied and it became a battle of wills and the contest turned out to be which team believed in itself the most.
That team turned out to be the Rangers, who moved on to the Eastern Conference Finals after a 2-1 victory over the Capitals. Justice prevailed.
It was the right thing because the Rangers played that style of hockey for a full season and not just four weeks in the playoffs. Washington proved to be a formidable opponent, but in Game 7 they were not quite as good as New York.
The Rangers started the game with more speed, aggressiveness and determination. They were able to use those attributes to take a 1-0 lead early in the first period on a well-placed Brad Richards slap shot that found the far corner of the net. Carl Hagelin's speed and accurate pass set that shot up and credit also has to go to Marian Gaborik, who set up in front of Braden Holtby and added to his stress level.
The Rangers were able to breathe after Richards' goal. Trends can be destroyed at any time in sports, but the team that scored the opening goal in this series had won each of the previous six games. The officials were not about to stop the game and award the victory to the Rangers when Richards' shot blew up the back of the net, but both teams knew the Rangers had the advantage from that point forward.
Washington would have its moments – particularly in the second period – but it was really about the Rangers' sharp defense. Nobody took anything for granted and the Rangers excelled in their defensive zone for 60 minutes. When the Capitals were able to carry or pass the puck into their offensive zone, they found it almost impossible to make the next pass.
Give credit to Derek Stepan, Brian Boyle, Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov for not only being in the right spot when the Capitals attempted to make a pass while in the offensive zone, but anticipating where that pass might go. Nicklas Backstrom did not have open teammates and neither did centers Matt Hendricks or Marcus Johansson.
When the pass could not be completed, the Capitals had to depend on Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Mike Green to get open and unleash their big shots. It simply did not happen. The Rangers defense, which had been so solid since October, was at its best. Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal were not about to let the Capitals' power trio exert their will.
Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman followed suit and were nearly as good.
Del Zotto gave the Rangers a moment to breathe easier. When he knocked down Ovechkin near the midway point of the third period, he quickly recognized that the Russian sniper was out of position as the Rangers gained possession. Del Zotto jumped into the rush and he picked up a loose puck as he moved in between the circles and fired a shot to the top corner that was out of Holtby's reach for a 2-0 lead.
Less than a minute later, the Capitals were playing with the same kind of desperation the Rangers had in Game 6 when they trailed by two goals. Roman Hamrlik let go of a well-placed shot that floated into the net for the Capitals only goal.
But the Rangers were not about to let it go at that point. The Capitals may have gotten on the scoreboard, but the Rangers choked off any momentum the Capitals had with their defense. The backbone, of course, was Henrik Lundqvist.
He was the best player on the ice – perhaps second to Richards – in the Rangers most important game of the season to date. He had been matched nearly save for save by Holtby throughout the series, but he was the better goalie and he prevailed in the seventh game.
The playoff journey has seen the Rangers survive two painfully difficult rounds. It seems unlikely that the Rangers will simply win two more seven-game series and take the Stanley Cup. History shows that a team almost always needs a 4 or 5-game series somewhere along the way.
But the Rangers' best asset is probably the mental toughness. They are not a team of dominant superstars. But they do know how to get the job done when the season is on the line and it just may be more of the same as they prepare for another heavy-duty physical battle against the Devils.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who's Better, Who's Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).
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