History was made. The Rangers made franchise history by completing the first comeback from a 3-1 series deficit by defeating the Pens 2-1 in a hair raising Game 7 at Consol Energy Center. They won in large part due to the brilliant play of Henrik Lundqvist, who made 35 saves to cement his playoff reputation. In stopping 102 of 105 shots over the last three games, he improved to 10-2 when facing elimination.
”I was so tired at the end,” a triumphant Lundqvist expressed after also winning for an NHL record fifth consecutive time in Game 7. ”But it was just a great feeling when you know it’s a done deal and we did it.”
A heroic effort from their best player allowed the Rangers to prevail despite clinging on for dear life. In the last three wins, they never trailed. That was significant in allowing the franchise to finally exorcise some demons. Not only did they overcome a 3-1 deficit but finally beat the Pens in the postseason. Entering the second round series, they were 0-for-4. No more. Following Game 4, it was all hands on deck. A gritty effort allowed them to pull the upset and advance to a second Eastern Conference Final in three years.
In the final three games, they outscored the Pens 10-3. They rallied around Martin St. Louis following the death of his Mom France. Poetically, it was his assist on Brad Richards’ power play goal at 7:56 of the second period that proved to be the series clincher. Considering all that he’s been through, St. Louis scoring on Mother’s Day and then setting up his close buddy was appropriate. It was after Game 4 that the former Lightning Cup champs held a closed door meeting. What followed is one of the most emotional and memorable comebacks the Rangers have ever had in their history.
They did it by getting the first goal for a third straight game. Following a strong start by the Pens, Anton Stralman made a key defensive play at his own blueline that started an odd-man rush. Derek Dorsett gained the Pittsburgh zone and handed the puck to Dominic Moore, who fed Brian Boyle for a one-time blast past Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead at 5:25. It was a remarkable offensive sequence by a fourth line that hadn’t produced a goal in the series. Dorsett made a great play as did Stralman, who stayed onside at the blueline. Moore’s pass was a thing of beauty and for once, Boyle hit the net.
The goal seemed to settle them down. Up till that point, it was mostly Pens with an aggressive attack recovering pucks deep and testing Lundqvist. They finished every check and showed no signs of carryover from the previous two games. Their fans were loud and enthusiastic. Following Boyle’s goal, Fleury made a key stop a minute later to keep his team within one. He only made 18 saves but wasn’t at fault on either Ranger goal.
Ref tandem Marc Joannette and Kevin Pollock kept the whistles to a minimum allowing the teams to settle it. When they did make a call, there was no complaint. They nabbed Chris Kreider for holding Sidney Crosby with 3:23 left in the first. However, the Pens failed to cash in. James Neal took an offensive zone minor when he held Marc Staal 50 seconds later. During four-on-four, Pittsburgh looked dangerous but failed to score. Despite being outshot 10-7 and destroyed on faceoffs (9-for-27) due to way too many icings, the Rangers took the lead to the locker room.
Any positive vibe quickly disappeared early in the second period. Continuing to dictate most of the play, the Pens finally got to Lundqvist when Jussi Jokinen pounced on an Olli Maatta rebound and fired home his seventh (4th of series) past Lundqvist’s glove at 4:15 tying the score. Evgeni Malkin helped set it up with some aggressive play along the boards. Forcing Lundqvist to cough up the puck behind the net, he passed for Maatta, whose shot rebounded out to Jokinen for the equalizer. For the series, Malkin was a terror scoring and setting up teammates throughout. He was easily the Pens’ best player.
It would’ve been easy for the Rangers to allow the Pens to ride the momentum. Instead, they showed some character by pushing back almost immediately. A strong cycle from Derick Brassard’s line drew a tripping penalty on Matt Niskanen. Brassard spun off a check and got a step on Niskanen, who reached out with his stick. Before the game, I hinted in my preview that I felt the power play might come through because it was on the road. As if prophetic, sure enough they delivered the go-ahead tally. Off a rush started by Kreider, he sent in Derek Stepan for a mini-break. Instead of shooting, he passed for St. Louis misconnecting. But a hustling St. Louis got to a loose puck behind the net and centered for Richards, who buried it at 7:56. Stepan picked up the secondary assist.
For a long stretch, the Rangers remained stuck on 12 shots. In fact, they only got one more in the stanza. It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. While the Pens held an 11-6 shots-on-goal edge, they were pinching their D. Every so often, the Rangers made a smart defensive play trapping a Pen at the blueline. That led to odd-man rushes. They had their share but couldn’t finish. Benoit Pouliot had the most scoring chances including hitting a crossbar. There also was another sequence where he over skated a pass. At times, it was frustrating as well as exhausting.
When Lundqvist stoned Neal on the doorstep with over four minutes left in the second, it was just a hint of what was to come. Again, his brilliance allowed the Rangers to take a precarious one-goal lead to the locker room. With 20 long minutes left, they had been outshot 23-13. Lundqvist had already made 22 saves. He needed one more memorable period to hold off a lethal Pens attack.
As NBC workhorse Pierre McGuire labeled early in period three, the Rangers were playing “a dangerous game.” It was basically a game of chicken. They allowed the Pens to consistently get the puck in and set up camp in the Ranger zone. A desperate Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma tried everything. That included finally reteaming Crosby and Malkin while even having faceoff specialist Marcel Goc win an offensive draw with Crosby double shifted. Nothing worked. Lundqvist wouldn’t allow it.
The Pens took shots from seemingly everywhere. They got the puck to open points where Paul Martin or Kris Letang had plenty of time. When Lundqvist wasn’t busy making acrobatic saves through traffic, a determined group of Blueshirts sacrificed their bodies getting in lanes, finishing checks and blocking shots. They blocked 16 while forcing many Pens’ attempts wide. The Pens totaled 81 with only 36 reaching Lundqvist. By comparison, the Rangers had only 44 with 20 getting to Fleury.
Despite plenty of puck dominance, the Pens never found a way to tie it. It wasn’t for lack of effort or quality chances. Lundqvist was unbelievable. He repeatedly robbed the Pens. The most amazing sequence came with over four minutes remaining. After denying Neal minutes earlier, he saw through a maze of traffic and made a pair of remarkable stops. He also had a bit of luck when a backhand attempt deflected off St. Louis’ stick into his body allowing him to trap the puck and get a whistle. The bizarre save came without a goalie stick. The Pens did everything possible to score there but had luck go against them. If not for St. Louis’ stick laying flat on the ice, they probably tie it. It was almost as if all the stars were aligned for the Rangers to win.
”He was OK with guys being on top of him as long as we didn’t take penalties,” Ryan McDonagh said after surviving 37 grueling shifts against the Pens’ arsenal. ”He fought through screens, fought for loose pucks. He was incredible.”
Despite playing a game of rope-a-dope, the Rangers were still able to get seven shots on Fleury. Oddly enough, it was a weird save he made on his own teammate Maatta that kept his team alive. In another wild moment, the Pens’ netminder and Maatta miscommunicated with the rookie defenseman nearly knocking the puck past his own teammate. Fleury actually had to stop it and then deny a St. Louis backhand. The Pens crowd shrieked. It was bizarre.
A much better opportunity presented itself for St. Louis. A Pens’ turnover allowed Richards and him to come in two-on-one. With Richards setting him up perfectly, he missed the top half of a gaping net. If he finishes, the ending script would’ve been a lot easier. But these are the Rangers. They never do anything easy.
Instead, the Pens missed on some glorious opportunities. Or rather Lundqvist shut them down. This is easily the best goaltending display of his NHL career. He’s won an Olympic gold medal, Vezina and was the backbone of the 2011-12 team that reached the Conference Finals. Lundqvist has never performed better than now. He was clutch stopping all 13 Pens’ shots in a hectic third.
As the Rangers inched closer to completing the comeback, they defended better. Coach Alain Vigneault did a masterful job mixing and matching lines. He kept shifts short and used everyone. After losing 18 of 27 faceoffs in a lopsided first, the Rangers improved dramatically. They went 22-and-20 the rest of the way to finish a respectable 31-and-38. Vigneault had Boyle take some key defensive draws. He went 4-and-2. Moore was 8-for-16. After struggling early, Stepan finished 7-for-16 including a couple of big wins over Crosby. It was a collective effort.
With the Rangers doing a nice job keeping the Pens to the outside, they limited their chances the last couple of minutes. They also did a good job in the neutral zone forcing turnovers and getting pucks deep. That kept Bylsma from pulling Fleury until there was over a minute left. With seconds to go, the Rangers battled the Pens behind Lundqvist’s net preventing them from getting one final shot. Excited teammates mobbed their goalie, who deservedly was rewarded with the Broadway Hat.
What awaits is a second trip to the Conference Finals in three years. This time, they await the Game 7 winner between Montreal and Boston. That’ll get decided tonight. Either way, the Rangers will start the third round on the road which suits them. With it not expected to go off until Saturday or Sunday, the NHL’s Road Warriors will again be the underdog. They finished off the Pens by going 3-1 in Pittsburgh. Storybook.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Brian Boyle, NYR (goal-2nd, team high 5 hits, team high 4 blocks, 4-for-6 on draws, +1 in 15:15-his hustle and leadership made a difference)
2nd Star-Brad Richards, NYR (PPG-4th proved to be series clincher at 7:56 of 2nd- sweet redemption for Broadway Brad)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (35 saves incl. 10/10 in 1st, 12/13 in 2nd, 13/13 in 3rd-stopped 102 of the final 105 shots-legendary stuff)