Tonight’s the night. For the Rangers, it’s another Game 7 on home ice. They earned it by having the league’s best record during the regular season. Facing a tough opponent in the Caps, it hasn’t been easy.
After trailing 3-1 in the series, they have come back to force a do or die game with a trip to the Conference Final on the line. The winner will play the Lightning. The loser will go on early vacation.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. A resilient Blueshirts made this possible by rallying to stun the Caps in Game 5 and held on to beat them in Game 6. After six hard fought games all decided by a goal which is the Rangers specialty, here we are.
There’s nothing like Game 7. Every player for both teams has pressure to perform when the puck is dropped around 7:38 tonight at what will be a raucous MSG. For the Rangers, history is on their side. In franchise history, they’ve never lost a deciding game at The Garden boasting a 6-0 record. Of course, a crucial part came in 1994. However, it’s been the Henrik Lundqvist teams who have specialized in finding a way to close out series. They did it twice in 2012 ousting Ottawa and Washington. In 2013, they rallied from 3-2 down and beat the Caps at Verizon Center. Last year, they edged the Flyers at MSG in the first round and came back from a 3-1 deficit for the first time in franchise history to defeat the Pens on the road.
Lundqvist has been the key. In the last five Game 7’s, he’s 5-0 with a 0.80 goals-against-average, .973 save percentage (144 saves on 148 shots) and a shutout. He also carries a 9-0 record with a 0.97 GAA, .968 save percentage (271 saves on 280 shots) with two shutouts in the Rangers’ last nine elimination games. The numbers are staggering. He’s been money in these spots. It doesn’t mean a thing when the puck is dropped. It still must be earned by all 18 skaters and Hank.
There’s so much riding on the line. On one side, you have Alex Ovechkin basically guaranteeing a win which would be the biggest of his career. The Caps have never been past this round since Ovechkin arrived. They haven’t advanced to the Conference Final since 1998 when they made it to the Stanley Cup Final before getting swept by the Red Wings.
On the flip side, you have the Rangers who are trying to change the ending from last year. They have home ice and there’s a lot of pressure. They know the time to win is now. After coming so close against the Kings, they are determined to get through this and go all the way.
As predicted, it’s been challenging. Braden Holtby has matched Lundqvist through six games with each brilliant netminder allowing 11 goals. Even with Ovechkin not recording a point since Game 2, it’s dead even. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are essential to a win. They have held Nicklas Backstrom to one assist. Washington coach Barry Trotz adjusted his lines moving speedy Marcus Johansson up while shifting effective net crasher Joel Ward down. It was the second line of Ward, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jason Chimera that did all the damage in Game 6.
This series has been tightly contested. There shouldn’t be much room. Scoring chances will be earned. It comes down to which team can impose their will. The Caps feel that their heavy forecheck and strength can be the difference. If the Rangers struggle like they did in the final frantic 12:20 in which they were out-attempted 34-0, they won’t be successful. They must stay in attack mode and use their speed to get past the Caps stingy D and cycle behind the net. A strategy Alain Vigneault switched to that’s worked. They must manage the puck and control the tempo.
In Game 7, you never know who’ll play the hero. Against the Flyers, it was Daniel Carcillo and Benoit Pouliot. Brian Boyle and Brad Richards were the heroes against the Pens. In what felt like a close out situation against the Canadiens in Game 6, it was Boyle combining with Dominic Moore for the only goal sending the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years. Unsung heroes step up in big moments.
For the Blueshirts, Rick Nash finally got off the snide scoring a huge goal in the first minute Sunday. Maybe that gets him going. Martin St. Louis doesn’t have a goal yet in the playoffs but has created opportunities for teammates setting up Nash’s tally. He has three assists in the series. Derick Brassard continues to produce registering two assists in Game 6. He’s tied for the team lead in points (4) against the Caps with Chris Kreider (4-0-4), Derek Stepan (4 assists) and Jesper Fast (1-3-4). Fast has really stepped up since AV moved him up.
They haven’t gotten much out of Kevin Hayes. He’s only got a point setting up Fast’s tying goal in Game 1. He hasn’t looked to shoot enough overskating and passing up chances. Carl Hagelin also has been quiet with just one helper. Hagelin is a clutch performer who you expect to be heard from. His speed and hustle could be a factor. Since being put on the third line, Moore has done some good things on the forecheck. He only has a assist in 11 postseason games.
The fourth line of J.T. Miller, Tanner Glass and James Sheppard have been effective. Miller has worked well with the hard hitting Glass and gritty Sheppard. It was Miller and Sheppard who combined to set up Dan Boyle’s game-winner. Along with Glass, who has been much more consistent throughout, they have forechecked and even created chances. Who knows? Maybe they create a defining moment.
Defensively, McDonagh and Girardi have been splendid. Sure. Mac Truck has struggled at times but he’s going up against the most imposing offensive player. It’s a tough assignment. Girardi has been an iron man. They’ll need help tonight from the forwards. Ovechkin will be pumped up. He got six shots last game and Lundqvist denied a bid late.
Despite his defensive deficiencies, Boyle has two goals in the series. He’s battled hard. It’s not easy for him against such a big physical opponent. Vigneault has opted to pair him with Marc Staal while moving Kevin Klein down to Keith Yandle. Staal has the tough assignment against the dangerous Caps’ second line. They’ve been a thorn in the side. He and Boyle must do the job. Aside from his big assist on Kreider’s season saver with 1:41 left in Game 5, Yandle has struggled. He looks to be battling through an injury and has not been as decisive in his end. Klein hasn’t exactly been good either. He’s been beaten a couple of times for goals. They need to step up.
One thing about the Caps. Their supporting cast has been good. We already have seen Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky and Curtis Glencross contribute enough. Tom Wilson hits hard. Troy Brouwer is no stranger to big games. He won a Cup with Chicago. Brooks Laich is certainly experienced enough.
On the blueline, John Carlson is their most potent who gets the tough assignment with Brooks Orpik. Carlson has two assists and 18 shots. He has a heavy shot. Mike Green must be accounted for when he’s in the offensive zone. Matt Niskanen is fully capable as is the overlooked Karl Alzner. Tim Gleason has big game experience with the ’06 Hurricanes. It’s a good core.
One obvious point. Discipline. In these type of situations, usually it’s the team that remains focused and doesn’t lose their cool that prevails. Neither team has been penalized a lot but you saw how costly Brouwer’s penalty was with 3.6 seconds left in the first period the other night.
It’s all up for grabs later.