Stepan Up! D-Step’s overtime winner in Game 7 the difference for Rangers

Stepan Up! Derek Stepan is mobbed by teammates after scoring the dramatic OT winner in Game 7 to beat the Caps 2-1 and advance to the Conference Final. AP Photo by Julie Jacobson/Getty Images

Stepan Up! Derek Stepan is mobbed by teammates after scoring the dramatic OT winner in Game 7 to beat the Caps 2-1 and advance to the Conference Final.
AP Photo by Julie Jacobson/Getty Images

If you were a fan of either of these teams, you probably were ready to pull your hair out. At 1-1 with sudden death looming in Game 7, there’s no better theatre. Honestly, I didn’t feel good about it. For most of the OT, it looked like the Caps would win. Only some clutch saves from Henrik Lundqvist and a well executed win off an offensive draw allowed Derek Stepan to score the dramatic OT winner at 11:24 sending the Rangers to an anxiety driven crowd pleasing 2-1 Game 7 win to set up a Conference Final against the Lightning.

It took a perfect play for a determined bunch of Blueshirts to finally eliminate the Caps who have nothing to be ashamed of. That’s how hard fought it was. It’ll go down as one of the best second round series in recent memory. With both Lundqvist and unlucky loser Braden Holtby sensational. Nothing separated them through 60 minutes. Each team had scored 12 goals. The next goal decided the winner.

In these games, you have to be lucky to advance. The Rangers were. Especially with the Caps having a decided edge in overtime. They had some serious looks to advance. Lundqvist is the big reason it didn’t come to fruition. He denied Andre Burakovsky and thwarted Jay Beagle, who was dangerous the entire night. Evgeny Kuznetsov had a great chance but missed wide due to some help from a tired defense who were down to five following a controversial Brooks Orpik hit that knocked out Dan Boyle.

Blood and guts. That’s what we got. At one point, the shots were 8-2 in favor of the Caps. The Rangers finally put together a couple of strong shifts to stem the tide. They would get the final three shots. The final two coming off an offensive draw won by both Stepan and brilliant rookie Jesper Fast, who nudged the puck back to Keith Yandle. The same Yandle who certainly had some scary moments dished across for a strong Dan Girardi one-timer that Holtby kicked out right to Stepan who was in the right spot for the emotional series clincher.

At one point during this grueling Game 7 that was mercy on the fans, the Caps dominated faceoffs. That changed in sudden death. The Rangers were able to win some critical ones. Especially key Alain Vigneault move J.T. Miller, who he put on the Derick Brassard line for the final portion of regulation- benching proud veteran Martin St. Louis. A gutsy call by a coach I’ve critiqued. One which was the right decision. Miller won some big faceoffs. St. Louis took a few shifts in OT with his line mates. He also took a heavy hit by Orpik in the third. More of the legal variety.

Entering the big elimination game, Alex Ovechkin had promised that his team would come out victorious after blowing a 3-1 series lead. Early on, he was outstanding scoring the game’s first goal while delivering heavy hits including another big one at the start on Ryan McDonagh. Their battle throughout was one to behold. Ovechkin finally got McDonagh when he beat him to a perfect Marcus Johansson feed in front and wristed one top shelf past Lundqvist’s glove at 12:50 of period one.

The officiating was different than the first six. Veteran refs Wes McCauley and Kevin Pollock called seven penalties. In this one, interference, holding and tripping were called as was a bad Mike Green crosscheck during the second that handed the Rangers a third straight power play. After being outplayed in the first and failing on a previous Green penalty, they finally found the equalizer.

For the most part, the Caps penalty kill did a great job taking away time and space from the Rangers power play. They won defensive draws and won battles and cleared pucks. Ironically, it was the play of the kids that resulted in the tying power play goal. Off a great keep by McDonagh, Miller drew defenders and found Kevin Hayes backdoor for an easy tap-in to draw even at 6:22. His first goal of the series came at a key moment.

The Caps’ penalties hurt their momentum. After controlling the first with their heavy forecheck, the lack of discipline allowed the Rangers to dictate the terms. Even though they only scored once on four power plays, it was enough to start taking the play to Holtby. In particular, the line of Hayes, Dominic Moore and Carl Hagelin had their best game bringing a consistent cycle. On a night where Derick Brassard didn’t have it and St. Louis struggled, they needed help from the supporting cast.

A Fast minor for tripping gave Washington their third power play with under nine minutes left in the second. The Caps’ best chance on their three attempts came on their first when Nicklas Backstrom was robbed by Lundqvist when they still were up. That save was one of many in a clutch performance by the team’s best player. He finished with 35 saves. Holtby was just as phenomenal making 37.

The whole series was a goalie duel between two of the best. During the handshakes, Lundqvist and Holtby had a cool moment. Mutual respect was shown between two men who performed at a high level. It’s sad that there had to be a loser. But that is sport. Especially playoff hockey and sudden death.

With the teams still tied, the third was tightly played. That favored the Rangers who were able to get more shots on Holtby. Total shots were 9-6 in favor of the Blueshirts. The final shift ended in the Rangers end with the defense and forwards battling the gritty Beagle and Troy Brouwer. They weren’t giving up anything.

As the OT began, it was all Caps. They made a strong push to finally erase the demons and win a Game 7 in at MSG. Beagle’s line especially was dangerous with the overlooked checking center having a couple of point blank chances only to be denied by Lundqvist. There were other nerve racking moments that made you think it was the Caps’ night. They really carried the play. Burakovsky was one-on-one again from a tough angle but Lundqvist took it away. They were that close.

Eventually, the Rangers found their legs and started chipping pucks behind the Caps D. They also used their speed and transition to try to beat Holtby with the best chance coming from Hagelin, who tested Holtby’s glove only to be denied. Off a Hayes touch pass, the speedy Hagelin came in and fired a good shot from the circle but an aggressive Holtby challenged and took it away with his cat-like glove. Tremendous stuff.

Derek Stepan takes the winning shot to beat a sprawling Braden Holtby scoring at 11:24 of overtime to send the Rangers to the Conference Finals where they'll meet the Lightning. Game 1 is Saturday. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

Derek Stepan takes the winning shot to beat a sprawling Braden Holtby scoring at 11:24 of overtime to send the Rangers to the Conference Finals where they’ll meet the Lightning. Game 1 is Saturday.
AP Photo by Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

Ironically, a Caps icing with under nine minutes left delayed the action due to the 10-minute stoppage to clean the ice. A point not lost on NBC’s Pierre McGuire who brought it up to Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk. Should the team that iced the puck get that luxury? It didn’t matter. Instead, Fast helped Stepan win the biggest offensive draw. Then got the puck to Yandle, who moved it for a Girardi shot and bang. Stepan finished for his first goal of the series and fifth point to play the ultimate hero.

It ended that quickly. That’s how such well fought series go when sudden death is required. For the Rangers, it meant they’re now a perfect 7-0 in Game 7’s at MSG. It also allowed Lundqvist to win his sixth Game 7 tying legends Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy for the all-time playoff mark. It also means they postseason history by becoming the first team to ever rally from 3-1 deficits in back-to-back years. Records are made to be broken.

What it means for the banged up Blueshirts is two days to prepare for Game 1 against the Lightning on Saturday at 1 PM. What that could mean is Matt Hunwick back in the lineup if Boyle can’t go. We don’t know his status. You hope he can come back.

The Rangers are here because they’re resilient. They took the Caps’ best punch. It’ll be interesting to see how much they have left for the Lightning that features former players Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman. If Boyle returns, he and St. Louis will also be facing their ex-team that they teamed up to win the franchise’s only Cup. Great storylines to follow.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Derek Stepan, NYR (scored at 11:24 of OT to win series-3rd of playoffs-D-Step gets it done!)

2nd Star-Braden Holtby, WSH (37 saves incl. 24/25 thru 2-a star is born)

1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (35 saves incl. the last 21 the final 3 periods-played like a King)


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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