After dropping Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series last Saturday and falling behind the Ottawa Senators 3-2, the New York Rangers, led by head coach John Tortorella, stubbornly maintained that the series was still theirs for the taking.
The confident aura, at the time, came off like little more than self-assurance — pointless, but expected bravado from a team that had just lost three of four games, including two at home, and in doing so, had lost control of in a physical series that was now as good as done.
What else were the dejected New York players going to say to the countless cameras shoved in their faces and hovering around their lockers? That the series was over? That maybe they’d have better luck next year?
A bombastic exterior is what you have to project in that situation, even if you and the reporters around you know you don’t mean it.
But as it would turn out, the Rangers weren’t kidding. Not even a little.
After charging into hostile enemy territory and staving off an embarrassing elimination in Game 6 on Monday night in Ottawa, the top-seeded Rangers returned home Thursday and finished off the No. 8 seed Senators 2-1 in Game 7.
“After we lost at home (Tortorella) told everybody everything happens for a reason, and we just made it a little tougher on ourselves,” said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who made 26 saves Thursday. “That was just a great feeling, going into Ottawa. It happened for a reason. This is just going to make us stronger, and I had a good feeling the last two games.”
With the win, the Rangers improved to 4-0 all-time in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden, and in completing the series rally, New York became the second team since the 2005-06 season to win Games 6 and 7 of a series after losing Games 4 and 5.
The Rangers didn’t do it the easy way, but they got it done. And this time of year, the end result is all that matters.
“Sometimes the first round is the hardest round and that’s all this is, is one round,” Tortorella said. “We found a way, we’re fortunate, I’m very happy with the group, and they should be real proud of themselves — for about an hour.”
Now we’ll see if the Rangers, validated and playing their best hockey of the postseason, can learn from their first-round shortcomings and turn their attention forward — toward the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals, who await them in Round 2, and toward living up to the highest expectations this franchise has seen in nearly two decades.
“It’s a tremendous experience,” Tortorella said of the deciding game. “It’s hard to explain, but people want to play in those games. Do you want to win a series 4-0? Sure, you want to win games and get out of there. But when you get in this type of situations, it’s a great opportunity because you just don’t play many of these.”
The stellar play came from every corner of the rink for the Rangers on Thursday, as New York flexed its muscle and showed, with the season on the line, why it’s been the best team in the East all season long.
There was Marc Staal — who missed the first 36 games of the season as he recovered from a concussion sustained at the hands of his own brother, Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal — putting the Blueshirts on the board with a rare goal 4:46 into the second period.
There was fellow defenseman Dan Girardi, whose goal with 9:04 left in the second turned out to be the game-winner — and also made the Rangers the first NHL team since 1950 to win a Game 7 without a single goal from a forward.
There was rookie Chris Kreider, just weeks removed from playing in the Frozen Four, playing like a seasoned veteran in his first seven NHL games and earning enough trust from Tortorella to have him out on the ice during the game’s most crucial minutes.
And there was yet another unbelievable performance from the Vezina finalist Lundqvist, who stopped 94.5 percent of Ottawa’s 217 shots for the series and put his teammates on his back each and every time they needed someone to latch on to.
“There was a little more edge to (Game 7) and it’s just a great feeling being out there,” the level-headed Lundqvist said after the win. “You try not to think of the importance of the game, (because) you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself. … I tried to go out there and see this as Game 89, not Game 7.”
With Ottawa battling tirelessly in pursuit of an equalizer late, Lundqvist and the Rangers’ defense fought through a flurry of shots to preserve the Game 7 win.
The Senators got nine shots on net in the third period, many of them coming during an extended Ottawa possession in the offensive zone with just less than six minutes left in the game — and that’s to say nothing of the defense’s seven blocked shots during the final 10:43.
With each near-miss, the anxiety in the building continued to ratchet up, but New York always had an answer, as good teams tend to, and held off a young Senators team that, perhaps, brought more to the table than their counterparts expected.
“We defended our ass off in the third period,” Tortorella said. “They ramped it up on us in the second half of the third, and that’s the true identity of our team there, blocking shots. It was two teams going at it, and we found a way.”
It won’t get any easier from here for the Rangers. Up next is a Capitals team that knows a thing or two about upsets after knocking off the defending champion Bruins in seven games in their first-round series. But New York seems to have destiny on its side, and a Game 7 win over Ottawa will, perhaps, serve as a catalyst for better things to come.
“It’s been a battle and a great playoff series, and it’s great to be a part of it,” Staal said. “It’s nice to get that feeling, and we just want to keep it going. We don’t want to rest on this, and I think the other guys in here will reset and be ready to go on to the next one.”
History is on New York’s side, too. Thursday marked the second time the Rangers have ever come back from a 3-2 deficit to win a series. The last time it happened? The 1994 Eastern Conference finals.
Seven games later, they won the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers say they can lift the Cup again this year, and if there’s anything to be learned from their first-round triumph, it’s that they’re not saying it just to say it — and that their confidence should be believed.