Again it came down to one game, one goal, and again the Rangers escaped by the skin of their teeth. When Derek Stepan slotted home a traffic-stopped puck that landed right at his feet, the Rangers had won their sixth consecutive Game 7, all in the last four seasons, tying an NHL record
What does it mean that the Rangers have had such success in Game 7s? Nothing supernatural. It means they’re a team well-balanced on offense and defense, and tend to play close games, (all 12 of their games this postseason have been decided by a single goal), and those balance out to close series. It means they’re generally, but not significantly, better than the Eastern Conference’s unspectacular recent crop.
“You saw two very good teams go nose-to-nose, with just inches, an inch here, an inch there,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I think everybody here probably predicted seven games, and you got it.”
And it means New York has Henrik Lundqvist, probably the most steadily great goaltender since either of the last two lockouts. When things get tight in the playoffs, and goals are already at a premium, Lundqvist becomes a deciding factor. When the Rangers’ season comes down to a single game, they never have to worry about their backstopper.
It’s a coincidence of calendar, but it’s also a chronicle of consistency. I wrote about the existence of “clutch” yesterday and came to the conclusion that it’s more about having a mindset that doesn’t allow the pressure of the situation to lessen your quality of play. The Rangers never have to worry about that from their goalie. It’s a luxury, and it’s the single biggest reason New York is in its third Conference Final in four seasons.
The Capitals, who surrendered a 3-1 series lead, have reasons to be optimistic. In Braden Holtby they finally have the solid goaltender that’s eluded them in their run of postseason mediocrity. In Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky they may have a pair of future stars. The Caps went into the handshake line with their heads held high—and Lundqvist shared a moment with Alex Ovechkin, who started the series off with a good-natured taunt and ended it with his team’s only goal after guaranteeing a win.
Rangers-Capitals isn’t quite the rivalry it feels like it ought to be, given the geography and the recent postseason meetings and the fact that they’re in the same division now. Maybe there’s just not enough bad blood; these teams seem to genuinely respect one another.
As the two teams saluted each other’s efforts in the handshake line, a few Capitals gave the Rangers the utmost compliment a competitor can give any foe.
Take it all the way, said one Caps player.
Get it done, said another.
Maybe they will—though Chicago still feels like the favorite. A Tampa-New York ECF has the potential to be a ton of fun, and just about evenly matched. The Rangers are a veteran team compared to the Lightning’s youth movement; Tampa’s four leading scorers are all homegrown, compared to just one of New York’s top four. Ben Bishop is capable of owning a game just as easily as Lundqvist, though perhaps not so often. The Lightning are unexpectedly missing Ryan Callahan, while the Rangers may not get back Mats Zuccarello; call that a wash.
It’s going to be close. The Rangers don’t know how to do it any other way.