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Home-ice advantage pays off as Rangers advance to Eastern final

John Tortorella was given the chance to counteract what Dale Hunter acted upon in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Saturday night. And there is your difference as to why the New York Rangers are pushing on with their season, and the Capitals are all done.

Tort's Law for Game 7 was get his top skill guys playing against Washington's top skill guys, and roll those dice.

The "last change" advantage is one that gets short shrift from the casual hockey fan, and it's not all really their fault. So often, hockey's cognescenti tell fans it'll all come down to which team wants it most, but what it really often comes down to in a Game 7 is the line of a coach's choosing against a coach who had no choice in what line to put out there. In other words, the home team coach -- in this case the Rangers' Tortorella -- got to have the final say on the players who would skate against the Caps' top skill guys.

New York's top guys were better. In their 2-1 victory at Madison Square Garden, that much was established early, when the Rangers' first line of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin skated against Washington's trio of Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Jason Chimera.

If this were Game 6, Gabrorik-Richards-Hagelin probably would have been skating against Matt Henricks-Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer. But, unable to have the final say on his guys on the ice, Caps coach Hunter watched the Backstrom-Semin-Chimera line get burned on a gorgeous set-piece goal by Richards at the 1:32 mark, a lead which held up until the third period when Michael Del Zotto added an insurance goal that wondrous Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist would need.

The Rangers won their second straight Game 7 of these playoffs at home.

"This was a big matchup series. We got some matchups that we liked," Richards told NBC. "We've played this way all year. We don't make things easy. We'd like to do it a little different, but it's still a great experience for everybody."

Richards was the best player in this game. He got New York off to the 1-0 lead with his one-timer blast from the top of the left circle, after a set-piece chip lead pass from Del Zotto to Hagelin skating down the right side, followed by Hagelin circling the net and feeding Richards.

Mocked at times as an overpaid player who hasn't given the return on his enormous salaries since a Cinderella Cup run by Tampa Bay in 2004, Richards made Rangers management look brilliant with a great Game 7.

Not only did he score the early goal, he won 14-of-24 faceoffs and put four shots on net. "We believe just as much as the other three teams left," Richards said, of his team's Cup chances.

It was Del Zotto's rebound follow-up goal at 10:05 of the third that sealed it -- overcoming Roman Hamrlik's first goal of the series 38 seconds later. The goal came after something that happened too often for the Capitals in this series -- one of Washington's skill guys (in this case Alexander Ovechkin) losing a puck in the offensive zone, leading to a Rangers attack the other way.

Ovechkin had a bad Game 7, but not as bad as two of his top-skilled teammates -- Backstrom and Semin. They were a combined minus-3 in the game, too sloppy with the puck much of the time and a combined 33 percent on faceoffs.

Much like the Rangers were in Game 6, the Capitals were simply outworked in this one. New York had a 54-46 edge in faceoffs, outhit (33-27) and outblocked (19-15) Washington.

"Coach kept saying it's a game of attrition each night. Still not sure what that means really," Rangers forward Brian Boyle told NBC. "We had some early momentum tonight. Richie's goal was huge for us."

Now the Capitals get to experience just what Philadelphia felt a couple days ago; they overcame the odds with an emotional, underdog win in the first round and seemed to have a gusty gale at their backs going forward. A couple weeks later, and it's now all over.

That, as they say, is playoff hockey.

The Rangers now get to enjoy one -- count 'em, one -- day off before facing the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference finals. The last time that happened was 1994, when Stephane Matteau scored the wraparound goal against Martin Brodeur that propelled the Rangers into the Cup Finals and their first championship in 54 years. Only Brodeur remains as an active player from that series.

The Rangers remain the only top-two seed remaining in these playoffs.

They also have home-ice advantage against New Jersey. Tortotella, therefore, would have last-change in a Game 7.

It might just come down to that -- again -- for New York.

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