NEW YORK -- Thanks to a defense-turned-offense that was unexpected and timely goaltending that was presumed, the New York Rangers are alive to play another game, the remaining top-seeded team after a first round of playoffs that cleared out a number of favorites and left eight fortunate and resilient survivors.
Much like the Bruins-Capitals game a night earlier, this one was hard fought, but without excessive chippy play. New York's Brian Boyle sat out, still feeling post-concussion effects after a high hit by Senators enforcer Chris Neil, who avoided suspension. Neil was generally on his best (read: he didn't want to take a bad penalty) behavior in Game 7.
Backliners Marc Staal and Dan Girardi scored in a 2-1 win for the Rangers, who have sometimes failed to generate offense from the front line. Then New York's defense turned to blocking shots (28 on the night, compared to eight by Ottawa) and creating obstacles in front of ace goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who made 26 saves, but had a lot of help from his willing teammates.
At different times, Girardi, Staal and Ryan McDonagh all made key blocks of shots that resulted from rebounds or extra passes that left Lundqvist in a tough position. "It's playoff hockey at its finest," said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. "They are making a last surge, trying to play for their season. We stood in there and blocked some shots. Hank came up with some key saves. It's how we've been playing all year."
The Senators dominated much of the territorial play against the Rangers, who nevertheless packed in their defense and prevented shots from getting through. "We were happy to let them pass it around the outside," said Staal, "as long as we took away some key areas and helped out Hank when he needed it."
For Washington -- New York's next opponent -- or any other foe the Rangers may face this spring, it was a clear indication of what to expect from this opportunistic team that tends to play it safe. On Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers seized two chances. Nearly five minutes into the second period, Ottawa defenseman Jared Cowen left his position to go for a hit along the boards. This allowed New York forwards Derek Stepan and Callahan to retrieve the puck while Staal, behind the play, sprinted to the net. Staal then beat Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson, who otherwise played a sharp game in the net, finishing with 27 saves.
"They made good on a couple of chance we gave them," said Anderson. "A couple of mistakes we made, they made really good shots on. Other than that I thought we battled hard. We made a strong push in the third. We threw everything we had and we left it out on the table."
Four minutes later, the Rangers again took advantage of the Senators' defense, which had overloaded one side of the rink. Brandon Dubinsky found Girardi wide open in front of Anderson, who couldn't stop the defenseman's conversion. "We talked about how the defensemen have to jump into the play and they did that quite a few times tonight," said Rangers forward Marian Gaborik.
Lundqvist appreciated the help. "Our D made a couple of huge plays out there tonight," he said. "I was lost on one play trying to find the puck and it was Girardi who made the save. We talked all year about playing as a team and that's what you saw tonight."
For the Senators, their scrappy effort was worthy of an eight seed that refused to pay attention to the standings. Concussed in Game 2 by an elbow from New York's Carl Hagelin (who received a three-game suspension), Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson beat Lundqvist over his right side with a blast from the left face-off circle to pull his team within a goal with eight minutes left in the second period.
Alfredsson's determination showed through again with his team short-handed in the third when he stole a loose puck in the Rangers' zone, fed Milan Michalek for a shot from the slot, then chased Gaborik around his own end for another ten seconds. "It's an empty feeling, especially when the game goes down to the last seconds like it did tonight," Alfiedsson said. "It's over. It feels weird. And tough."
Now comes decision time. At 39 and with 416 goals and 1,082 points on his resume, Ottawa's classy captain faces questions about his future. Though he has an Olympic gold medal, Alfredsson is still without a Stanley Cup and he seemed unusually frustrated by his team's inability to score in Game 6 when it had a chance to clinch the series on home ice. "I'll take some time, obviously see how I feel physically and mentally after time off," he said. "This year has been unbelievable. I had a lot of fun and it's been a great group of guys to be a part of."
After a first round that saw early exits from the Presidents' Trophy winners (Canucks), defending champions (Bruins) and presumed favorites (Penguins), the Rangers can look ahead with optimism. Their defense is stocked by players who are in their 20s, but it's a group that matured during the course of the season. This was the first time since 1950 that an NHL team won a Game 7 without getting a goal from a forward. Instead, the forward thinking came from the back and it propelled New York into the second round.