Derek Stepan’s overtime tally helped the Rangers complete a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to down the Capitals and move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
NEW YORK — Playoff overtimes are designed for ugly goals. In Game 7s, when the desperation level reaches a fever pitch, the winners are supposed to carom in off a shinpad, off a body. They are supposed to be greasy goals from a frantic scrum in front of the net, not a set play off a face-off. But opportunities come in all forms. And for the Rangers, who staved off elimination once again at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, their moment was born from an icing. Well, two icings.
Eleven minutes into overtime, the Capitals iced the puck. Seven seconds later, they quickly iced it again. When they took that fateful face-off, three of Washington’s players were running on a 50-second shift. Without a chance to change out his tired players, Capitals coach Barry Trotz could only watch. Center Eric Fehr, in his first game back from injury, took the draw against Rangers pivot Derek Stepan. The irony is that Stepan, up to that point, had gone 7-for-28 on the dot, but with help from Jesper Fast, the Rangers won possession. New York associate coach Scott Arniel had drawn it up for defenseman Keith Yandle to kick the puck to Dan Girardi at the point for a one-timer. The rocket shot was blocked in front of Washington goalie Braden Holtby, but going down he couldn’t recover before the rebound found the stick of Stepan again in the left circle. When he fired a shot that hit twine and sent New York again to the Eastern Conference Final with a 2–1 win, he showed once again the resiliency of these Rangers.
“It’s tough to put into words,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. “I think we just believe in each other. We believe in the structure of our team. Our coaches make sure we’re really prepared…. I think ultimately, we have proven over the course of the season that we can compete with anybody and that’s what you need in the playoffs.”
Though the Rangers will frequently downplay their accomplishments when on the ropes, the feats really speak for themselves. With Wednesday’s win, they became the only NHL team to win a series they’ve trailed 3-1 in back-to-back years. They extended their record streak of 10 straight wins when facing elimination at home. They played this series without their first-line winger, Mats Zuccarello, and they won Game 7 on a short bench. It’s funny to think, just five days ago the Rangers were less than two minutes away from their off-season.
“I was really impressed by how [little] panic there was with this team,” Yandle said. “Last series, when we were up [against Pittsburgh] was the same as this series when we were down. It’s just an even-keeled group.”
New York simply has not been a team to get caught up in the nightly highs and lows that come with playoff hockey—even if their counterparts were eager to start. When Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin all but guaranteed a victory in Game 7, no Rangers would partake in any game of verbal warfare.• GALLERY: The NHL's greatest Game 7s
Meanwhile, for the Caps, the lost opportunities—and there were plenty in the last three games—will haunt them. Though coach Barry Trotz is intent on trying to break this team free from the stigma of the franchise’s past frustrations, the reality remains that since Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom joined the league, Washington’s postseason record has not been impressive.
They have again failed to make it past the second round, and in the nine Game 7s they have played (of 11 series total), their record is a lackluster 3-6.
Even though the end result may be the same, there are signs that the journey just may be different. “They played a different style. They played playoff hockey, and our team has evolved,” Trotz said. “[Backstrom and Ovechkin] put themselves out there, and I don’t know if they would have done that in the past.”
Ovechkin did his part to back up his words with his play on Wednesday. In the first period, he gave Washington the lead, taking a perfectly placed pass from Marcus Johansson at the halfwall and burying his third goal of the series. Off a key offensive zone face-off draw, one of the five that Backstrom won in the first period, the Capitals took a 1–0 lead into the first intermission.
But a series of penalties, beginning with one in the final minute of the first, ultimately doomed them. Washington began the second on the penalty kill, then took two more penalties before the period was five-minutes old. Giving the Rangers so much time on the man-advantage also had another counterproductive effect on the Caps. It limited Ovechkin to just a single 22-second shift in the first six minutes of the period. A momentum killer, the Rangers turned the final power play into a lead-killer.
For as much Game 7 experience as there was in both locker rooms—Washington has now played nine since ’08 and New York six—it was a pair of youngsters making their do-or-die debuts who brought the Rangers back to life in the second. Late into New York’s second full power play of the period, J.T. Miller threw a hard shot-pass from the high slot, spying rookie Kevin Hayes open by the back door.
The equalizer was pretty—a quick one-time shot that Holtby had no chance on—but for New York, nothing is prettier than their ticket to the next round.