By Stu Hackel
A Game 7 at Madison Square Garden can make for an uproarious evening. The last ones there happened in 1994: the Eastern Conference Championship victory by the Rangers over the Devils in the second overtime period ("Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!"), followed by the nail-biting conclusion to the Stanley Cup Final against the Canucks. But if tonight's Game 7 turns out for the Rangers the way it turned out for the Bruins on their home ice on Wednesday -- if the underdog Senators win just as the underdog Capitals won -- the uproar will be directed inward.
So as the Bruins lick their wounds, examine what went wrong, and begin the inevitable blame game, the puck gets set to drop in Manhattan at 7 PM Eastern time with yet another Game 7 -- New Jersey at Florida (previewed here by SI.com's Alan Muir) -- at 8:30.
The Rangers have won three of their last four Game 7s while the Senators are 0-for-4 in their history. But the Capitals' victory reminded us that when a series boils down to one game, anything can happen and either team can win, regardless of its pedigree, franchise history or regular season finish. Home ice -- especially this year -- can have little to do with the outcome. The right bounces, an ill-timed penalty, a bad goal, a misread, a tiny mental mistake, can make all the difference between going on or going home. It's that uncertainty that elevates Stanley Cup Game 7s above those in other sports.
The Rangers and Senators each have some uncertainty of their own with which they must contend. As the fine Globe and Mail writer Roy MacGregor pointed out, "The Senators have played two dreadful games (1 and 6), three games in which their goaltending and lower lines saved the day (2, 3 and 4), and just one game in which everything came together at once (5).
"The Rangers have played two very good games (1 and 6) and four games in which spectators have had to wonder how on earth a team with great goaltending but three third lines, an inexperienced defence and a sputtering scoring line ever got to be the top team in the Eastern Conference."
MacGregor is being a bit unfair to the Rangers' second line of Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan. Regardless, it's the under-performances of some top players that have contributed most to each team's inconsistency.
The Rangers' biggest question mark hovers over right wing Marian Gaborik, their 41-goal scorer during the regular season. In this series, he has just one goal and two assists. He's been the focus of close opposition checking and no matter which of Ottawa's four left wingers he finds out against him -- Milan Michalek, Nick Foligno, Colin Greening or Zenon Konopka -- Gaborik is skating against a good-skating, hard-working opponent who doesn't shy away from leaning on him. One of the NHL's fastest skaters, Gaborik has speed to burn that he hasn't been burning often enough to pull away from coverage.
Gaborik has been at least partly held back by the three-game suspension that the NHL handed down earlier in the round to linemate Carl Hagelin, who returned to the lineup on Monday. It's probably no coincidence that the two games MacGregor identified as the Rangers' best are the only ones in which Hagelin played after getting tossed out midway through Game 2 for his elbow to the head of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson.
What Hagelin supplies to New York's top line with Gaborik and center Brad Richards is even more speed. He's a great match for Gaborik, and the two of them can force the opposition's defense to back up. That creates more room for Richards, whose legs are no longer what they were. His hands, however, can still be among the game's best. Not surprisingly, the return of Hagelin coincided with Richards having his best performance of the round: Game 6. Gaborik needs to elevate his game to make that top line the potent force it can be.
On the other side, the Senators want to know what has become of their young star Erik Karlsson, who led all blueliners in scoring during the regular season and was named earlier today a Norris Trophy finalist as the league's top defenseman. He has only one goal and no assists to show for the first six games against New York, and that goal deflected off the skate of Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto during a Game 2 power play.
Clearly, this is the game in which Karlsson, too, has to elevate his play. The Rangers have singled him out for rugged treatment right from the start and while his teammates, most notably Chris Neil, have stood up for him, it hasn't resulted in more production or better skating from the 21-year-old. As the Sens have done with Gaborik, the Rangers haven't given Karlsson much room to move. That's the nature of improved checking in the playoffs. Some observers are excusing his lack of production with the fact that the Rangers expertly block so many shots, which robs Karlsson of a major weapon, his booming slapper. Even so, he's gotten 31 shots away through six games, and no one in the playoffs has taken more.
There are other nuggets to feed the animal that is Game 7 of this series. In his story, MacGregor goes through the usual menu -- goaltending, special teams, coaching and the like. There's more, of course. Ottawa's top center, Jason Spezza, was benched by coach Paul MacLean in Game 6 after failing to backcheck on the Rangers' third goal. He'll need a bounce-back effort, even though he was credited with the controversial last-minute goal that made the final score 3-2 in a game that wasn't really that close.
And in his first game back after the concussion from Hagelin's hit, Alfredsson had an uncharacteristic meltdown following his first shift of the third period, having not been sent out for the Sens' power play earlier.
Alfredsson didn't offer much of an explanation for his outburst, and Tim Wharnsby on CBC.ca wrote, "The Senators captain can be forgiven for his out-of-character episode." But, he added, "Alfredsson's actions affected his team. You could tell by some of the looks from his teammates on the bench that they were confused by what was going on with their leader." It's not the kind of leadership that Alfie usually displays, nor would it help his team win a deciding game.
On the Rangers' side, their captain, Callahan, will play with an undisclosed injury that most believe is a damaged hand from blocking a shot by the Senators' Chris Phillips in Game 6. No one exemplifies the Rangers' character more or better than Callahan, and he can chip in offensively as well. But with a damaged paw, his production may be slowed. That's significant considering that the Blueshirts will again be without Brian Boyle, who was concussed by Neil's vicious bodycheck in Game 4, a head shot that the NHL considers legal. Boyle was the best Ranger forward through the first four games and his hustle, big body and deceptive offensive abilities will be missed. For his part, Neil has been everything for the Senators that Boyle was for New York.
And Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had something of a tantrum of his own after that Spezza tally (video), needs to keep his focus. He was rattled, not without reason, by not getting the interference call on Neil -- who seems to be in the middle of everything -- in the crease, but there are going to be bad calls in the playoffs. They happen every year, though maybe there have been a few more glaring ones this year than in the past. The Sens, too, were victimized by a goalie interference call on Foligno that led to a five-on-three and the Rangers' second goal. But players and teams must refocus and accept that the decisions made on the ice aren't going to change and they have to play the cards they are dealt.
This has been a nasty series and it only got nastier in Game 6. Neil's waving to the crowd to cheer louder during and after his first-period fight with Brandon Prust drew the ire of even Don Cherry, who called it "wrestling" and "rinky dink." (video). Neil has also vowed revenge on Del Zotto for a hit. "I'm sure I'll catch him with his head down one of these times," he said, confessing his intention to hunt another head. Del Zotto was nonchalant in response, offering the all-purpose explanation, “It’s the playoffs. You know you’re often going to have to take a big hit to make a big play. You have to give out big hits, too. None of that bothers me. There’s plenty of toughness on both sides.”
How the teams conduct themselves with everything on the line, the level of discipline they show -- or don't show -- could be the biggest uncertainty of all in this Game 7. You can expect the Garden crowd to be in full throat.
Like this guy, J.D. McPherson.
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