WASHINGTON - Midway through the third period of an anticlimactic—and unprecedented—Game 7 road victory for his New York Rangers, goalie Henrik Lundqvist fell forward while smothering a puck to stifle yet another chance for the Washington Capitals.
Chants of "Hen-reeek! Hen-reeek!" poured forth from the Rangers supporters in the stands, no longer outnumbered because thousands of Capitals fans already had headed for the exits.
It's been more than a decade since a goalie was as perfect over Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series as Lundqvist was. Yes, he certainly had help in the finale Monday night, including goals from some unlikely teammates. Still, there is one key explanation, above all others, for why the Rangers are heading to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"Henrik Lundqvist," Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said. "Plain and simple."
Led by Lundqvist's 35 saves in a second consecutive shutout, the Rangers beat the Capitals 5-0 to wrap up an otherwise tense and tight seven-game series, eliminating Alex Ovechkin and Washington for the second year in a row.
"Goaltending is the big thing," said Arron Asham, a fourth-line winger whose goal gave him a pair for the series, twice as many as two-time NHL MVP Ovechkin. "Hank's been our backbone all year."
The last goalie to pull off the double shutouts in Games 6-7 was Detroit's Dominik Hasek in 2002 against Colorado, according to STATS.
"There's moments where you enjoy it and you think, 'Wow, this is great.' And you have fun. But there's also moments where you don't feel great. You feel the pressure and you just want to get it done, so badly," Lundqvist said. "You try to control your emotions. That's the key for me. I'm an emotional guy when I play. I try to just stay calm. Good or bad. I just try to stay calm and focus on my thing."
Did that rather well on Sunday and Monday, lifting his career post-season shutout total to eight.
"He was really good, but the team was also good, too. I have to give the team some credit. They played hard in front of him," Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
Lundqvist, Ovechkin said, did an "unbelievable job; he makes incredible saves."
By winning a Game 7 on the road for the first time in its history, New York completed its comeback after trailing in the series 2-0 and 3-2—the latest in Washington's long history of playoff collapses.
Now the sixth-seeded Rangers face the No. 4 Bruins, with Game 1 on Thursday at Boston. The Original Six rivals have not met in the playoffs since 1973.
"We'll enjoy this one tonight," Rangers forward Rick Nash said, "and then get back to work."
Nash was held without a goal in the first round by Washington, but New York found other scorers.
Asham put New York ahead in the first period. Taylor Pyatt and Michael Del Zotto made it 3-0 early in the second on goals 2:10 apart. Ryan Callahan added a goal 13 seconds into the third period, before Mats Zuccarello scored with about 13 1/2 minutes remaining.
While Callahan did have 16 goals this season, the other four Rangers who put pucks past Braden Holtby on Monday combined for a total of only 14.
"That's what we need," Nash said. "Everyone chips in, everyone helps."
True. But Lundqvist gives the Rangers a chance to win every game. From the moment Mike Ribeiro's overtime goal gave Washington a Game 5 victory, Lundqvist was simply superb.
The Swede stopped all 62 shots he faced in Games 6 and 7, showing exactly why he won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie last season and is a finalist for that honour this season.
"We threw the kitchen sink at him at times and he stood there and defended," said Washington's Mike Green, who led NHL defencemen with 12 goals this season. "He's a great goaltender. We knew that."
Washington's offence managed to score 12 goals the entire series—zero over the final six periods.
Ovechkin was held without a point in Games 3-7. He was limited to one shot Monday, when there were boos for the home team at the end of the second period.
The Russian wing led the NHL with 32 goals, but heads into the off-season after the longest playoff point drought of his career. He had a goal in Game 1, an assist in Game 2, and that was it.
"It's very frustrating," said Ovechkin, who's never been past the second round of the playoffs. "That's the whole point: You're here to win the games and try to win the Cup."
The Rangers-Capitals finale began only a little more than 24 hours after the shoving- and wrestling-filled end of Game 6, which New York won 1-0. That, of course, was played at Madison Square Garden, continuing the pattern of the home team winning each of the first six games of the series.
That ended emphatically Monday, in a Game 7 so similar to Washington's 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in 2009, even Ovechkin brought up that defeat afterward.
Another pattern done away with Monday: Games 2-6 between New York and Washington were all decided by one goal.
"Quite honestly, tough to explain," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "It's funny how over the years sometimes the seventh game turns into some form of blowout."
Since the start of the 2008 playoffs—when Washington's core of Ovechkin, Green and Nicklas Backstrom made their post-season debuts—the Capitals have appeared in nine series, and this was the seventh to last the full seven games. They're 2-5 in those.
Going further back, to 1985, the Capitals have lost nine series in which the club led either 2-0 or 3-1.
"Nobody is yelling at each other here. Nobody was pointing a figure that it was somebody's fault we (lost) the game. It's everybody's fault," Ovechkin said. "All the guys' fault. My fault. (Backstrom's). It's everybody. It's not about one person or two people. It's about the team."
Tortorella and various players for the Rangers made the same point about why they won, saying it was a team effort.
But there's also a reason the Rangers are running out of superlatives to describe Lundqvist.
"There's nothing left to say," Nash explained. "He's so good. He's world-class. And he does it for us every night."
Notes: The Rangers were 0-5 in Game 7s on the road entering Monday. ... Ovechkin's longest span without a point this regular season was three games, something he went through twice: Feb. 14-21 and March 9-12. The Rangers were the opponent in the middle game of both of those droughts. ... The Rangers lost in the Eastern Conference finals last year to the New Jersey Devils, for whom Oates was an assistant coach.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
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