Rangers forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan (Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
The New York Rangers have made an art form of the 2-1 win in these playoffs – and in Game 7 of their second-round series against Washington, the Blueshirts did it again, pulling out just enough offense – thanks to Derek Stepan's overtime goal Wednesday – to eliminate the Capitals and set up a showdown with Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final.
When the Rangers went down three games to one in their second-round series against Washington, Blueshirts players and fans looked to the previous playoffs and a New York team that was resilient and came back from just such a deficit to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games. And wouldn't you know it – the same team, with mostly the same players, wound up doing the same thing after Wednesday's Game 7 between the Capitals and host Rangers: the Rangers leaned on star goalie Henrik Lundqvist and squeezed out just enough offense – in this case, a game-tying goal from Kevin Hayes, and the overtime winner by Derek Stepan – to push past Washington and set up a showdown with Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final.
Although the Capitals once again tested Lundqvist early and often – outshooting the Blueshirts 15-10 in the opening frame and taking the first lead on captain Alex Ovechkin's goal – New York not only stayed in it, but fought back. They outshot the Caps 24-13 in the final two regulation periods, and were the better overall possession team on the night. They gave up three power plays to Washington, but got four of their own. They were dominated by the Capitals in the faceoff circle 47-32, but beat the Caps in the takeaway department 9-1.
They weren't the best team all night long, but the Rangers put up enough of a fight to get them to overtime. And from there, Lundqvist turned aside all eight shots he saw, and Stepan scored on the Blueshirts' fifth shot of the extra period at 11:24 to complete the series comeback and deny Ovechkin the first trip to the Eastern Final of his 10-year NHL career.
It certainly wasn't Ovechkin's fault the Capitals lost; he posted a game-high six shots and his fifth goal of the playoffs, and was Washington's most dangerous skater. Yes, he'd "guaranteed" a win for his team, but that's the attitude you'd expect – verbalized in public or otherwise – from your players. You couldn't have asked anything more of him. And it most definitely wasn't Caps goalie Braden Holtby's fault. He stopped 37 of 39 Blueshirts shots Wednesday, and in two of Washington's final three losses, his save percentage came in at .949 or higher. He was Lundqvist's equal and made several huge saves in Game 7.
So whose fault was it? Well, defenseman Mike Green's pair of penalties within a three-minute span of the second period hurt them, as the second one led to Hayes' second-period goal that evened the score. And once you see Washington's consistent inability to produce offense – three of their second-round losses came by a 2-1 score – you have to look at their lineup and the players who couldn't do in the playoffs what they did in the regular-season.
That group includes defenseman John Carlson, who had 12 goals and 55 points in 82 games this year, but just one playoff goal (scored in the first round) and only two assists against the Blueshirts. It also includes center Nicklas Backstrom, who did have a point in Game 7 and was a beast in the faceoff circle (winning 19 of 28 draws), but registered just two points against New York. Matt Niskanen, their highest-paid defenseman, had only four assists in the post-season and just one point in the second round. All in all, the Caps didn't get a large number of players stepping to the fore at the most crucial moments, and for that reason, they're heading home having blown a massive series lead.
The Rangers – who made history Wednesday as the first team in NHL history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win it in back-to-back seasons – now square off against the Lightning in a series chock-full of ready-to-serve storylines (Martin St. Louis' return to Tampa Bay, Anton Stralman's return to New York, and the two Boyles – Tampa's Brian and the Rangers' Dan – taking on their former employers). They'll have a tougher time shutting down the Bolts' offense, as it isn't Steven Stamkos alone who has delivered that team to within four wins of the Stanley Cup Final. They're also about Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and others capable of big goals – and their goalie, Ben Bishop, just won a second-round series against arguably the league's top netminder in Montreal's Carey Price.
Tampa is just as capable of winning 2-1 games as the Rangers are. They're also as disciplined and as fast. And if the Blueshirts don't get more support for Lundqvist, they may not be able to summon enough offense to squeak through another round – or stage another improbable comeback.