BY CHAYIM TAUBER
After falling behind 2-0 in their best of 7 first round matchup with the Washington Capitals, the New York Rangers were able to conjure up memories of 2012 by beating the Capitals in a decisive game 7 for the second consecutive season.
The Capitals, led by Hart finalist Alex Ovechkin, were in trouble from the get-go as it was quickly apparent that Henrik Lundqvist, the reigning Vezina winner and owner of two shutouts to that point in the series, was very much on his game.
Lundqvist turned back 35 shots in game 7 to record his third shutout of the series (second consecutive) as his counterpart for the Capitals struggled mightily. Aaron Asham of all people started the offensive barrage by snapping one top shelf past Holtby to put the Rangers up in the first period. That was all the Rangers would eventually need as Lundqvist was at his postseason best.
With the Rangers facing elimination, Lundqvist’s last six games have resulted in a 5-1 (3-0 in Game Seven) record with a sterling 1.16 goals against average, a .958 save percentage and two shutouts.
“To play this well in a game as important as this is going to help us moving forward,” said Lundqvist after the win. “It’s about confidence…it’s about going out there and taking care of business and we did.”
Lundqvist had help in shutting out the Caps though. The pair of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh (who was awarded with the “Broadway Hat” MVP of the series as elected by his teammates) combined to shut down Alex Ovechkin and the dangerous top line for Washington.
Ovechkin was only able to record one goal (a rebound in game 1) in the seven game series and finished with a rating of -2. The bulk of his effectiveness came via his physicality as he led Washington in hits, a trade the Rangers were more than happy to make.
The defensive clinic put on by McDonagh, Girardi, Stralman, and others as well as the magnificence of Lundqvist in net was able to carry the Rangers through a series in which their power play was abominable and their offense, outside of Derick Brassard and Brian Boyle, played lackadaisically at best.
The reliance on Lundqvist and the defense to keep the opposition off the board is the primary culprit in explaining why the Rangers had to sweat out a seven game series. Lundqvist’s brilliance in game 2 was squandered by an inability on the Rangers part to score and the Rangers futility on the power play (2/28 for a 7.1%) are major causes for concern moving forwards.
The Rangers, for all their flaws, are still one of the more dangerous teams left in this postseason hunt simply because their major contributors have been conspicuously absent throughout the Capitals series. Whatever was said about Ovechkin being neutralized can be applied to the high-priced duo of Rick Nash and Brad Richards, as well. Nash failed to score in the 7 game series (though he did have two assists), Ryan Callahan didn’t score until the last period of Game 7, and Richards managed one point throughout (and fell prey to several turnovers).
The lack of a contribution from the marquee players was overcome in large part by role-players who were surprisingly productive. Aaron Asham had two goals, Brian Boyle was one of the Rangers better players throughout the series and Mats Zucarello was an instant spark every time he stepped on the ice. The three players brought over in the Gaborik trade: Brassard, Dorsett, and John Moore, were all incredibly active and were three of the Rangers best player throughout the series. Dorsett drew penalties and forechecked with abandon and Moore handled his defensive responsibilities as well as handled added offensive duties on the power play. It was Brassard however who stole the show, notching 9 points in the 7 game series (the last Ranger with 9 points in a series was Wayne Gretzky back in 1997).
Logic would dictate that a superstar like Nash would eventually break out of his slump. If Nash’s revival can augment the production they are currently getting from their role players, the Rangers should be in good shape. They did a phenomenal job of staying out of the penalty box against the Capitals. The problem was that the Capitals could be as physical as they liked with the Rangers without fear of reprisal because of how abhorrent the Rangers power play performed.
The Rangers next opponent, Boston, is a big, physical team that will take their liberties with the Rangers if those liberties are afforded. This series, unlike last, the Rangers need to make every cheap shot, every penalty, and every opportunity count. This series doesn’t figure to be any less competitive than the last and the Rangers barely held on to beat the Caps in 7. It should be a hell of a series.