Friday, April 27, 2012

Seventh Heaven: Rangers, Devils one step closer

If you're a Rangers or Devils fan, then last night was all about your teams. No matter which side of the Hudson you root for, it was compelling hockey at its finest. There's nothing better than Game Seven and it definitely lived up to the great theater with the Rangers and Devils each pulling out emotional one-goal victories to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, which begin this weekend.

The Blueshirts used goals from defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi before holding off the Senators 2-1 over at a rocking Madison Square Garden. Much like the series between the East's top seed and the eighth seeded Sens, it was hotly contested. Neither team was able to score in a seesaw first period in which both took turns controlling the tempo. In particular, Craig Anderson was sharp making a couple of early stops on Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards to keep it scoreless. Henrik Lundqvist then responded with a few of his own as Ottawa pushed hard in the second half. However, each goalie combined for 18 saves with it remaining 0-0 after one.

The second was where all the scoring was done. It was the Rangers who got the all important first goal in the deciding game when some great hustle from Chris Kreider led directly to Derek Stepan setting up Staal for his first of the playoffs. Kreider, who was a factor with the winner in Game Six, continued his strong play by forcing Nick Foligno into a turnover. He got the puck to Ryan Callahan who quickly fed Stepan for a three-on-one. The second-year center waited before sending a sweet dish across for a cutting Staal, who buried his third career postseason goal. An all around brilliant play started by Kreider, who played like a force instead of a junior who just left Boston College.

The Sens couldn't get to Lundqvist who was a brick wall on the day he was one of three Vezina finalists, joining Jon Quick and Pekka Rinne. He also got plenty of help from teammates willing to sacrifice their bodies to the tune of 23 blocked shots. Fourteen different Rangers got the jersey dirty. On this night, Brandon Dubinsky finally contributed making a remarkable play to set up Girardi's series clincher. It started in the defensive end. Eventually, Dubinsky skated it out before working a give and go with Brandon Prust. When he got the return, he one-handed a pass to an isolated Girardi in front who slapped one upstairs for a 2-0 lead which sent MSG into bedlum. Exactly the kind of play you expect from Dubinsky who spent much of the rest on the bench after being hobbled.

Before they could breathe, Chris Neil got Mike Del Zotto to take a retaliatory crosscheck penalty after battling in front of Lundqvist. Of course, public enemy No.1 who heard derisive chants all night, got away with one prior. But for whatever reason, he was shown a lot of leeway throughout the series and was arguably his team's most effective player. A far cry from Erik Karlsson or Jason Spezza, who were checked closely. A couple of clears and it looked like the Blueshirts would kill off the penalty. However, you couldn't get too comfortable when Daniel Alfredsson blasted a Chris Phillips pass through traffic just past Lundqvist top shelf. He was screened by both Neil and Anton Stralman. Sergei Gonchar added a helper. With much attention focused on limiting Karlsson, Gonchar put up a few points and had a strong series.

There was still plenty of time left with Ottawa trailing by one for the remaining 8:26 of the second with a full 20 to go. It looked like we were going to have to get one more goal to win- having a similar feeling to that helpless one felt in the last Game Seven played against Vancouver. Only the stakes were much higher. Oh. They had chances, forcing Anderson to come up big. But never could get away from the pesky Sens, who hung around for a frantic finish.

You knew at some point the Sens would pin us in and get dangerously close to tying it. If you'd seen overtime in this series, you wanted no part of it if you were a Ranger fan. Ottawa's best chances in the third came from Milan Michalek, who finally was visible. Predictably, one came shorthanded when our power play took a nap allowing Alfredsson to find Michalek all alone but Lundqvist would have none of it shouldering away the opportunity. Fortunately, our team continued to go forward. Shots were even at 9-9, meaning they didn't just sit back. Had they, I don't think we'd have survived. The Senators had two dominant shifts in which they had the Rangers right where they wanted them for over a minute. It felt like an eternity before Spezza fed Michalek for what looked like the tying marker only for Lundqvist again to come up big. A money save from a guy hungry to silence doubters.

Thankfully, it was the last big chance Ottawa got with our team defense breaking up shots and forcing the Sens to overpass, including a close call with Zach Smith unable to handle a hard pass with three and a half remaining. His frustration showed at the bench. The Rangers again tightened up down the stretch, keeping the Sens away from the net. It was fitting that Kreider, Stepan and Callahan were out in the final minute when Captain Cally forced Gonchar to take a penalty with less than 40 seconds left. From there, the same trio kept the puck in the Ottawa zone and ran out the clock.

At the conclusion, Anderson bolted for the locker room before returning. He had to be devastated. He'd never won a series but was outstanding. Ironically, the total goals were 27 with the Rangers edging the Senators 14-13. And the hits were almost identical along with the shots. The only area Ottawa had an edge in was hits with their guys matching ours. Neil and Zenon Konopka were terrific in the series and nearly helped spring the upset. I'm just glad our team was able to maintain poise throughout the chaos with my brother yelling at the TV. I said a few things but held it together. There was an awful lot of pressure on Lundqvist, who met the challenge finishing with 26 saves.

It was a hard fought series. Our team did it the hard way rallying from 3-2 down showing true character. That's why they're still in while other favorites are long gone. The Rangers are one of eight left vying for Lord Stanley along with the Devils, who had their own unbelievable win which lasted double overtime before Adam Henrique scored his second of the night to push them through.

Watching the first sudden death at Applebee's with Justin and our friend, I was just relieved it wasn't our team who blew a two-goal lead and were playing for their lives. I don't know how Hasan felt or close buddy Rob Davis. But if that were my team, I would've freaked out at the thought of being taken to overtime after leading throughout. However, the Panthers proved a much better opponent than previously thought. A credit to the coaching of Kevin Dineen and fast, determined skaters led by Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Mikael Samuelsson.

Even harder to fathom it was John Madden who Martin Brodeur stoned twice in the first OT to keep his team alive. The same Mad Dog who contributed to two Devils' championships and was battered in an accidental collision by teammate Tomas Kopecky in the first yesterday before returning. What a warrior. As usual, the Cats caught the Devils with two power play goals to take it to sudden death. There were close calls in the first extra session with Zach Parise narrowly missing a wrap around while Scottie Upshall nearly sent everyone home but didn't get all of a rebound. Eventually in the second overtime, a bounce came to Henrique thanks to hard work from David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky, allowing him to beat Jose Theodore five-hole. It was that quick.

While the Rangers play host to the Capitals starting tomorrow at 3 ET, the Devils will renew acquaintances with the rival Flyers. It should be fun. An old rivalry heats up again with a spot in the Conference Finals up for grabs. The Blueshirts are also familiar with the Caps, who are playing tougher under Dale Hunter and shouldn't be easy by any stretch. Both series should are intriguing with the Rangers looking to avenge two series losses to Washington while the Devils are hoping to turn around recent history with the Flyers prevailing the last two meetings.

Both Hudson rivals are one giant step away from a Conference Final. Something we haven't seen in 18 years. It would be a dream scenario for everyone involved. The only way to root if you bleed Rangers or Devils. Now that both have completed stirring comebacks, we can at least envision it. The fun starts this weekend.

1 comment:

Hasan said...

Yes, there was a nervous breakdown/meltdown involved once the Devils blew that lead haha. I'll get more into that when I put up my blog later. But at least they nutted up and regrouped for the second straight game 'after' giving up the two-goal lead.

At least this turned out a lot better than the last time the Rangers and Devils both had Game 7's on the same night lol. This East final four is an Atlantic Division special (best division in hockey), hell even the Caps used to be a part of our division and might be again with the new realignment if it ever goes through.

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