NEW YORK – The puck stayed at the far end of the ice as the last 10 seconds ticked off the clock Thursday night. Henrik Lundqvist, who had made so many saves, was finally safe himself – safe to let down his guard, safe to soak up the moment, safe to scream inside his mask.
The New York Rangers had beaten the Ottawa Senators 2-1. After facing a 3-2 deficit in their first-round playoff series, they had won two straight. They had won the first Game 7 at Madison Square Garden since Mark Messier lifted the Stanley Cup in 1994.
"Before that, you're not happy," Lundqvist said. "You're not happy at all playing, because you're just nervous and excited and focused. But then you start to get really happy. It's a big relief. It's like everything just comes out, and then you feel the crowd …"
What does it feel like to play a Game 7? What does it take to win a Game 7? It's a mental and physical test unlike any other in hockey. Who can compose himself? Who can make the plays, or mistakes, that will extend, or end, the season?
Sometimes it leads to tentative play, as in the Washington Capitals' 2-1 overtime victory over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night, a chess match before a hushed, tense crowd at TD Garden.
Other times it leads to thrilling action. The Rangers and Senators played to win Thursday night – not just not to lose – before the raucous, chanting fans at MSG. They skated hard, fast. Up and down. Back and forth.
[Related: Check out the best photos from both Game 7s]
A blocked shot here, a couple of goals from unlikely heroes there, a scramble to survive a final Ottawa onslaught – that was the difference.
"I've played some pretty cool home games, but nothing compares to that," said Rangers rookie Chris Kreider, looking through the fresh eyes of a 20-year-old who won an NCAA title with Boston College just a couple of weeks ago. "It was just surreal. You can feel it build, as the end kind of draws near. You might be tired, but you can't tell."
Before faceoff, some of the Rangers' veterans tried to teach their young teammates about Game 7. Forward Mike Rupp talked about the little plays that become big plays. Then the Rangers went out and made them.
Kreider made a little/big play when he came across the ice, hit Nick Foligno along the wall and forced a turnover early in the second period. Ryan Callahan grabbed the puck and took a hit. Derek Stepan grabbed the puck and made a pass. Defenseman Marc Staal, who missed the first half of the season with a concussion, who had scored only two goals in 52 games, slapped the puck into a gaping net.
Defenseman Dan Girardi made a couple of little/big plays. After saving a goal in the first period, blocking a Filip Kuba shot that was headed for an open net, he scored a goal midway through the second. The Senators broke down defensively and left Girardi alone in front – maybe because he had scored only five goals in the regular season, maybe because he had zero goals in 38 career playoff games. He fired the puck high into the net.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson cut the Rangers' lead to 2-1 on the power play late in the second, but that just set up the little/big finish. The Rangers pressed early in the third; Senators goaltender Craig Anderson was sharp. Then the ice tilted, and it was Lundqvist and his teammates' turn.
The tug-of-war on the ice matched the tug-of-war in Lundqvist's head. At times, he couldn't help but think of the enormity of it – how much this game, how much these minutes, meant to him and his teammates and the fans. He had to force himself to stay calm, to stay within himself, to treat this as Game 89 instead of Game 7.
"It's kind of a mind game a little bit," Lundqvist said.
As the Senators surged, the Rangers collapsed in front of their net. They deflected pucks. They blocked shots. Lundqvist made saves. Callahan, the captain, playing with a bad hand, dove at the blue line to knock a puck out of the New York zone. Lundqvist would finish with 26 saves; his teammates would finish with 23 blocked shots.
"That's playoff hockey right there, at its finest," Callahan said. "Desperate."
That's Rangers hockey right there, at its finest.
"We defended our ass off in the third period," said coach John Tortorella. "When they ramped it up on us there in the second half of the third, that's the true identity of our team there, blocking shots. Two teams going at it. We found a way."
Perhaps the most remarkable part is that the Rangers used Kreider and Carl Hagelin, another rookie, to protect their one-goal lead in the final minute. They're green, but they have speed and Tortorella's trust – not an easy thing to earn.
"I just lick my chops for the future for those two kids," Tortorella said.
Maybe the Rangers will go deep in these playoffs. They were the top team in the East in the regular season, and with so many traditional powers already eliminated, the field is wide open. They just beat a Senators team that gave them fits all season.
Maybe the Rangers won't get past the second round. Top scorers Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards haven't lived up to their billing, at least not yet. They're facing the Capitals, who beat them in the first round last year and have become a tighter team this season.
But whatever happens, in these playoffs or in playoffs to come, the still-developing Rangers laid another brick for their foundation Thursday night. You'd love to sweep every series, but you're not going to. You have to learn how to survive when your hockey life is on the line, and there is only one way to do that.
"It's a tremendous experience," Tortorella said. "When you get into this type of situation, it's a great opportunity, because you just don't play many of these. For such a young group … to get these types of situations under your belt and have success, at least in this first round, I think it'll bode very well for our young guys."
For all their guys.
Lundqvist, the 30-year-old superstar, has never made a conference final, let alone the Stanley Cup final. This was about as big a victory as he's had in the NHL. Long after the rest of his teammates had taken off their equipment, he still was wearing his pads.
He greeted Messier, now a team exec. He signed an autograph for a kid in a Callahan sweater. He did so many interviews for so long that the PR staff had to cut him off – and then he still answered one more question in Swedish.
In any language, it was hard to find enough words.
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