Brad Richards is among the Rangers’ core group of veterans that has experienced the thrill of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The 31-year-old center, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as part of Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup-winning team in 2004, said he had trouble sleeping before such pivotal games in the past because of the mounting nerves and excitement.
The opportunity to shine on one of hockey's biggest stages, he said, is one a player will never forget.
“It’s a great day in your life, to wake up knowing everyone’s watching,” he said. “It’s a do-or-die and it’s a great time to be able to put your best foot forward.”
The Rangers will take this advice to heart as they face elimination for the second straight game in Thursday’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. They held off the Senators with a come-from-behind 3-2 win on Monday in Ottawa, tying the series to bring it back to Broadway for the finale.
Instead of skating in front of a hostile crowd of Sens supporters, clad in red and chanting for captain Daniel Alfredsson, the Rangers will take the ice in front of Blueshirts fans at Madison Square Garden.
“To get the last game in front of your fans, in your comfort zone, means a lot,” said Richards, who has two goals and three assists in the first six games of the series. “We couldn’t be happier to do it in front of our fans right now.”
The crowd support should give the Rangers an extra boost in what is expected to be a bitter showdown between two teams in a series that has, unsurprisingly, gotten nastier with each game. From the harrowing head injuries, crushing hits and scathing vitriol exchanged between the two clubs, Thursday’s match is sure to be a vicious one.
"It’s Game 7. Both teams are fighting for their lives. When your season is on the line, there’s going to be a lot of clawing and scratching for every inch,” said gritty winger Brandon Prust, whose courageous fight against Senators antagonist Chris Neil was a rallying point in the Rangers’ Game 6 victory.
Prust’s first-period scrap with Neil helped the Rangers revert back to the grinding, blue-collar style on which they have built their success. That edge and physicality will be vital to the team on Thursday and, should they make it past Ottawa, beyond.
Consistency and resilience has been paramount to the team’s success, and the Rangers don’t want to deviate from that now.
“We haven’t changed,” veteran Mike Rupp said. “There’s been no panic. There’s been no celebration. So, it’s been good, we’ve just gone about it. That’s what we’ve been doing all year.”
In addition to re-establishing their brand in Game 6, the Rangers found success in containing the Senators’ most dynamic threats even with checking-line center Brian Boyle sidelined by concussion.
Star defenseman Erik Karlsson and captain Daniel Alfredsson were held off the scoresheet, and while first-line center Jason Spezza was awarded the Senators’ second goal of the night with less than a minute remaining in regulation, it was a fluke-y one that was upheld only after an inconclusive review.
“I think the big thing with our team, all year, is taking away time and space,” Rupp said. “Any guy in this league, if you give them time and space, is gonna be able to make a play. It felt like last game we did a good job of not giving them time with the puck.”
The offense finally started to gain momentum with a three-goal second period at Scotiabank Place and Sens netminder Craig Anderson proved fallible. With the obvious edge in net -- Henrik Lundqvist was named one of three Vezina Trophy finalists Wednesday -- the Rangers enter the fateful match with ample confidence.
“It’s going to be a great experience and a great feeling and a challenge,” Marian Gaborik said. “I believe we’re going to come out with a win.”