One by one, players left the ice, barreling into the dressing room in haste to celebrate, screaming in elation and hollering with the sort of exuberance one might expect following one of the most dramatic turnarounds in franchise history.
Even team owner James Dolan couldn’t suppress his giddy grin as he was ushered down the victor’s hallway following the series-ending win. He had plenty to smile about.
For the first time since the club’s inception, the Rangers rallied back from a 3-1 deficit to upset an opponent in Game 7. And for the second time in three years, the team is headed to the Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s a pretty fun thing we’ve got going on right now,” said Brian Boyle, who scored the first goal of the game following a beautiful passing sequence from his fourth-line teammates. “We don’t want it to end.”
More stunning than the Rangers’ ability to avoid elimination in three straight games against superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pens was the club’s utter transformation in wake of a tragedy that occurred between Games 4 and 5.
That, of course, was the turning point of the series, perhaps the most meaningful 24 hours in the team’s whole season, when the Rangers banded together to support veteran forward Martin St. Louis, who found out upon arrival in Pittsburgh on Thursday that his mother had died from a heart attack.
His courageous and heartfelt return to the ice in Game 5, less than 24 hours after her death, inspired the Rangers, but that was just one game. The Rangers were able to carry over that raw emotion, that passion and purpose, into Game 6 is well, a win that became even more meaningful because St. Louis scored the all-important first goal and because the game fell on Mother’s Day.
When it came down to Game 7, the Rangers did not need to manufacture any inspiration or energy. They had that in abundance and, unlike the pressure-burdened Penguins, they played with verve and joy and had a hell of a time in punching their ticket to the conference finals, in which they will meet the winner of Game 7 between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins.
“The whole last seven days. I don’t know if I’ve ever been with a group of guys that have been through what we’ve been through,” veteran center Brad Richards said. “Nobody gave us a chance. Marty’s situation falls upon us. It wasn’t a good feeling after Game 4. To have this feeling, after all that, it shows how fun this group is to be around. Everyone’s willing to do their part. It’s unbelievable.”
Rangers In Game 7 Since 2012
The daunting two-game series deficit was never treated as a non-starter for the Blueshirts. Led by veterans such as Richards and St. Louis, who won a Stanley Cup championship together in 2004 in Tampa, the situation was instead treated as a challenge.
The belief was there inside that room and the leadership was calm and steady in showing everyone else the way. Richards, as he has done all season but especially since the departure of former captain Ryan Callahan, stepped up in every situation, saying what needed to be said, even when it wasn't pleasant to say or easy to hear, and leading by example on the ice as well.
“I gotta say. We lost our captain. We brought in Marty [St. Louis], but other guys stepped to the front and assumed more in bigger roles, and bigger leadership,” Vigneault said. “In this series, we had said we needed a lot of bus drivers and we had a lot of guys driving the bus.”
The 34-year-old Richards, who has assumed the rule of de facto captain, scored the game-winner in the second-period, a critical man-up marker that quickly sieved the mounting pressure the Pens had built following Jussi Jokinen’s tying goal less than four minutes prior.
It was just another clutch performance in a long list of special moments for the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and it kept his pristine record in Game 7s untarnished. The veteran center has won all seven in which he has played.
Suffice it to say that franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was simply exceptional in continuing his dominance in elimination games as well, outplaying every other player on the ice.
In a series that came down to three veritable game-changers: Lundqvist vs. Crosby and Malkin, the former Vezina Trophy winner edged the Penguins' talented tandem by a country mile. Following up a 36-save effort in Game 6, Lundqvist finished Tuesday with 35. And of course he was at his absolute best with the Penguins bearing down in the final minutes of the game, even when he was flailing in the crease, trying to preserve a one-goal lead without his stick.
Crosby was held to just one goal all series. Malkin was more effective (three goals, four assists) but couldn’t deliver the type of goal the Penguins needed most in a winner-takes-all Game 7 at home.
The Rangers entered the series as underdogs, but they emerged as winners because they were the better team. They exploited their balance and structure and heart to beat a team that has two of the best forwards in the world.
Now, they move on to the next round -- a remarkable feat.
Few people expected them to be here. Who knows what they are capable of now?
“We’re in the final four now,” Richards said. “I don’t know of any teams in the history of the NHL that get this far that don’t think they can win it.”