NEW YORK -- Of course this series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers was going to go to Game 7. And of course this was going to be a winner-take-all match that went right down to the wire, with both teams’ respective seasons hanging in the balance as time wound down in the third period.
It was a final frame that seemed interminable for the Rangers, desperately clutching a one-goal lead and feeling each tick of the clock as if it were an eternity.
But at the end of regulation, the better team was left standing as the Rangers held on to knock off the Flyers 2-1 in Game 7 to advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where they will face the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s a sense of relief,” said winger Rick Nash, whose goal drought continued Wednesday night despite a team-leading five shots. “You have two chances at it and we couldn’t get the job done on the first chance, so it’s a moment of relief and excitement.”
Nash is of course referring to the Rangers' inability to close out the series Tuesday night in Game 6 and that nagging stat that the Rangers just can’t quite seem to shake: 12 consecutive losses when leading in a playoff series.
But the Blueshirts began anew Wednesday night in a game that provided the type of pace and intensity that the series otherwise lacked. Both teams came out strong, but it was Flyers goaltender Steve Mason who was dazzling from the drop of the puck.
Mason was absolutely sensational in his third start of the series for the Flyers, even when the Rangers began to surge in the second period. It was former Flyer Daniel Carcillo who first got the Rangers on the board against his old club, notching his second goal of the series after replacing J.T. Miller in the lineup following a pair of games as a healthy scratch. Mats Zuccarello enabled Carcillo with a jaw-dropping backhanded pass laced through two different Flyers defenders.
Still, with the Flyers down 1-0 Mason was doing his part to steal the show. But despite several sequences of stunning saves from the 25-year-old netminder, who missed the first three games of the series with what he has subsequently revealed to be a concussion, the Rangers solved him again with Benoit Pouliot’s marker later in the period.
It wasn’t the stars who ended up on the score sheet for the Rangers, but that was only fitting for a team that has received well-balanced contributions from throughout the lineup all season long.
“That’s the great thing about our team. Different guys have been different heroes all through the year or throughout this series, as you can see. Every night, every win we’ve had we’ve had different guys step up,” said veteran center Brad Richards. “That’s a good sign for our team.”
As is the continued steadiness of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was rock solid when necessary as the Flyers came buzzing back in the third period, a clear statement that they would not go quietly.
Rookie forward Jason Akeson cut the Rangers’ lead in half, 2-1, and New York played much of the period on its heels, but Lundqvist was composed between the pipes as the Rangers white-knuckled their way to the buzzer.
Lundqvist did not have the same sort of outstanding performance as Mason, who was saddled with the loss despite making 31 saves, but he recorded a win and that was the only important statistic that means anything to the former Vezina Trophy winner.
"We knew they were going to push in the third and they came pretty hard, but the puck management was really good," said Lundqvist. "it's just exciting, that last minute is so intense and you're nervous but at the same time you just want to see what's going to happen next. The final second, that's probably the best feeling."
“It’s almost a thing that’s out of your mind,” said defenseman Marc Staal, who finished the game with a team-leading 24:28 in ice time. “You never have to think what will be back there because you know he’s going to be there.”
Now, the Rangers can finally put the Flyers out of their mind, too, after seesawing with their division rivals all series. There will be at least one night to relish a series victory before planning and preparation begin for Round 2.
“A good sense of accomplishment,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said when asked about the feeling in the room following the win. “But we know there’s a long road [ahead]; we’re trying to accomplish something even bigger.”
That begins, of course, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who knocked off the Columbus Blue Jackets in a bitter, physical and wildly entertaining first-round series that ended with a decisive Pens victory Monday night. While the Penguins have had a few days to rest while awaiting their second-round foe, the Rangers won’t have that same luxury of recovery.
Instead, they’ll make a quick turnaround, jumping on a plane to Pittsburgh on Thursday to prepare for what will be their third game in four nights.
That may not be the worst thing, however.
“No thinking. Right back to work. Right back to what we’re doing here,” Richards said. “Now you’re in it and it’s fun, so why not start right away?”