NEW YORK -- Henrik Lundqvist could all but hear his heart pounding above the Game 7 din, and as much as he feared the devastating consequences of a single mistake, he was loving every second of overtime in Madison Square Garden. He was loving the fact that a younger goaltender on the other end of the ice, Braden Holtby, had spent the entire series pushing him to the outer limits of his otherworldly skill.
You want to know why the New York Rangers became the first team in NHL history to overcome 3-1 series deficits in back-to-back postseasons? You want to know why the home team survived the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin's Mark Messier-like guarantee with the legend himself in the house? You want to know why Lundqvist is 14-3 in his last 17 elimination games, 10-0 in his last 10 elimination games at the Garden and 6-0 in his last six Game 7s?
Listen to his words at his locker after Derek Stepan beat Holtby and booked an Eastern Conference finals date with Tampa Bay. Lundqvist had pulled a blue Rangers cap over his sweat-soaked hair, a blue Rangers jacket over his sweat-soaked undershirt and collapsed into a chair after finishing one round of interviews in English, another round in Swedish. He was looking every bit his age, 33, when I asked him if the 25-year-old Holtby had just given him the greatest test of his career.
"It was definitely challenging," Lundqvist said. "He was so good, and it was just a matter of keeping my focus and trying to match his play. But I told him it was an outstanding series by him. He kept them in a lot of games. You have to give him a lot of credit for the way he played. It made it fun for me, too."
Fun. Even though he couldn't afford to lose any one of them, Lundqvist actually thought these last three games were fun.
That tells you all you need to know about this second-round series for the ages. As great as Holtby played, the Rangers advanced for this simple reason: They had Henrik Lundqvist, and the other guys didn't.
"I don't know if it's good for you physically," Lundqvist said of the overtime pressure. "You probably shorten your life a little bit. It's so intense, and the heart rate is up, especially the way they came out flying, and it was hard for us to clear a couple of pucks."
Lundqvist was under constant siege in the early minutes of overtime, and a lesser man would've cracked for sure. He said that he felt the pulse of the game change after the first two periods, that both teams realized in the third the next goal scored would define their seasons.
Suddenly the game was being played in a space as confining as a phone booth. "A lot of these games come down to will, how badly you want it," Lundqvist said. "The teams are so even that it comes down to a battle in the corner, in front of the net, all over the ice. It's one-on-one battles against the opponent, and if you want it bad enough I think you're going to have a good chance of winning."
Lundqvist wanted it badly enough, and he had his reasons. He lost in last year's Stanley Cup finals, and the experience of that painful near-miss -- along with this year's regular-season standings -- strongly suggested the Presidents' Trophy winners needed to win it all this time. The Rangers were good for 53 victories and 113 points, better numbers than those posted by the 1994 team. So yes, a loss in the conference semis would represent a disastrous result.
From behind his mask Wednesday night, Lundqvist was staring down the barrel of that possibility. Ovechkin had taken a first-period pass in front, ignored Ryan McDonagh's desperate dive to his left and beaten Lundqvist above his glove side. There couldn't have been a more unsettling sight for the Garden crowd, that of the megastar who had promised victory scoring for the first time since Game 2.
But Mike Green came right out of the penalty box early in the second period to cross check Dan Girardi headfirst into the boards, gift-wrapping the Rangers yet another power play. And since John Starks was sitting in the Garden stands for this one, it was worth pointing out that Green's might have been among the dumbest postseason fouls committed in any sport since Starks head-butted Reggie Miller in a different life.
Kevin Hayes took advantage by tying it for the Rangers on a feed from J.T. Miller, a goal that lifted the building out of its fearful, stone-cold silence, and made Hayes the franchise's first rookie to score a Game 7 goal in more than three-quarters of a century. Soon enough, Messier and his fellow boys of early summer, 1994, were shown on the video board, a reminder of the expectation hanging over this team.
Messier wasn't eligible to suit up for the third, so the 2015 Rangers would have to go it alone. And that was quite alright. Lundqvist is their Messier, minus the indelible ticker-tape parade. In fact, even without his championship ring, his absurd big-game stats confirm that the goalie stands among the most clutch superstars New York has ever seen.
Lundqvist made 35 saves against the Capitals, giving him 179 on 184 shots in his last six Game 7s. "Ever since I got here," he'd told ESPN.com this time last year, "my dream and my goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and the more time I spend here the bigger that desire gets. It would mean everything for me to win the Cup for New York."
Back then, he called the goalie's role in a sudden-death game "a fun challenge." Most human beings in his skates Wednesday night would not have had much fun. At his age, with home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, Lundqvist realized going in that he might never again have this kind of chance to win the Cup.
"And you know that one mistake and it's over," he said.
Lundqvist never made that mistake. In the delirious wake of Stepan's goal, he told Holtby he did a wonderful job in net, and he told Ovechkin that he appreciated the energy and passion he brought to the series.
"It's fun to watch," the winning goalie said, "and it's tough to play against."
But not too tough. Henrik Lundqvist's Rangers made it out alive, and as Messier left the Garden he pointed to his open mouth as if to say he was too hoarse from shouting to talk about what he'd just witnessed.
As it turned out, after Ovechkin's guarantee failed to honor the Messier standard, it wasn't hard to figure out which Ranger was most responsible for that.