Rangers have Lundqvist to thank, Sens will rebound

The New York Rangers are through by the skin of their chinny-chin-chins.

And they can thank Henrik Lundqvist for a sensational third-period sequence in Game 7 Thursday night when the Ottawa Senators threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Blueshirts.

On the day after Lundqvist was announced as one of the three nominees for the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s top netminder, he lived up to that billing and then some in a 2:30 stretch that began with six-plus minutes to go and the Rangers clinging to a 2-1 lead.

Save after save after save, Lundqvist’s incredible agility and vision through screens during that sequence saved the game, and perhaps the season, for the Rangers.

It’s interesting that some of the chatter over the last month is that Lundqvist perhaps rode his early-season play to his Vezina nomination, but that really, fellow Vezina nominees Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick (not to mention Mike Smith, who wasn’t nominated) actually deserve the trophy this season after their second halves.

Um, I think Lundqvist spoke for himself Thursday night.

The No. 1 seed can now breathe. The Rangers survived the upset. My colleague from ESPNNewYork.com, the talented Katie Strang, has all the Rangers coverage you need and then some from Game 7, so I want to focus the rest of this blog on the Senators -- who came oh-so-close to an incredible upset.

Right now, all the Senators and their fans know is that it hurts. They were up 3-2 in this series, missed a chance to close it out at home on Monday night, and fell just short in Game 7.

But step back, look at the big picture, and the Senators’ accomplishments this season are nothing short of sensational.

Playoffs? Who the heck picked the Senators to make the playoffs last September after GM Bryan Murray spent about eight months or so gutting the roster and rejuvenating his squad with youth?

The Senators were picked by most not only to miss the playoffs, but to finish 15th in the Eastern Conference.

I take you back to a conversation I had with Murray during camp last September, the veteran hockey man bristling a bit at all the last-place predictions for his rebuilt team.

"I think we’re going to be a competitive team," Murray said at the time. "We’re obviously going to play harder and better than we did last year. I know some people have picked us to be 15th in the East and some people think we’re a little better than that. I don’t pretend to want to put a number on it but I do think we’re a little better overall. I think our team speed will be better. The goaltending will be better. I’d like to think we have a chance to compete for a playoff spot and that’s the intent we’re starting with."

The reality is that Murray himself warned his mercurial owner Eugene Melnyk not to expect anything much this season. There would be growing pains, Murray said; he was rebuilding his team.

Instead, the young-gun Senators, still led by key veterans Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips and goalie Craig Anderson, spent most of the season in a playoff spot and didn’t relent.

The eighth seed then pushed the top dogs in the East to seven games and right to the final buzzer of the final game.

The future is nothing but bright for this Senators team. Norris Trophy nominee Erik Karlsson, who will learn from a so-so playoff, is a superstar for years to come. Kyle Turris was a great acquisition. Jared Cowen is a stud on defense. And there’s more promising youth in the organization.

The question now is whether we’ve seen the last of Alfredsson, the classy, 39-year-old captain of the Senators. A 27-goal, 59-point regular-season campaign suggests he’s got plenty in the tank for one more season, which he still has on his contract. But a second concussion this season, this one in Game 2 of the playoffs, might give him pause. Hard to say at this point.

If he does decide to retire, he goes out the way he always played the game: giving it his all on every shift until the buzzer sounded. Just like his upstart team did this season and in this series.