Backs against the wall, Rangers somehow find a way -- yet again

NEW YORK -- No other team in NHL history has done it.

But the New York Rangers have.

To have it happen once might have been a fluke, a confluence of events that amounted to the perfect mix of timing, circumstance and perhaps a little luck. But not when it happens twice.

In surmounting a 3-1 series deficit in consecutive postseasons, the battle-tested Blueshirts have made resilience their signature trait. That is what the team exhibited when it lost its star player, Henrik Lundqvist, for almost two months during the regular season. They showed it when the team fell behind 3-1 in their second-round series to a dogged, demanding Washington Capitals team. They showed it when the group found itself trailing 1-0 in Game 7 Wednesday night, forced to watch Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin celebrate as the team's crestfallen fans were sapped into silence. They showed it when the team was hemmed in its own zone for a few agonizing stretches during overtime.

All those times, the Rangers found a way.

“When we have to play our best, we do,” veteran center Dominic Moore said, the sentiment simple and succinct.

It was Derek Stepan who delivered Wednesday night, beating Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby for the overtime winner in Game 7 on Wednesday, as the Rangers edged the Capitals 2-1 to move on to the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight season.

Stepan's teammates erupted in celebration when the goal was scored, just a tangle of limbs and skates and bobbled helmets euphoric in celebration. Defenseman Marc Staal described it as a mixture of excitement and relief. Carl Hagelin called it “crazy.” He thinks he might have blacked out after jumping over the boards.

Stepan wasn’t consumed with the throes of victory, though.

“It’s a special feeling,” Stepan conceded, “but we have a lot of work to do here.”

Businesslike, professional. Which is how the Rangers approached the task of dismantling this Capitals team, chipping away steadily at a two-game series lead.

There was an unwavering belief. Doubt did not take root within the confines of the dressing room. The team had last year’s magical comeback to draw from, but more importantly the expectation -- more than just the desire -- to win.

“Last year, I think we might’ve deserved to be down 3-1,” Staal said. “This year, I don’t think -- not that we didn’t deserve it, but we were in that situation and we were very close to it being the other way around. We were confident in the way we were playing, the way we were approaching the game.

“It was just a matter of winning three in a row,” Staal continued. “We knew we could beat this team three times in a row, it was just a matter of doing it.”

Lundqvist, who made 35 saves Wednesday night, did lots of the heavy lifting in Game 7, but it was a collective effort all series long. As much as the Rangers dominated play for significant time throughout the second-round set, it was a grinding, taxing challenge against a Capitals team hell-bent on proving it was built for a deep run.

The losses stung, but even the wins came with welts and bruises. Each game was decided by just a single goal, so it was no shocker that the winner-take-all finale required extra time to decide.

It was an epic battle, one that resulted in mutual respect from both clubs.

As the two teams saluted each other’s efforts in the handshake line, a few Capitals gave the Rangers the utmost compliment a competitor can give any foe.

Take it all the way, said one Caps player.

Get it done, said another.

Perhaps the feeling was if this Rangers team can stare down a 3-1 hole and rattle off three straight wins, fend off elimination under the most adverse circumstances, maybe they deserve to go the distance.

Resilience earns respect, and the Rangers deserve that in abundance.

It wasn’t just rookie Kevin Hayes, knotting the score 1-1 with a power-play goal in the second period, or the team limping along with just five defensemen after Dan Boyle was forced from the game after a big hit by Brooks Orpik in the third. It wasn’t just Stepan notching the winner 11:24 into overtime. Those are the contributions that added up to Wednesday’s win, but there is an undercurrent of belief with this team that goes much deeper than a sequence of key plays or their unblemished 7-0 record in Game 7s at home.

“Every player brings something special to the table,” winger Hagelin said. “There are a lot of winners in here.”

As the Rangers prepare to move on, facing the Tampa Bay Lightning and some familiar faces in the Eastern Conference finals, the Capitals are set to face yet another summer of scrutiny.

Looking to change the narrative as a group that fails to live up to expectations, the Caps must rue their inability to close out the series and finish the Rangers when they had them in the crosshairs.

Ovechkin, who guaranteed a victory in Game 7, almost delivered it single-handedly, scoring the Capitals' lone goal in the first. But with his team suffering another disappointing playoff loss, he can expect the criticism to persist.

But not from Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who lauded Ovechkin’s growth and leadership, even in defeat.

“I’d love to go in the foxhole with guys who will stick their neck out and say, 'I’m going to deliver for you,'" Trotz said, referring to Ovechkin. "And he did.”

Trotz said he saw good things from their stars in Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, huge strides from young players Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky and a whole new “DNA” for the team with the stellar play of Holtby, who was terrific all series long.

Trotz wants his team to be proud of how they met the challenge of shedding that stigma, changing the history, head-on.

He wants everyone else to know that now they have unfinished business.

"We went after the New York Rangers in their own barn and almost pulled it off," Trotz said. "You're going to see the Washington Capitals back here again."