|Courtesy of the Associated Press|
After having missed the playoffs last season, and changed head coaches only three games into this one, then enduring a franchise-worst start only to surge into solid playoff footing, hopes were high that the opponent was a beatable one. Those hopes were finally dashed on Wednesday night, taken to the limit before fading away.
Henrik Lundqvist outdueled Steve Mason, Dan Carcillo and Benoit Pouliot scored in the second period and the New York Rangers outlasted the Philadelphia Flyers to post a 2-1 victory in the deciding Game 7 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
"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 Rangers center Brad Richards. "That’s a good sign for our team."
One night after being yanked after two periods in a 5-2 defeat, Lundqvist made 26 saves, only letting a Jason Akeson third-period shot slip by him en route to upping his all-time Game 7 record to 4-1. The 31-year-old Swede also became the third goaltender in league history to win four straight seventh games, after Cam Ward, Patrick Roy and Ed Belfour.
"He's the backbone of our team for a reason," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "He made some huge saves down the stretch. We know what he means to this team and he knows what he means. When he's on his game he's tough to beat. When they had some time in our zone he was the backbone back there. He relaxed everybody with some big saves."
Carcillo and Pouliot lit the lamp within an 8:40 span for the Rangers, who have had to endure a seven-game series in the first round in each of the last three seasons but won each time.
New York will take on the Metropolitan Division-champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round in a series beginning Friday night. The Blueshirts hadn't enjoyed home-ice advantage against their bitter rivals since 1982 when the Patrick Division Semifinals were a best-of-five, but used that edge when it counted the most to record their first series win against Philly since a five-game upset in the first round of the 1986 postseason.
At times their only serviceable player on the ice, Mason made 31 saves for the Flyers, who had won each of their last three Game 7s dating back to 2008. The starter, who hadn't made an entry into the series until the latter stages of Game 3, admitted following the loss that what kept him sidelined for two weeks was, in fact, a concussion.
Nonetheless, he finished 2-2 with a goals-against average slightly over two, stopping 123-of-131 shots in five appearances.
"We didn't initiate enough and play with enough aggressiveness," Berube said, though what that is exactly after a two-year postseason layoff wasn't very apparent. "I think overall, we didn't play our best hockey."
The Flyers misfired on their initial power play early in the second period, and Carcillo exited the box after serving his club's bench minor to redirect a cross-ice dish from Mats Zuccarello which gave the Rangers a lead at 3:06.
For the feisty winger, who also scored a goal in the third period seconds after serving a minor penalty, it was his first goal in a terminal playoff contest since he scored the final goal for the Orange and Black in a 5-2 series-ending triumph over the Buffalo Sabres three years prior.
Mason did the splits to deny Martin St. Louis at the right post off a 3-on-1 with 7 1/2 minutes elapsed, but he couldn't get across in time to stop Pouliot's one-timer off a Derick Brassard dish to give New York a two-goal edge with 8:14 to play in the second.
Philadelphia remained stuck in quicksand, and endured some misfortune when Claude Giroux had Lundqvist prone in his crease, but lifted a Jakub Voracek centering feed over the crossbar with four minutes before the second intermission.
Incredibly, Giroux ended up leading the club with six points (2G, 4A) despite being rendered invisible for much of the series, in his first playoff experience as not only the star player but as team captain.
Mason was then left alone on two point-blank chances in the final minute of the second, making deft saves on both and keeping his club alive with 16 stops in the middle frame.
"We didn't play good enough in the second period to win that game," Voracek said. "It's too bad we couldn't get that one. They had chances and buried two goals in the second and we got the goal in the third and we had a good push but it was too late."
Akeson gave the visitors some life, following up his own miss from the right circle with a successful try inside the left post to bring his club within 2-1 at 4:32 of the third.
Lundqvist had trouble handling the puck from the start as the Flyers began to press more offensively. He needed to fend off a pair of crease rushes, and then stopped Michael Raffl from the left side midway through the period.
Mason was called to the bench for an extra attacker on two separate occasions in the final 1:33 of regulation, but Philadelphia mustered only one quality chance for the remainder.
"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."
One bright spot for the losing franchise, they still own a 6-5 series record over the Rangers since their first meeting in the 1974 Stanley Cup Semifinals.
The game opened on a heart-stopping note. Rick Nash, who went scoreless in the series, flipped a shot off the left post on the game's first shift. It ended up being a positive omen for the visitors, as Mason stopped 10 shots and Lundqvist 11 in the scoreless first period.
"He pretty much stood on his head out there. I thought we really had it. We just couldn't put the puck in the net in the end," Akeson lamented.
Notes: New York upped its Game 7 record to 7-5, and maintained its perfect 6-0 ledger at Madison Square Garden ... Philadelphia fell to 9-7 during the terminal contest in best-of-sevens and 3-4 on the road ... The Flyers suffered their first Game 7 setback since a 2-1 result at Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals on May 22, 2004 ... The Rangers haven't dropped a Game 7 since falling to the Washington Capitals in the 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinals ... Wayne Simmonds finished the series leading the Flyers with four goals and 20 penalty minutes ... Carcillo had been a healthy scratch in favor of J.T. Miller in Games 5 and 6 ... In the pivotal second period, the Rangers outshot the Flyers by an 18-5 margin ... Nash has recorded just two goals in 23 postseason appearances for the Blue Jackets and Rangers ... The last 17 teams to score first in a Game 7 have won that game to advance.