Friday, April 27, 2012

Rangers Defeat Senators 2-1, Advance To Eastern Conference Semifinals

Photo Credit: NY Times

The Rangers are moving on. Backed by Henrik Lundqvist's 26 saves and goals by Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, the Rangers squeaked out a thrilling 2-1 win in Game 7 to eliminate the Ottawa Senators and move onto the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where they'll meet the Washington Capitals.

The third period was about as nerve-racking as you could possibly imagine. By the time it got to around the midway point it became clear that the Rangers were going to rely on shot blocking and Henrik Lundqvist to preserve their one-goal lead. I still think playing this way is extremely risky in the playoffs, especially when playing teams who have more offensive weapons than Ottawa, but this series has taught us that this is the way the Rangers are going to play every game from here on out. They got this far because of this system, and they're going to continue to ride it as far as it'll take them. That means we can expect to be in-store for a lot more games that cause our hearts to race, butterflies in our stomachs, and sweaty palms as we countdown every second on the clock as the Rangers try and hold onto a slim lead. Not exactly my idea of fun times, but it sure is a better alternative than the team being sent home for the summer.

Click below to read more on tonight's game.

Henrik Lundqvist was absolutely sensational in goal. You could see the combination of happiness and relief on his face when he was announced as the game's first star after the game. Everybody, of course, wanted to win this series, but it's hard to imagine anybody wanting this more than Lundqvist. After facing what I believed to be really unfair criticism about him being "unclutch" in the playoffs, he absolutely stole this series for the Rangers. Lundqvist finished with a 1.70 GAA and .945 SV% with one shutout in the series. If Hank wasn't at the top of his game in this series the Rangers almost definitely would've started their offseason already. Lundqvist made several huge saves in the third period, including a left pad save when he purposely directed the puck out of the Rangers' zone when the Senators had sustained offensive pressure and they badly needed a line change. Lundqvist did it all, and he'll have his work cut out for him yet again in the next round against the Capitals.

Dan Girardi, whose first career playoff goal wound up going down as the game-winner, was once again an anchor on defense, finishing the game with 25:49 of ice time. He was fantastic once again, and it was good to see him contribute offensively. For a guy that does so much and doesn't typically put up flashy offensive numbers, it was fitting that Girardi scored the game-winner to clinch the series for the Rangers. Girardi actually finished the series with one goal and three assists, which certainly isn't too shabby for a defenseman mainly known for his ability to block shots and shutdown opposing teams' top players.

Marc Staal led all Rangers with 26:44 TOI, which was a season-high for him. Staal has slowly but surely returned to form, and I don't think there's any doubt now that he's back to playing like the real Marc Staal we all remember from last year. The goal he scored came off of a beautiful feed from Derek Stepan that was a one-timer tap-in goal for Staal, but give him credit where it's due for putting the shot in the back of the net. Staal did a great job of reading the play and quickly joining the rush when Chris Kreider forced a turnover in the neutral zone and he wasted no time when he found the puck on his stick blade.

Chris Kreider was absolutely phenomenal, and I thought he was once again the Rangers' best forward on the ice. He was everywhere and making plays in all three zones. His forced turnover in the neutral zone led to the Rangers' first goal, and John Tortorella praised the way Kreider played after the game. He finished with a career-high 18:21 of ice time, including 1:13 on the power play, and for the second consecutive game Kreider was out there on the ice in the final seconds while the Rangers were trying to protect a one-goal lead. That shows you how much trust Torts has already has in the kid. Kreider also led the Rangers with four shots on goal and finished with a plus-1 rating. You can really see the kid's game grow the more he plays, and this is why the Rangers were willing to burn one year off of his Entry Level deal to get him in for the playoff stretch. There's no doubt Kreider and Carl Hagelin bring an element of speed to the Rangers that the team needs, as evidenced by the three games when Hagelin missed while serving his suspension. John Tortorella admitted that the Rangers still have things they'll need to work on with Kreider next season, but right now he's just sending him out there and letting him play. It's worked out great so far.

Give the Ottawa Senators credit - they played a hell of a series. Before this series started I thought the Rangers would win it in five games, but the Senators never backed down, and they gave the Rangers all they could handle. Craig Anderson was fantastic in net all series and was way, way better than I expected him to be. I'll also give Chris Neil some credit for having the class to go through the line and shake the hands of everybody on the Rangers after the series was over.

Some other notes from the game: The Rangers had 23 blocks in the game, while the Senators had 8...Brandon Dubinsky recorded an assist on Dan Girardi's goal for his first point in the playoffs this year. He also left the game late in the third after he seemed to injure his left knee, but there was no update given on him after the game, so I assume he's fine...Stu Bickel finished with a game-low 3:46 TOI, but nearly scored a goal in the first period in his limited ice time...with an assist tonight, Derek Stepan finished the first round with 1 G, 3 A after being held pointless in five playoff games last year...Ryan Callahan led all Rangers forwards with 24:25 TOI...this was John Tortorella's first playoff series win as head coach of the Rangers.

The NHL hasn't announced the schedule for the Semifinals yet, but the Rangers know for sure that they'll be off tomorrow. In fact, John Tortorella joked in his press conference that the Rangers could enjoy this win for an hour before moving on - or, at least the press seemed to think it was a joke. Their series with Washington seems likely to open at the Garden on Saturday afternoon, but the full schedule will be announced tomorrow.

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