Substitute Rangers for “genius” and you have the reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning will be facing off against the Blueshirts at The Garden on Saturday afternoon in the Eastern Conference Final.
Tampa Bay’s impressive sextet struck down the Montreal Canadiens to reach this moment, but now the Lightning could very well be bolted down by the bombastic Blueshirts in the week ahead.
For the second straight year, Alain Vigneault’s victors arrested the hockey world’s attention by emerging from a three-games-to-one deficit to triumph in seven. No other club can make that statement.
New York’s heart-throbbing 2-1 overtime triumph at The Garden on Wednesday night came on the strength of Derek Stepan’s goal at 11:24 of the first sudden-death period. If anything, it underlined one point: never count out the Rangers.
“We really believe in each other,” said Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. “We believe in the structure. We’ve proven over the course of the year that we can compete with anyone. You can’t count this group out.”
Conquering the Washington Capitals was no small feat considering that Braden Holtby played the series of his lifetime and the D.C. Dandies had a nail in the Rangers’ coffin — but neglected the hammer. They led 1-0 on Alex Ovechkin’s first-period bullet, but struck out on all three power plays.
Credit goes to the Blueshirts’ penalty-killing led by Dominic Moore, a ferret on the spoor of a loose puck.
“A characteristic of this group,” Moore explained, “is that when we have to play our best, we do. We were able to do it in Game 7 and now we have to re-focus on the Lightning.”
Hailing their conquering heroes, the Garden Faithful awesomely watched a see-saw battle between two evenly matched clubs. The Rangers’ bounce-back power-play goal arrived at 6:22 of the middle frame. The Seventh Avenue Skaters relied on Henrik Lundqvist’s goaltending and a solid defense cemented by Marc Staal after that.
“We know how we have to play and that’s what we did here,” added Staal.
Disregarding Ovechkin and his alleged promise of a Washington victory, the Rangers won because they excelled in every single meaningful department; especially the final face-off deep in the Caps’ zone.
“[The winning goal] came as a result of our icing the puck,” lamented Washington coach Barry Trotz, “and they finished it off on Stepan’s shot.”
Stepan won the face-off back to Keith Yandle who skimmed the rubber to Dan Girardi at the point. The defenseman’s shot was booted out by goalie Holtby. Stepan grabbed the rebound, out waited the netminder and flipped the biscuit into the basket.
“It was a tough one to swallow,” said Holtby. “We played really well and I’m proud of everyone in this room. We had opportunities to close. It was a great series that easily could have gone our way, but did not.”
The marathon could have been settled either way in overtime. Washington dominated much of the play, but the combination of Lundqvist’s air-tight goaltending and McDonagh’s indefatigable defense proved the difference.
“We didn’t break,” the Rangers’ captain asserted. “This group found a way and it’s a great feeling to come through.”
As impressive as coach Jon Cooper’s Lightning had been in disposing of the Habs, there’s no reason for anything but optimism in the New York camp when the Conference Finals begins.
If there are any questions they revolve around the future return of Mats Zuccarello and the condition of defenseman Dan Boyle, energetically flattened by Brooks Orpik in the third period.
No matter; the Blueshirts have proven that they can thrive without Zucky and that their defensive depth, featuring Matt Hunwick, is more than able to withstand Boyle’s absence.
Tampa Bay will arrive for the Saturday afternoon game at The Garden with headlining sharpshooter Steve Stamkos and ex-Rangers Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan, who is currently recovering from an appendectomy.
“It’s been a while since we played the Lightning,” said Vigneault. “We’ll get going on them later.”
As for Ovechkin, he was naturally distraught but allowed that his club played as well as it could.
“What more is there to say,” the Caps’ captain concluded. “We did our best.”
It’s just that the Rangers were one better!