For the second series in a row, the New York Rangers took their playoff series to the limit, and for the second series in a row, got past their opponent to move on. For the first time since 1997, they are in the Eastern Conference finals, battling against an old nemesis, the New Jersey Devils.
So much of this run has had fans looking at parallels to 1994. Of course this is 2012 and the teams are nothing alike – with this one focused on a young homegrown core instead of being a win-now, guns-for-hire group that stripped the franchise of so much of its up-and-coming talent to go for it – but it is hard not to. After all, they faced the Washington Capitals in the second round that year (defeating them in 5 games) and then faced the New Jersey Devils in that epic 7-game series that sent the Rangers to the finals. In an ironic twist of fate, should this year’s game 6 take place it will be on May 25th, the anniversary of the game Mark Messier “guaranteed” the Rangers would win (and they did, thanks in part to a hat trick from the captain). Game 7 would take place on May 27th, the same date as the double overtime “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!” game that ended that series.
The fans were certainly ready to go last night, getting the “Marrrrtyyyy” chants going even before the puck dropped. Once again, the FDNY Emerald Society drummed behind the penalty boxes to get the night started. For the first time all playoffs, the pregame videos were projected on the ice, rather than strictly on the scoreboard. Stephane Matteau was brought to encourage the 18,200 in attendance to put on the blue t-shirts that had been handed out as fans walked in. Once again, Ron Duguay made an appearance to try and get the crowd going.
There’s been talk heading into the series about how no team has gone on to win the Stanley Cup after going the 14-game distance in the first 2 rounds. There’s been talk about how the week of rest the Devils earned by dispatching the Philadelphia Flyers in 5 would benefit them, compared to the Rangers being less than 48 hours removed from eliminating the Washington Capitals in 7. With or without any encouragement, the Garden Faithful were certainly ready for this installment of “The Battle Of The Hudson.” But would the Rangers be? In the end, the answer was “yes,” as the Rangers shut out the Devils, 3-0 to take a 1-0 series lead.
Looking at the score alone is deceiving, as the game was far closer than one would think by looking at those numbers. Henrik Lundqvist made 21 saves, but made them count, especially in the second period when the Devils surged and had the better of the play. The Devils flashed the aggressive penalty kill they’ve become known for this season. But Lundqvist came up big, stoning Zach Parise on 3 consecutive tries while killing off an Andy Greene slashing penalty, to keep his team in the game.
“As a goalie you always have to step up when the team needs you not when you feel good and you have your moments,” the Vezina trophy candidate said after last night’s game. “A lot of times it’s when the team’s struggling you have to step up. And it’s fun, too, to be there and try to make the difference sometimes when the team is going through a tough stretch.”
His strong play set the stage for a third period in which the Rangers finally broke through against Martin Brodeur. As good as his defensive partner Ryan McDonagh was, notably using his speed to catch Parise on a breakaway and to neutralize Ilya Kovalchuk as he came in 1-on-1 on his goaltender in the first, Dan Girardi had a rare rough night defensively. Girardi had a ghastly turnover in front of the net that Lundqvist was able to stop and then also had to shake off the painful after effects of blocking a shot and a cut near his eye when he was boarded by Steve Bernier midway in the 3rd period. But this can be a game where a hero can become a goat in an instant and vice-versa. Girardi found redemption when he struck 53 seconds into the 3rd period off a pass from rookie Chris Kreider, a goal that Lundqvist would make stand up as the game winner. Kreider would add an insurance goal on the power play, snapping it past Brodeur off a pass from Artem Anisimov at the twelve minute mark. Anisimov would seal the deal with 1:27 left and Brodeur pulled for the extra skater. Mike Rupp took a roughing penalty with 38 seconds remaining to put the Devils up 2 men, but Lundqvist denied them to earn his second shutout of the postseason.
The Rangers now find themselves in familiar territory – up 1 game to 0 in the playoffs and will look to go up 2-0 in a series for the first time in the 2012 playoffs Wednesday night.
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About the Author: Likes: Hockey, the New York Rangers, King Henrik, singing the Rangers goal song, "The Save", the sound skates make against ice, heckling Marty Brodeur. Dislikes: 3-point games, front-office mismanagement, Denis Potvin, overpriced arena beer. Interested? Follow me on Twitter: @CC_927