NEW YORK (AP) — Brad Richards and Michael Del Zotto scored, Henrik Lundqvist made 22 saves, and the New York Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with a 2-1 victory in Game 7 over the Washington Capitals on Saturday night.
Richards scored less than two minutes in, and Del Zotto doubled the lead in the third period to help the top-seeded Rangers improve to 5-0 in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden. That set up a matchup with the New Jersey Devils, the team the Rangers beat in the 1994 conference finals en route to their first Stanley Cup title in 54 years.
That series will open Monday in New York.
New York and Washington alternated wins and losses from Game 1 on, and this one didn’t come easy for the Rangers, who missed a chance to eliminate the Capitals in Game 6 on the road.
Just 38 seconds after Del Zotto made it 2-0 at 10:05 of the third, Roman Hamrlik sent a shot off of New York forward Derek Stepan that fluttered past Lundqvist for his only blemish of the night.
Braden Holtby played well in his second career Game 7, making 29 saves. It was yet another heartbreaker for the Capitals, who were looking to reach the conference finals for the third time. Six of Washington’s seven playoff losses were by one goal, and only one of its 14 games overall were decided by more than one.
Both the Rangers and the Capitals reached the second round of this year’s playoffs with Game 7 wins. New York knocked out Ottawa, and Washington eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
But history isn’t all on the Rangers’ side. Since playoff expansion, no club has played 14 games in the first two rounds and went on to capture the Cup. They did reverse a recent trend in which Washington eliminated them from the playoffs in two of the previous three years, including the Capitals’ comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round in 2009.
New York played a very disciplined game, taking only one penalty for delay of game against Ruslan Fedotenko in the third period. The Rangers’ power play did nothing on its two chances, but keeping Washington’s man-advantage unit off the ice helped secure this win.
The Capitals tried to pull Holtby for an extra skater with 1:22 left in the game, but he had to scramble back to cover the vacated net before he ever got to the bench.
He finally got off the ice, and the Capitals pressured in the Rangers’ end. The puck was stuck in the corner when the final seconds ran out, and Lundqvist thrust both arms in the air as streamers poured down from the ceiling.
The Capitals failed to muster much of an attack in the third period, and they were outshot 11-4 in the final frame.
Matching the Capitals’ quick start in Game 6, the Rangers jumped out quickly and took a 1-0 lead just 1:32 in when Richards scored on New York’s first shot.
Carl Hagelin used his speed to chase down a dump-in in the lower right corner of the Capitals’ zone and curled behind the net with the puck on his backhand. As he came out the other side, Hagelin feathered a pass up to Richards, who one-timed a shot that beat Holtby inside the right post while Marian Gaborik was in front of the net.
It was Richards’ team-leading fourth goal of the series and sixth of the playoffs.
Although Washington controlled the puck for large chunks of the game, the Capitals yet again couldn’t overcome the dreaded 1-0 deficit. The team that scored first won all seven games in the series. The numbers were even more stark for the Capitals, who went 0-6 in the playoffs after allowing the first goal and 7-1 when they grabbed the first lead.
Del Zotto started and finished the Rangers’ second scoring play. He leveled Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin in the New York and moved the puck up ice. He eventually took a pass from Gaborik and snapped a shot past Holtby.
However, before the cheers subsided, the Capitals got back within a goal on Hamrlik’s first of the playoffs.
This one was tight throughout.
Washington was outshot 12-11 in the second period, that featured a blank score sheet with no goals and no penalties. Midway through the frame, the Capitals kept the pressure on the Rangers with Ovechkin’s line on the ice and camped out in the New York end for about two minutes.
As the tired Rangers chased Washington all around their zone and unable to change any players, the Capitals moved the puck side to side and up and down, seemingly keeping Lundqvist on a swivel. Many of their shots were offline, but the Capitals produced several prime chances that Lundqvist turned away — each one drawing nervous, but appreciative cheers from the towel-waving crowd.
Mike Knuble had a good whack at the puck at the left post, but Lundqvist was there with his pad to keep it out.
Holtby, who became a father on Thursday, shook off Richards’ early strike and seemed to gain confidence as the game wore on and the pressure built at the other end of the ice.
Notes: Richards, who improved to 4-0 in Game 7s, has recorded a goal and three assists in those games. He has seven goals and eight assists in the last 11 games in which his team has faced elimination. ... Hagelin, who had two assists, had his first points in 10 games, dating to an assist in New York’s playoff opener against Ottawa. ... Injured Capitals forward Jay Beagle missed his second straight game, and Jeff Halpern took his place again. ... Fedotenko improved to 6-0 in Game 7. ... The Rangers and Devils have met in the postseason five times before. New York has won four of them.