GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Brad Richards is getting ready for the Rangers’ latest Game 7 the same way the star forward did years ago when he was a kid with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Well, almost the same.
“I’m probably a little more nervous the older I get because I was kind of young and stupid at that time,” the 32-year-old Richards said Friday. “It’s a fun day. You cherish the chances you get to be in them. You treat it like a great day in your life. You don’t get many chances to do something like that at Madison Square Garden; Game 7 on a Saturday night. Where else would you want to be?”
Hard to argue.
The Rangers are 4-3 at home in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Ottawa and Washington, but it was on the familiar Garden ice that New York knocked out the Senators in Game 7 to set up the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Capitals.
The Rangers know that a season in which they finished first in the East will have a hollow feeling if they don’t win Saturday and advance to face Atlantic Division-rival New Jersey in the conference finals.
“It’s one game now,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. “It doesn’t matter really what happened in the rest of the series and what happened last game. It comes down to one game that you have to win.
“There is no other group I would rather be doing this with.”
The Rangers outlasted Ottawa 2-1 in the deciding game late last month, and they say they’re approaching this one the same way, with perhaps a few wrinkles.
Rangers coach John Tortorella had players who had been in previous Game 7s talk to the club before the final game of the first round. While one game doesn’t make someone a grizzled veteran of the greatest pressure on the biggest stage, it does give players an idea of what to expect.
“I don’t think anybody has to speak (Saturday),” Tortorella said Friday after practice that followed a day off at the start of a two-day break following Washington’s Game 6 win. “I know Game 7 isn’t just a game, but we don’t change how we do things.
“As we’ve done before, we go about our business. It’s always good to have the experience of it. But every time we go into our building I think how we approach it is not going to be different. We are ready to play and all you have to be ready for in Game 7 is to be ready to play. Let’s not get convoluted here. We will be ready to play.”
It doesn’t get much closer than this.
Through six games, the seventh-seeded Capitals and the Rangers have alternated wins and losses, and have been tied or within one goal 90 per cent of the time. The club that has scored first has won every game, and since New York’s 3-1 victory in the opener, the next five games have been decided by one goal—including two that went to overtime.
“I would say it’s a different mindset,” Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom said of a road Game 7. “We don’t have the pressure on us. They’re the No. 1 seed and the favourite. We just have to throw everything we’ve got at them, and hopefully get the W.”
It is hardly a stretch to figure that the Caps and Rangers will stage another nail-biter—one that might need extra time that could rival New York’s triple-overtime win at Washington in Game 3.
The Rangers hold a 13-12 edge in goals, and both goalies are expected to be back on top of their games again. Henrik Lundqvist might have an advantage over Washington’s 22-year-old youngster Braden Holtby, whose fiancee gave birth to a boy on Thursday.
“It was planned to be the least amount of a distraction to the team as possible,” Holtby said. “It was a great day. Mom and baby are doing great, but now the focus is on hockey.”
The Capitals have been through this before, too, as they took out the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Game 7 in Boston in the first round.
“We know what we have to do,” Backstrom said. “If we can win in Boston, we can do it up at Madison (Square Garden), too. We’re looking forward to it.”
It isn’t known if the Capitals will have centre Jay Beagle back for Game 7. He sat out Game 6 because of an injury and was replaced by Jeff Halpern, who dressed for his first post-season game of this year. Beagle was considered day to day on Friday, and Washington coach Dale Hunter didn’t seem concerned by the prospect of sending Halpern onto the ice again.
“He felt good,” Hunter said of Halpern. “I thought he had good pop out there and played very well. Sitting for seven weeks, your timing could be off, but he did the job for us.”
Rangers rookie Chris Kreider has had his share of ups and downs since making his NHL debut right after helping Boston College win an NCAA championship. He has two goals—both game-winners—in his 11 games with New York and some mistakes that aren’t surprising for a rookie.
The 21-year-old Kreider skated on the second line Friday with Callahan and young centre Derek Stepan.
“It always takes a while, especially in his situation for him to understand how you play, how we play, especially the defensive part of it. We haven’t overloaded him with too much,” Tortorella said. “That’s going to be a process he has to go through next year, it doesn’t happen overnight. So we’ve given him the foundation of it but not overloaded him. We don’t want to turn him into a robot, we just want to let him play.”