PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The horn sounded and Henrik Lundqvist lifted his arms in a mixture of joy and exhaustion.
Hey, nobody said carrying a team back from the brink was going to be easy, even for the goaltender his New York Ranger teammates call “King.”
Determined at the start and dominant at the finish, Lundqvist lifted the resilient Rangers past the rudderless Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday night to cap a furious rally from a 3-1 series deficit.
“When you face a challenge like that it’s about how you answer and we just did it the right way,” Lundqvist said. “We came together as a group and played a really smart game.”
Helps when the best player on the ice happens to be in your net.
Lundqvist stopped 35 shots to win his NHL record fifth straight Game 7 as the Rangers advanced to face either Montreal or Boston in the conference finals. That series is tied 3-3, with the Bruins hosting Game 7 on Wednesday night.
Whoever survives will face a team whose confidence is soaring. The Rangers have been playing hockey for 88 years. The franchise had never come back after losing three of the first four games until now.
“We were talking about we were going to need to give ourselves some chances in these games,” New York defenceman Ryan McDonagh said. “We weren’t even close after Game 1. I think everyone took a long hard look at ourselves that if we dug deep, something could be done here.”
Could it ever.
Brian Boyle and Brad Richards scored for New York, who never trailed over the final three games thanks in part to Lundqvist stopping 102 of the final 105 shots the suddenly ineffective Penguins sent his way.
Not that Pittsburgh didn’t try. The Penguins spent most of the third period in New York’s end. During one furious sequence Lundqvist made a handful of saves in a span of seconds—including one with his paddle laying helplessly on the ice underneath him—to preserve a one-goal lead.
“They took their game to another level in the third period and our goaltender took his game to another level,” New York coach Alain Vigneault said. “He was able to stop a barrage of opportunities and he was the difference in tonight’s game.”
Jussi Jokinen scored his team-high seventh goal of the post-season for the Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury made 18 saves for the Penguins, who were outscored 10-3 over the final three games.
The Penguins fell to 2-7 all time at home in Game 7s, including three such losses in the past four seasons.
This one might have been the most painful for the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and coach Dan Bylsma that seemed pointed toward a dynasty after winning the 2009 Stanley Cup.
Crosby, who led the league in scoring and is an MVP finalist, managed just one goal in 13 playoffs games.
Just as importantly, five springs have now come and gone without Pittsburgh getting a Cup to bookend the one they hoisted in Detroit and changes could be on the way. The Penguins are just 4-5 in playoff series over the past five seasons, with each loss coming to lower-seeded teams.
While Bylsma declined to take the wide-angle view, his captain understood the dressing room could have a very different look next fall.
“I think there’s always questions,” Crosby said. “When expectations are high and you don’t win that’s normal. I’m sure there will be a lot of questions.”
There are none at the moment for the Rangers, who seem to thrive when their season boils down to three periods of hockey.
Faced with their fifth Game 7 in the past three years, they did what they always do and took control early.
Boyle’s second goal of the playoffs 5:25 into the game quieted a raucous crowd. When Jokinen tied it 4:15 into the second period, the Rangers responded less than 4 minutes later on a power play goal by Richards.
Lundqvist did the rest, though he admits he hardly did it alone. Something changed in the New York dressing room after veteran forward Martin St. Louis lost his mother suddenly to a heart attack following Game 4.
St. Louis raced home to Montreal to be with his family only to return for Game 5. New York responded with a 5-1 win that signalled a sea change in the series.
The Rangers controlled Game 6—with St. Louis scoring the first goal on Mother’s Day—and Game 7 was more of the same.
“I think after Game 4 we felt pretty bad about where we were in the series,” St. Louis said. “I think every one of us wanted so many plays back and the passing of my mom put everything in perspective. I think we really rallied from that situation and I couldn’t be more proud.”
NOTES: Pittsburgh’s power play, which tied with Washington for tops in the league in the regular season, finished the series 1 for 20. … The Rangers are 8-1 in their past eight Game 7s. … Richards remained unbeaten (7-0) in Game 7s in his career.