NEW YORK, N.Y. - Crunch the numbers, ride the waves of momentum, and then try to guess if the Washington Capitals or New York Rangers will survive another Game 7 and move on to the Eastern Conference finals.
Hockey analysts will make very compelling arguments—and leave anyone who is listening believing that both teams can't lose the win-or-go-home matchup on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
Ah yes, Madison Square Garden, the famed arena in which the host Rangers are 4-0 in Game 7s. It is also the place where the Rangers pulled out a Game 5 win in this series by scoring a power-play goal with 7.6 seconds left in regulation, and then another less than 2 minutes into overtime, turning what appeared to be a sure loss into one of the most electrifying victories in club history.
You know, the tide-turning win that the Capitals would never be able to bounce back from—even though they were heading home for Game 6. It didn't quite work out that way, and now it's the Rangers who will fight to make sure there is no carry-over in the other direction for Game 7.
"We can't let it," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "We have to put this one behind us. We have to go in Saturday ready to play."
Whoever prevails will face the well-rested New Jersey Devils with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line. The Rangers, eliminated from the playoffs by Washington in two of the previous three seasons, haven't been to the conference finals since 1997. That was three years after they won the Cup for the first time in 54 years.
The Capitals have never won it all. They were swept in 1998 by Detroit in their only appearance in the Cup finals and have been to the conference finals twice.
"It takes a lot of character to bounce back all the time," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "You're going to have your ups and downs, especially in the playoffs. We have a lot of character in that room."
Alex Ovechkin has been a symbol of that. He has dealt with limited ice time in the playoffs, but hasn't sulked. He had no shots in Game 5, and it appeared that perhaps he had been neutralized by New York.
Not so fast.
"Ovi has been good," Hunter said. "You see him blocking shots. He's dedicated to winning like the rest of he guys are. And doing the little things. It takes little things to win. Everybody is looking at the big, big, big picture. It's the little things on the ice that end up winning."
Ever the prime-time player, Ovechkin quickly showed he can deliver the big things, too.
Just 1:28 into the Capitals' last stand at home Wednesday night, Ovechkin zipped a shot over goalie Henrik Lundqvist's suddenly susceptible glove to give Washington a power-play goal and a lead it would never give up in a 2-1 win that saved the season at least for two more days.
"One team has pushed, and the other team has pushed back," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said Thursday, when both teams stayed off the ice. "The efforts have been a response to the previous game. But we're faced with the same situation we were (Wednesday) night, so we need to be equally desperate."
The Rangers are the top-seeded team in the East, and because of that they have earned the right to host Game 7 just as they did in the first round against the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators. Sure it's advantage, but nothing is guaranteed.
"It's going to be exciting," Lundqvist said. "We have to get together here and just play our absolute best hockey of the year."
Just ask the former defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins about knocking out Washington.
They came home in the first round for Game 7 of the first round against the No. 7 Capitals. Then they were left wondering what happened when Joel Ward scored in overtime to knock them out way earlier than they ever imagined.
So, the Rangers have good home memories of a Game 7. The Capitals carry confidence that they can win the ultimate game on the road.
Something's gotta give.
"Home-ice advantage really helps when it's that Game 7," Callahan said. "We have to go in there, be ready to go, feed off the crowd and get a win."
Two-goal leads have been few and far between, and New York's 3-1 win in the series opener has been the only game in the series decided by more than one goal. No team has won two straight in the series, so put that check mark in the Rangers' favour heading into Saturday.
Washington is quite used to playing tight games.
Every game in the Capitals' first-round win over Boston was also decided by one goal—including four in overtime that were split evenly. Two of the Rangers' three wins in this series came in extra time, starting with the triple-overtime road victory in Game 3 and followed by the Game 5 thriller at the Garden.
"It is a few days off. We can carry as much momentum as we can into the next game," Capitals defenceman John Carlson said Thursday. "Our goal was do-or-die, win Game 6—the same goal as for Game 7."
Freelance writer Benjamin Standig in Arlington, Va., contributed to this story.