The New York Rangers, roared on by a boisterous Madison Square Garden crowd starved of success, beat the Washington Capitals 2-1 on Saturday to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, the penultimate stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
New York is still in a frenzy of sporting excitement after the Giants won the Super Bowl in February and now the Rangers have given their long suffering fans real hope they can bring the NHL title to the Big Apple.
The Rangers caught the visitors napping when center Brad Richards scored after just 92 seconds, but they then had to survive a relentless fightback from the Capitals in the seventh and deciding game of their semi-final.
“The first goal was big for our team, in this game on home ice,” Richards said. “It got the nerves out. You don’t exhale, but you have a 1-0 lead and you get the crowd into it, they’re not waiting for something to happen.”
Led by their Russian captain Alexander Ovechkin, Washington launched a ferocious wave of attacks on New York’s defense, but the Rangers’ Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist stood firm, saving 22 shots.
The Rangers extended their lead to 2-0 midway through the third and final period when defenseman Michael Del Zotto scored, beating Caps netminder Braden Holby, who made 29 saves, two days after becoming a father.
However, the Capitals, who won a seven-game thriller over last season’s Stanley Cup champions the Boston Bruins just to reach the second round, pulled one back 38 seconds later to set up a nail-biting final 10 minutes.
Czech defensemen Ramon Hamrlik buried the puck into the Rangers net after Lundqvist’s view was screened, but the Caps were unable to score again, losing the series 4-3.
“We had our chances, they had their chances,” Washington head coach Dale Hunter said. “Both teams battled tooth and nail, but we just came up a goal short.”
The Rangers, who were also pushed to seven games by the Ottawa Senators in the opening round, reached the Conference final for the first time since 1997. They last won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
Their next opponents are their cross-river neighbors, the New Jersey Devils, who wrapped up their series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, giving them an extra four days rest.
The teams are scheduled to meet in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden today, with the eventual winners to play either the Los Angeles Kings or the Phoenix Coyotes for the Stanley Cup.
The odds are seemingly stacked against the Rangers, who have struggled in the playoffs after they finished the regular season as the No. 1 team in the conference, as no team has won the Stanley Cup after being pushed to seven games in the first two rounds of the post-season.
“We’re getting closer, but there’s still a lot of work ahead of us,” Lundqvist said. “It’s a great feeling to see that we stay focused whatever happens. We’ve been in this situation so many times this year, and I think it helped us a lot today and moving forward.”