Big plays win big games.
For a team that had lost two-thirds of their faceoffs last night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, a faceoff win finally helped lift the Rangers past the Washington Capitals, 2-1, in overtime.
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Derek Stepan beat goaltender Braden Holtby with an open wrister from the lower left circle on a rebound at 11:24 of overtime, and the Rangers completed a comeback after trailing 3-1 in the series, and ousted the Capitals in an intense battle at Madison Square Garden.
"It's a 50-50 puck and Jesper [Fast] is able to get his stick on it and poke it back to Keith [Yandle]," said Stepan, "and from there we have a one-timer set up [with Dan Girardi].
"I got a good whack on it and honestly, I thought it was going in," said Girardi. "It went by everyone, someone came by, it hit their shin pad and kicked right to Step's stick. You knew it was going to end like that somehow, either way. It was going to be a shot on net, quick play, and I'm glad we are on the good end of that one."
The goal by Stepan, who has six points in his last eight games, ended the first overtime Game 7 for the Blueshirts since May 22, 1994, when Stephane Matteau beat the Devils in double-overtime, and opened the gates for the Final Four and a series against the Tampa Bay Lightning beginning Saturday, with some familiar faces on the other side: former Rangers Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle.
To be sure, the Rangers are becoming quite adept at close games. The 2-1 victory was their 14th consecutive one-goal game in the playoffs, dating to last year's Cup Final, extending their NHL record.
"It definitely helps that we've been part of so many things throughout the years and in this situation, we're confident in the group," said Henrik Lundqvist, who finished with 35 saves for his sixth consecutive Game 7 win. "In the end, it all comes down to just one play."
How confident were the Rangers? "Well, I thought we spotted them a game, Game 1," said Dom Moore, referring to the 2-1 loss on Joel Ward's goal with 1.3 seconds left. "If that goes to overtime, that was ours to win. That put us a bit behind the eight ball. Combine that with a team that played extremely well. You have to give full, full credit to them, their defensive posture, the way they blocked shots, the way their goaltender played, it put us to the brink. To meet that challenge is very gratifying."
In front of a roaring crowd, the Capitals came out with their best first period of the series. Alex Ovechkin set the tone with hits on Ryan McDonagh and Girardi early and Holtby (37 saves) stopped the first Rangers chance, a snap shot from Stepan at 2:58 and the visitors scored first.
Rick Nash's icing led to a faceoff in the circle to the right of Lundqvist, which the Rangers lost. Marcus Johansson slid the puck to Ovechkin, who skated into the slot with McDonagh pursuing and scored from 15 feet at 12:50 for the 1-0 lead.
The Blueshirts were 0-for-3 on the power play, but tied the score on their fourth chance. Mike Green drilled Girardi with a cross check from behind into the boards at 4:34 of the second period, and with time running out with the man-advantage Kevin Hayes darted to the right post and buried a nifty cross-ice pass from J.T. Miller at 6:22.
Hayes became the first Rangers rookie to score in a Game 7 since Muzz Patrick did it in 1939.
The Rangers played the second half of the third period with five defenseman after Brooks Orpik crushed Dan Boyle with a high hit and knocked him out of the game. Boyle appeared all right in the celebratory locker room, however.
"Game 7, you're going into overtime, you're down to 5 'D'," coach Alain Vigneault said. "You've got to find a way, and our guys found a way."
With one big play.