Of all the momentum swings in the tightly contested Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Rangers and Washington Capitals, Michael Del Zotto was smack in the middle of the ones in Saturday night's dramatic Game 7 at the Garden, a 2-1 win that sent the Rangers into the conference finals against the Devils.
After assisting on Brad Richards' goal just 1:32 into the game, and with the Rangers clinging to that 1-0 lead in the third period, the third-year defenseman joined a rush, grabbed Marian Gaborik's shot that bounced off a defenseman and fired the puck past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby's stick side at 10:05, giving the Rangers a rare two-goal advantage.
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But the Capitals stayed alive, striking only 38 seconds later with Del Zotto on the ice. Roman Hamrlik's high shot sailed over a screened Henrik Lundqvist's right shoulder, and the boisterous Madison Square Garden crowd was silenced.
"It was unbelievable at the time, as far as getting an insurance goal," Del Zotto said in a happy and relieved locker room after the Rangers held on to advance to the conference finals for the first time in 15 years. "Then they score next shift. It was a tough turnaround there. I came in here and I didn't know how to feel."
After a few minutes, Del Zotto, who led the team with eight hits, could relax and soak in the ousting of the Capitals, who had eliminated the Rangers in two of the previous three years.
"We've done it all year," he said. "Every time we had a tough loss, we'd come back. It shows tenacity and character, and we're proud of ourselves right now."
The team that scored first wound up winning each game in the series. Richards, with his sixth goal of the playoffs and fourth against the Capitals, one-timed a low 30-foot shot past a screened Holtby, off a backhand pass from behind the net by Carl Hagelin.
"His legs were going tonight," Richards said of Hagelin. "He laid one right on the tee for me . . . It gets the nerves out. You don't exhale, but you got the crowd into it, they're not waiting for something to happen. Then you can play."
Richards, who missed the playoffs in the previous three seasons with the Dallas Stars after winning the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 under John Tortorella, has made a career of producing when it counts: He has eight goals and seven assists in 12 elimination games.
In the second period, Lundqvist (22 saves) flashed his Vezina Trophy finalist form, battling fiercely to preserve the 1-0 lead during a 1:50 stretch of intense pressure in which the Capitals controlled the puck in the Rangers' zone, shooting, recovering pucks and passing back to the points to set up. He stopped shots by Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble (with a pad save on a rebound at the left post) and Troy Brouwer before Artem Anisimov dived to poke the puck across the blue line.
Rangers forwards used their speed to swarm and break up passes and prevent odd-man rushes. Alex Ovechkin, who scored three goals in the previous five games, had only two shots as the Rangers closed in on him.
"We talked about how we needed to be aggressive with this team, had to play in their face," Del Zotto said. "Any time you give them space, they're going to make plays."
The top-seeded Rangers are 5-0 in Game 7s at home. Before facing the sixth-seeded Devils in the conference finals and the seventh-seeded Capitals in the semifinals, they beat eighth-seeded Ottawa in Game 7 at the Garden in the quarterfinals.
The contest ended a dramatic, hard-fought series that included an epic Game 3 that Gaborik won in the third overtime and an incredible comeback in Game 5. With the Rangers trailing 2-1, Richards scored with 7.6 seconds left and Marc Staal's slap shot zipped past Holtby at 1:35 of overtime.
The Rangers played their 11th one-goal game in 14 postseason contests in Game 7 (the other three were decided by two goals). The final six games of this series were decided by one goal. Neither team scored more than three goals in any game.
"This is what we signed up for," the Rangers' Brian Boyle said. "I don't think being ready [Monday ] is going to be a problem. We keep at it, keep going."