With all apologies to Brad Richards and the rest of the team, when the New York Rangers needed Henrik Lundqvist to be the best player on the ice he was in Game 7. As a result the Rangers return to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1997 with yet another Battle of the Hudson looming against the New Jersey Devils.

There will be time enough to dissect the Rangers-Devils series. For now the focus is on The King.

“We had chances, but their goalie played outstanding tonight and he made some unbelievable saves tonight,” Hamrlik admitted to Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times. “That was the big difference in the game.”

While Braden Holtby, who did not play second fiddle to anyone in this series, made more saves, it was Lundqvist who, as he has done far too many times in his seven year career, had to bail out his teammates.

“The weakest part of our game was that five or six minute stretch where Hank made a couple of great saves and gave us an opportunity to stay in it,” Coach John Tortorella said after the game.

While Lundqvist was at his Vezina and Hart trophies best, the Rangers Game 7 win was a total team effort as the Blueshirts played with a controlled urgency, passion and desperation that was missing in Game 6.

They also learned the lesson and necessity of playing to win, as opposed to playing not to lose. Rather than sit back and hunker down into a defensive shell, the Rangers continued to push forward – a fact not lost on their coach.

“I thought that was the most aggressive we’ve been in the third period in quite a while,” Tortorella said. “I thought we took time and space away.”

Game 7 was a mirror of Game 6 with one minor exception; it was the Rangers who jumped out to the early lead with Brad Richards scoring just 92 seconds into the game. It was a lead the Rangers would not relinquish as the team that scored the first goal won every game in the series.

“They got a lead in the beginning and then they just controlled the game,” Nicklas Backstrom said to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post. “We were trying to score and we had a lot of possession, especially in the second period, but we couldn’t get any real opportunities.”

Despite the lead, you knew the Washington Capitals were not going go gently into that good night. They eventually recovered and responded with a stretch of play in the second period when it seemed like the Rangers were shorthanded given the Capitals’ surges.

“They were coming hard” Lundqvist said to Tarik el-Bashir of the Washington Post. “We talked about it going into this game, that there will be moments when we have success and we need to capitalize when we have that stretch. The same with them; they are going to have minutes where they are just going to come hard and we need to make sure we don’t get hurt.”

As they have so often during the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rangers weathered their opponents’ offensive storm. However, unlike most of their games, the Rangers would eventually break through and extend their lead to two goals when Michael Del Zotto ripped a shot past Holtby.

“[Del Zotto] has been probably our most consistent [defenseman] throughout the playoffs as far as joining the rush. He’s gone through quite a process in the last year,” Tortorella. However, the coach did throw a zinger Del Zotto’s way when he joked how the blueliner has had problems getting his shots on goal.

Needless to say, the Rangers were not going to deny their fans a chance to sweat out the closing minutes as Hamrlik’s screened shot found its way past Lundqvist with 9:17 left in the third period.

“They are going to have minutes where they are just going to come hard and we need to make sure we don’t get hurt,” Lundqvist said to Whyno. “For me, there, I just try to stay focused and I know we are going to take it over sooner or later.”

With Ruslan Fedotenko in the penalty box for a delay of game penalty, Brian Boyle’s shorthanded goal extended the Rangers lead back to two goals. Well, Boyle’s shorthanded goal SHOULD have extended the lead back to two goals, but referee Dan O’Rourke inexplicably whistled the play dead.

You have to wonder if Brendan Shanahan has one of those Buffalo Wild Wing buzzers in his office, or does he just telepathically “speak” to the referees?

The Rangers ended up playing the perfect Game 7 home game. Tortorella used the last line change to control the matchups and the players executed a smart game play of limiting Alexander Ovechkin’ space. The big guy shook loose for just two shots as the Capitals Big Four was limited to zero points and nine shots – including a spectacular save Lundqvist made on Alexander Semin about five minutes into the second period.

Barry Melrose of the NHL Network, and not a big fan of the Rangers, was effusive in his praise of the Rangers following Game 7 – despite picking Washington win.

“I thought the Rangers dominated. I thought the score flattered Washington. The Rangers won every battle – they looked like they wanted to win more,” Melrose said following the game.

On a couple of occasions, Dan Daly of the Washington Times has written that the Capitals were just 7.6 seconds away from winning the series. The problem with that belief is that you are assuming that a Capitals win in Game 5 would have led to the same outcome in Game 6 – and that is something you just can’t do.

The roles heading into Game 6 would have been reversed and we have no idea how the Rangers would have played in a “must-win” Game 6 or how the Capitals would have played with the pressure of trying to close out the series at home.

As a Rangers fan, I have played the “What if” game many times in my head and all that does is lead to even more frustration at what might have been.

While everyone is looking forward to another edition of the Battle of the Hudson, Coach Tortorella is not going to be dragged into the eventual tabloid battle that is forthcoming.

“You guys can make your stories about the Devils and Rangers, and I know you’re going to do it for the next couple of weeks,” Tortorella roared. “Don’t include mw in it. We are going to worry about the New York Rangers.”

While he did he offer that preemptive strike at the media circus that is to come, Tortorella did let his guard down to offer some insight into the continuing transformation his team is undergoing during the regular season and the playoffs.

“You learn about a lot of the players [in the playoffs]. To me, we are still in the middle of the process of the New York Rangers trying to become one of the elite teams,” Tortorella explained.

“This is a tremendous experience for us, to be able to play two game sevens in the first two rounds. For a young group of guys, it’s a tremendous experience. This is where your legacy is made.”

For the Rangers and their fans, the hope is that legacy has two more (successful) playoff rounds to go.

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