Before the Eastern Conference quarterfinals series between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, nearly every prognosticator on the internet predicted a Rangers victory. Despite Ottawa’s 3-1 regular season mark over the Rangers, it was still a 1 vs. 8 matchup and the smart money was on the Blueshirts. And they got the job done, since they aren’t the Vancouver Canucks.
But the path taken to this seven game series win, that culminated in Thursday night’s insanely intense 2-1 Rangers victory, was an unlikely one as the Rangers were pushed to the edge by a scrappy, fast, and occasionally dirty Ottawa team.
This series had everything. There was the predictable – Henrik Lundqvist willing the Rangers to victory in Games 3 and 7, outstanding defensive efforts from Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, cheap play from Chris Neil – and there was the unpredictable, such as the unexpected brilliance of Senators’ goalie Craig Anderson, only one point from Norris Trophy nominee Erik Karlsson, and a still-ongoing prolonged goal drought from Marian Gaborik.
And then there were the strange moments. Such as Carl Hagelin receiving a suspension longer than those issued (or not issued) to James Neal, Chris Neil and Matt Carkner combined, that kicking of the puck/full-on assault on Lundqvist goal that was allowed to stand at the end of Game 6, and the Rangers also managing to go 145 minutes and 27 seconds without a goal at one point. Against Craig Anderson.
But most of all, this series was about endurance, grit and all of those cliched words that you’ve grown so tired of hearing. It was about the Rangers’ excellent penalty kill holding down a lethal Ottawa power play unit. It was about the Rangers’ defense, and Lundqvist, standing up to shut down the Senators’ top weapons.
For instance, Jason Spezza scored three goals, but one was an empty netter and the other was the controversial goal at the end of Game 6 that could have easily been waved off. Milan Michalek, scorer of 35 regular season goals, notched only one in the series, and Karlsson, who notched 78 points during the regular season, ended up with fewer points than less-gifted offensive players such as Filip Kuba and Zenon Konopka.
And it was also about oft-unheralded players stepping up at the most important time. With players like Gaborik, Brad Richards and Derek Stepan struggling to get it going earlier in the series, the Rangers got goals from Brian Boyle (whose impressive series was unfortunately short-lived due to the concussion sustained in Game 5), Anton Stralman and then the first NHL goal from Chris Kreider, the rookie pushed into service to make his NHL debut due to the Hagelin suspension in Game 3. By Game 7, Kreider looked less out of place than many of the more seasoned veterans playing in the exact same game.
But the thing that made this such a unique, unusual series was the amount of stress and intensity developed from simply watching the games.
This did not feel like a first round series.
When the Rangers dispatched the Atlanta Thrashers in four in the 2007 quarterfinals, and then did the same to the Devils in five the following season, neither series was ever really in doubt. There were close games, but the Rangers took care of business before those series’ could ever get to the do-or-die stage.
That was not the case this time around. Between the seven hard-fought games, the first Game 7 at Madison Square Garden since June 14, 1994 and the fact that the Rangers were the top seed in the East for the first time since that same year, the series brought an extra sort of feeling unlike that of any other Rangers quarterfinals series in recent memory.
It was not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but the end result of the series reads “Rangers defeat Senators 4-3.” And that’s what counts.
Next comes a familiar foe in an unfamiliar role. The Washington Capitals, the very same ones who dispatched heavily-favored underdog Rangers teams in 2009 and last year, are here again but in the new role of underdog – a role that seemingly has so far suited them just fine.
Despite first-round wins over the Rangers, the Caps’ recent role of favorites has not served them well. In 2009, they were destroyed 6-2 on home ice by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins in Game 7 of the semi-finals, in 2010 they were upset in seven by the 8-seed Canadiens in the quarter-finals, and last year they were swept in the semis by Tampa Bay.
But this year, armed with a 7 seed, red-hot rookie goalie Braden Holtby, and a seven-game victory over the defending champion Bruins, the Capitals are relishing their role as the hunters rather than the hunted.
This time, it’s the Rangers in the same spot that the Caps were. Will the result be different? We’re about to find out.