The New York Rangers are likely more relieved than ecstatic now that they have outlasted the pesky Ottawa Senators.
It wasn't easy, and after a home loss in Game 5, it almost wasn't likely. But the Eastern Conference's top-seeded team gutted out a big road win and then made it count Thursday night when the Rangers held off the Senators 2-1 in Game 7 to advance to the second round.
"You don't want to relax too much" said forward Derek Stepan, who had three points in the Rangers' Game 6 win and then helped set up the opening goal in the clincher. "We have a big round ahead of us and we have to make sure we stay focused and keep that emotion high."
Defencemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi scored 4:18 apart in the second period, Henrik Lundqvist made 26 saves and the Rangers eliminated the eighth-seeded Senators — completing a rally from a 3-2 hole after losing Game 5.
"We were talking about it in Ottawa that if we could bring it back here, the fans would be behind us," Girardi said. "The way we play all year got us ready for games like this. We came with a great effort [in Ottawa] and another one tonight."
Staal broke the scoreless deadlock, and Girardi gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead with his first career NHL playoff goal. Lundqvist allowed Daniel Alfredsson's power-play goal in the second but stood tall the rest of the way to send the Rangers into a second-round matchup with the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals.
The Rangers hadn't hosted a Game 7 since their Stanley Cup victory over Vancouver in 1994, but they stayed perfect at home in deciding games — winning their fourth. New York is 4-5 overall in Game 7, and the Senators dropped to 0-5.
"We knew they were going to come out strong," said Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who made 27 saves. "I just wanted to make sure that I gave my team an opportunity to win the hockey game — make the next save for the guys
"They had their fans. They had lots of energy."
Lundqvist withstood tons of pressure from the Senators, who spent most of the closing five minutes in the Rangers' end. The win wasn't secure until Sergei Gonchar tripped Carl Hagelin as he skated toward the empty net with 36.2 seconds remaining.
New York rallied from a 3-2 series deficit for just the second time, building off the momentum of its 3-2 victory in Ottawa on Monday night.
"It was a hard series against a very good team," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I thought both teams went toe to toe in all areas of the game. Sometimes the first round is the hardest round. That's all this is, one round.
"We found a way. We were fortunate. I'm very happy with the group, and they should be real proud of themselves — for about an hour."
Just like in Game 6, when the Rangers scored three goals in the second period, New York used the middle frame to take over. While waiting for their big guns — Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards — to spark the offence, a pair of defencemen stepped up to get the Rangers going.
HNIC comment of the night
Messier's moving about as fast in that press box as he did while playing for Vancouver.
— Malahat Joe
"It was big for our team," Girardi said. "We were able to take care of our end first, but if we get goals it's nice, as well."
Rookie Chris Kreider, whose first NHL goal was the winner Monday, forced a turnover and got the puck into the Ottawa end. Ryan Callahan nudged it ahead to Stepan, who sent a pass from the right circle to the left circle to Staal for his first goal of the series 4:46 into the second.
Staal, limited to 46 regular-season games because of the lingering effects of a concussion sustained last season, thrust his hands up in delight when his shot beat Anderson. Staal had only two goals in the regular season.
"I feel pretty good," Staal said. "The last few weeks of the season and into the playoffs I feel my confidence is back and I feel a lot better on the ice."
It didn't take all that long for Madison Square Garden to erupt in cheers again for another blue-liner.
Rangers forward Brandon Prust had the puck knocked off his stick, but teammate Brandon Dubinsky was there to get it and smack it into the slot to Girardi, who wound up for a hard slap shot just a few feet from the crease and slammed it past Anderson at 9:04.
Like Staal, Girardi isn't known for great offensive prowess. He had five goals while playing in all 82 regular-season games, but had scored only once in the previous 44 — including the first six of this series.
Just when the nervous towel-waving fans began to relax and feel confident that the Rangers would survive and move on to the second round, Alfredsson gave the Senators a big boost and brought back the tension.
Ottawa went on its second power play when Michael Del Zotto was called for cross-checking nemesis Chris Neil in front of the net. Alfredsson, who missed three games in the series after an elbow from Hagelin in Game 2 gave him a concussion, made New York pay.
Alfredsson took a pass above the left circle from Chris Phillips and one-timed a shot past Lundqvist with 8:26 left in the second to bring the Senators back within a goal.
Now the question remains if the 39-year-old Senators captain will retire after 16 NHL seasons — all with Ottawa.
"I'll take some time and see how I feel physically and mentally after time off, but this year has been unbelievable," said Alfredsson, who struggled this season with concussions. "I had a lot of fun, and it's been a great group of guys to be a part of. They've kept me upbeat and happy when I'm a grumpy old man at times."
The Rangers didn't get their first power play of the night until Filip Kuba went off for interference with 1:24 left in the second, but New York did little with the advantage that carried over into the third. The Rangers' second power play at 3:51 of the third was even worse, and nearly costly, when Milan Michalek had a chance right in front of Lundqvist after a turnover.
Ottawa kept lots of pressure in the Rangers' end throughout the scoreless first period. The Senators had the lone power play, and moved the puck all around the New York zone, but Lundqvist stayed square to every drive that came his way. He took one deflected puck in the middle of his Statue Of Liberty mask.
The biggest hit of the opening frame was a cruncher from Girardi, who levelled fellow defenceman Erik Karlsson with a big open-ice check in the Rangers' zone.
Neil heard plenty of derisive chants, boos, and other things during various shifts. He has drawn the ire of the Rangers and their fans for his hit on Brian Boyle that gave the New York centre a concussion and sidelined him for the final two games of the series.
After taking a hit from Del Zotto in Game 6, Neil issued a threat toward Del Zotto that he would catch the young Rangers defenceman with his head down at some point.