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The New York Rangers are going to the Eastern Conference final, a feat they managed while making franchise history.
Never had the Rangers come back from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series to win and advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that changed on Tuesday at the Consol Energy Center.
Backed by the two players who have defined success in Game 7 in recent years, the Rangers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 and will meet the winner of the conference semifinal between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.
Henrik Lundqvist became the first NHL goalie to win five consecutive Game 7s, and Brad Richards increased his personal record in a seventh and deciding game to 7-0 in style, scoring the series-winning goal in the second period.
“What a feeling,” Lundqvist said. “We battled so hard as a team the last three games. We had such a good start in the series and then had a big letdown.
“When you face a challenge like that, it’s how you answer it. We did it the right way. We came together as a group.”
Years from now, you can bet the Rangers will be telling their grandchildren about the trials the team endured in a one-week stretch and how the experience strengthened their resolve.
Fresh off a loss in Game 4 on home ice — one that threw some self-doubt around the New York dressing room — the Rangers arrived in Pittsburgh last Thursday and learned that Martin St. Louis’ mother had died. St. Louis made the decision to play in Game 5, a show of perseverance that the club used as a rallying point.
They needed another terrific game from Lundqvist, who made 35 saves on Tuesday, to win the series, marking the first time in five playoff meetings the Rangers have eliminated the Penguins.
When Richards scored on a power play to restore a one-goal Rangers lead, there was a feeling the Rangers would not require another goal.
“I don’t know if I have been with a group of guys who went through what we did the last seven days,” Richards said. “Nobody gave us a chance. Marty’s situation falls upon us. It was not a good day after losing Game 4. To have this feeling after all that, it’s unbelievable.”
Naturally, it played out that 10 years after they won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, St. Louis set up Richards for the winner.
“I know she was with me the whole way,” St. Louis said of his mother, France. “The passing of my mom puts everything in perspective.
“The boys have really embraced my situation and supported me. We came back three games, one at a time. Hank is a our backbone and he has played like that nickname he carries, the King.”
As much as there was relief in the Rangers’ room, there was more crushing emptiness for the Penguins, who won’t forget they had the Rangers on the ropes and were coming home with a 3-1 series lead.
The Penguins needed Sidney Crosby to be at his best and follow his lead, but the team’s captain had a miserable series, producing just one goal and two assists, with no points in the final three games.
“I would have liked to have scored more and contribute more, it was not a lack of effort,” Crosby said. “I would love to tear it up every series, but that is not always the case. It’s tough losing as it is, but when you are not able to contribute as much as you would like, it is even tougher. It’s disappointing.”
Brian Boyle scored in the first period for the Rangers, beating Marc-Andre Fleury, who couldn’t match Lundqvist’s heroics when the series called for it.
Jussi Jokinen tied the game early in the second. Richards, with his fifth point in Game 7s, scored less than four minutes later as Pittsburgh defenceman Matt Niskanen served a tripping minor.
Will Lundqvist watch Game 7 between the Bruins and Canadiens on Wednesday?
“I might take a break from hockey,” Lundqvist said with a smile. “We’ll see. It has been so intense the last couple of days and now it’s really important to reload physically and mentally.”