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NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers reaped the rewards Saturday night of an entire season committed to a demanding, singular philosophy in doing things the right way.
In dispatching the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals with a 2-1 win in their second Game 7 this postseason, the Blueshirts reaffirmed their devotion to the blue-collar identity on which they branded their game and have consistently yielded success.
Whether it was whittling a 3-2 series deficit in the first round against Ottawa or rebounding from a couple of spirit-sapping losses to the Capitals in the semifinals, the Rangers never abandoned their hard-nosed style of play.
|Michael Del Zotto and the Rangers have survived two grueling rounds of the postseason.|
Now they are headed to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 15 years, slated to face the New Jersey Devils in what promises to be an epic Hudson River showdown.
"We're in the final four. We have as good a chance as anybody to go in and win," said alternate captain Brad Richards.
"They're playing as good as anybody right now," Richards said of the Devils. "It's going to be a challenge. The seedings really mean nothing now. It's going to be a war from here on out."
Richards, who has lived up to his billing as one of the game's most clutch performers, delivered once again in the deciding match against the Capitals. Richards and linemates Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik set a commanding tone on the game's first shift, exerting their speed and will to the delight of a frenzied Madison Square Garden crowd.
Coach John Tortorella went right back to the trio, double-shifting them less than two minutes into play -- a move that resulted in the first goal.
Hagelin raced down the puck to feed Richards for a one-timer from the left circle that beat a screened Braden Holtby at 1:32.
It was Richards' sixth goal of the playoffs and yet another masterful performance when his team needed him most. The 32-year-old center, who won a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2004, has seven goals and eight assists in 11 career games when facing elimination.
The resilient Caps did not bow to the Rangers' duress, however.
Washington swarmed the Rangers in the second -- managing to pin them in their own end for one particularly lengthy shift in which defenseman Michael Del Zotto was on the ice for 3:07 -- but goaltender Henrik Lundqvist preserved the lead. As he has all season en route to nominations as a finalist for both the Vezina and Hart trophies, Lundqvist anchored the Rangers whenever they sagged even slightly.
Taking a rare two-goal lead on Del Zotto's goal at 10:05 of the third, the Rangers retained their composure after coughing one back up to Washington's Roman Hamrlik 38 seconds later.
They didn't white-knuckle the one-goal lead, either. Instead, they executed what Tortorella called one of their "most aggressive" third periods to date.
Less than a period away from their first third-round appearance since 1997, the Rangers gritted their teeth and relied upon what got them there.
"We've done it all year, worked so hard, every single game," said Del Zotto. "It's pretty obvious we're a lunch-bucket team."
Bruised and battered from a grueling 14 games this postseason -- no team has ever won a Stanley Cup after playing that many games over the first two rounds -- the Rangers will bring those lunch pails back to work Monday, when they face their bitter Atlantic Division rivals.
Witnessing the unwavering commitment from his squad over the first two rounds, Tortorella hopes, as the Rangers do, that the growth he has witnessed over the first two rounds only continues in the third.
"We're still in the middle of the process of the New York Rangers trying to become one of the elite teams. This is a tremendous experience for us, what we're going through, playing two Game 7s in the first two rounds," Tortorella said. "This is where your legacy is made, the playoffs."