So it all comes down to 60 minutes for the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers — unless, of course, it all comes down to 114 minutes, 41 seconds, the way it did in Game 3. The big question is: Will the final score be 3-2 or 2-1? In this series, it seems like it's always one or the other.
What a month this has been for the Capitals. It began April 12 with the overtime opener against Boston, and it will end May 12 with the closer against the Rangers. Fourteen games, all but one (so far) decided by a single goal. And amazingly, Dale Hunter still has all of his hair.
Just as remarkable, this is the sixth Game 7 of the Alex Ovechkin era. Six of the Capitals' eight series since 2008 have gone the distance. In other words, the Caps are used to having their heads in a vise. And as their staredown of the defending champion Bruins showed, they might even be comfortable in these circumstances after all the heartbreak they've endured the past few years.
It's really quite simple, Brooks Laich said Thursday. In these winner-take-all games, "If you're a skater, you skate. If you're a shooter, you shoot. You just let your natural abilities take over."
The Capitals did a nice job of that when facing elimination in Game 6. Ovechkin, their best shooter, shot and scored to give them a quick 1-0 lead. And Jason Chimera got the second Washington goal, a veritable tap-in, by using his skating ability and anticipation to get in the right place — the unattended left side of the net.
Now they just have to do it again, and you have to like their chances. Why? Because the Rangers are extremely fortunate this series isn't already over. Only a freak occurrence at the end of Game 5 — a double minor in the final seconds of regulation that led to the tying (with 7.6 seconds left) and winning (in OT) scores - has spared them from elimination. There was nothing malicious about Joel Ward's penalty; it was as inadvertent as it was regrettable. But it has kept New York alive.
Similarly strange stuff, you may have noticed, happened in Game 6 — another "whoopsie" double minor, which the Capitals were able to kill, and another Rangers goal in the final seconds (the final 50.5, to be exact), this one on a shot that ricocheted off the hind quarters of John Carlson.
Naturally, I asked Braden Holtby afterward: "Do you think the Rangers have used up their allotment of last-minute goals?" (After all, they got another in Game 2 with 43 seconds remaining in the first period.) The Caps' goalie smiled and replied, "I'm not going to say" — on the off chance they haven't.
OK, so I guess I'll have to say it: If no last-minute goals or double minors fall from the heavens for the Rangers on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, the Capitals will advance to the conference finals against New Jersey. In a straight-up, fluke-free game — like the straight-up, fluke-free game that settled the Boston series — the Caps will, by the narrowest of margins, prevail. Say, 3-2 or 2-1. (See first paragraph.)
It's just the way things are trending — not that the hockey playoffs are always like Twitter. The Rangers' only wins in the past five games are in triple overtime and thanks to the weird events in the dying moments of Game 5. They may be the top seed in the East, but they sure haven't looked like the top seed in the East. They've looked like a club that has trouble putting the puck in the net unless it pulls its goalie.
Just wondering: Has a Washington sports franchise ever had a genuine spell over a New York franchise? Because if the Capitals win Game 7, it'll be the third time in four years they've bounced the Rangers from the playoffs. (FYI: The only time the Redskins have met the Giants in the postseason in recent decades, the Giants blanked them 17-0 en route to Super Bowl XXI.)
This isn't just a deciding game, by the way, it's also a vanity game. All the other second-round series were quickly dispensed with, so all hockey eyes will be on the Capitals and Rangers on Saturday night. And that's as it should be. These clubs have waged a memorable battle — the kind that becomes even more memorable when you win it. For the Caps, it's there for the taking.
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