- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

For more than two periods they defied the odds, putting together the kind of performance even their most optimistic fans could never have seen coming.

For more than 40 minutes Tuesday night, the New York Rangers controlled the puck, controlled their emotions and controlled the Washington Capitals to the point they believed they would win Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

As embattled coach John Tortorella put it later: “I felt so good going into that third period.”

And then reality set back in.

Outhustled, outmanned and outplayed by Washington over the game’s final period, the Rangers’ season came to an abrupt end. Sergei Fedorov’s shot past goalie Henrik Lundqvist with 4:59 to go may have officially given the Caps a 2-1 victory, but a one-sided period that extended far beyond the game-winning goal decided this series.

New York played nearly flawless hockey for 40 minutes. At least, as flawless as this offensively challenged team gets.

The Rangers’ front line kept relentless pressure on the Caps, forcing the game onto one side of the ice and keeping Washington’s big guns from getting anything going. Lundqvist wasn’t tested much, but he made all the saves he needed to. And perhaps most importantly, Tortorella, Sean Avery and Co. controlled their emotions on a night when it would have been easy to lose them.

If ever a team went into a decisive Game 7 playing on its heels, this was it. Having dropped the previous two games in a fashion that left all of Manhattan writing them off, the Rangers had the look and feel of dead men walking.

Perhaps, though, the overwhelming negative vibe hovering over this team actually helped it. As Tortorella - who was suspended for Game 6 after throwing a water bottle at a fan in the previous game at Verizon Center - pointed out Monday, the pressure was entirely off the Rangers.

“Hey, let’s leave it all on the line,” center Scott Gomez said of his team’s mindset entering Game 7. “We came here to win. We didn’t come to make it close.”

So while the Caps came out and played like a team scared to lose another Game 7 on their home ice, the Rangers came out firing and seized control of the proceedings from the start. They never let up, winning the first period shots battle 8-2 and then playing most of the second period in Washington’s zone.

“I really appreciate how they stuck together here this evening in a really tough building to play in and probably played their best game of the series,” Tortorella said. “But it still wasn’t good enough.”

No, it wasn’t, because after playing perhaps their best two periods of the series early in the evening, they closed things out with perhaps their worst.

The game swung entirely back to Washington’s side of the ice. Suddenly, the Rangers couldn’t get anything going. And even after Lundqvist watched as Fedorov’s winner sailed past his left shoulder and into the short side of the net, they still couldn’t find a way to mount one last flurry.

The Rangers managed all of one shot on goal in the third period, none in the final five minutes. They couldn’t even control the puck enough late to get Lundqvist off the ice and were forced to make their last-ditch run at even strength.

And by night’s end, all they could do was replay the whole thing in their heads and wonder how they let a 3-1 series lead and a dominant two periods in Game 7 slip away.

“It sucks. It really sucks,” Lundqvist said. “We played great. I think everyone’s happy the way we responded in Game 7, coming from two tough games.”

The New York goalie let out a sigh.

“It’s going to be a long summer,” he said.

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