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Rangers Oust Capitals to Move on to Eastern Conference Finals

The Battle of the Hudson awaits after Rangers dispatch Capitals

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    Once again, Richards gets the big one.

    Seven is heaven for the Rangers once again.

    The Rangers have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals after a 2-1 victory over the Capitals in Game Seven at Madison Square Garden. It's the first trip to that round since 1997.

    If the Rangers have a dream strategy, it is to grab an early lead and then hand the game over to Henrik Lundqvist for safekeeping. Thanks to a guy building a pretty impressive playoff resume for himself, they got to implement it on Saturday night.

    Brad Richards was set up on a brilliant play by Carl Hagelin, who used his speed to create a chance, and beat Braden Holtby just 92 seconds into the game to put the Rangers ahead 1-0. The jolt of energy to the team was enormous and, once again, Richards was the man on the spot.

    It's unfair to compare him to Mark Messier as this point, but the one thing Richards has done in a similar way to number 11 is that he has lived up to advance billing as a leader who comes up big in the biggest moments. He did it throughout the regular season and he's been the best forward in blue during the playoffs.

    Richards, Hagelin and Marian Gaborik played major minutes in the first period, a period that favored the Rangers throughout. But that wouldn't make the ride any easier.  

    The only thing tenser than a tie game in Game Seven may well be watching your team protect a one-goal lead for more than 48 minutes. After Richards' goal, there was constant fear that the bubble would burst and the exuberant celebration of such an early goal would make you feel like you had cast a jinx on the team. 

    That never felt more real than during a two-minute span just past the halfway point of the second period when the Capitals held the puck in the Rangers' zone. They passed the puck around the outside, exhausted Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto and nearly scored a couple of times.

    Lundqvist was there to stop those pucks and several other strong Washington chances in the second 20 minutes, but he couldn't do anything to alleviate the anxiety that everyone felt every time the Caps took the puck up the ice. The second period, which felt like it had only two or three whistles to interrupt the relentless action, was one spent on pins, needles and freshly sharpened steak knives. 

    So when Del Zotto scored with 9:55 left to play in the game (assisted by Gaborik and Hagelin, whose play remained strong all night), there was a collective exhalation of all that fear. The Rangers could now drop back into an even deeper defensive shell and Lundqvist would take care of the rest to guarantee them a date with the Devils.

    That relief lasted 37 seconds. Roman Hamrlik scored through a screen and the tension was now even greater since the Caps proved they could find the net.

    And then they kicked things up a notch. Ruslan Fedotenko went to the penalty box for knocking a puck directly over the glass, leaving the Rangers shorthanded for the first time all night.

    Seconds into the penalty kill, Brian Boyle drove the puck to the net where it slid under Braden Holtby for an apparent goal. Except the referee blew the play dead because he lost sight of the puck and it wasn't overturned on review.

    All you needed now was Billy Joel's "Pressure" as the soundrack. The Rangers got a power play that they couldn't convert, furious scrambles occured for every loose puck and Ryan Callahan threw himself on a puck to freeze it like it was a grenade that Callahan wouldn't let harm his platoon.

    The minutes clicked away in what felt like slow motion, but the buzzer finally sounded and the tension was released once and for all. The 2-1 win makes two straight Game Seven wins and it means that the rested Devils wait for Monday's resumption of the Battle of the Hudson.

    Okay, so maybe the tension isn't totally gone. Enjoy this one for a moment, though, because it's been a long time since the Rangers made it this far.

    And, as you'll hear more than once this week, this matchup has worked out well for Rangers teams in the past.

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.