NEW YORK -- Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals shifted from a surefire party to a potential nightmare for the New York Rangers midway through the third period.
Brad Richards scored the game's opening goal early in the first period, and what followed was about 50 minutes of high tension as the Rangers tried to protect the one-goal lead against the hard-charging Washington Capitals. When defenseman Michael Del Zotto extended the lead to two goals midway through the third period, the celebration was under way in the stands at Madison Square Garden.
But Roman Hamrlik's fluttering shot eluded goaltender Henrik Lundqvist just 38 seconds later, and a penalty to Rangers forward Ruslan Fedotenko 36 seconds after that had the Capitals buzzing and the sellout crowd decidedly nervous.
However, as the Rangers have done throughout this season, they stiffened when facing adversity and punched their ticket to their first Eastern Conference Final since 1997. The Capitals generated no shots on the power play and two shots overall in the final 9:17 as the top-seeded Rangers survived for a 2-1 victory, their second win in a Game 7 this postseason.
"It's a great feeling to see we stayed focused whatever happens," said Lundqvist, who made 22 saves, 11 in the second period, to reach the conference finals for the first time in his career. "Yeah, we give up a goal and they get on the power play but we know what we have to do. We've been in this situation so many times this year and I think it helped us a lot today and moving forward as well."
The Rangers' reward for their victory is a Monday night visit from the rival New Jersey Devils in Game 1 of the conference final. The two teams met in the third round in 1994, with the Rangers winning the series in seven games before capturing their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
The tone for Saturday's game was set in the first period by the top line of Carl Hagelin, Richards and Marian Gaborik, who combined for 10 shots, a goal, three assists with each finishing at plus-2.
Richards put the Rangers ahead 1-0 at 1:32 of the first period with his sixth goal of the postseason, one that was created by the speed of Hagelin, who beat the Capitals to a puck behind the goal line and swooped around the net. He found Richards at the top of the left circle for a one-time blast that eluded goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 29 saves.
It didn't take long for Rangers coach John Tortorella to realize he needed that trio on the ice as much as possible.
"We doubled them up right away," Tortorella said. "With Ritchie, we talked about him shooting the puck right away and not hesitating. They block shots very well and we needed to try to get more shots through. The first goal of the game was a very important goal. Hags doesn't end up with many points, but he ends up with a couple tonight. He's been very good this series as far as chasing down pucks and I thought that was key tonight. Gaby was skating tonight, so to get a lead against that team is very important."
Getting a lead at all in this series was important for both teams; the squad that scored the first goal won all seven games.
That one-goal lead held until the third period, but a six-minute stretch during a back-and-forth second period put Lundqvist to the test -- and he passed with flying colors.
The Capitals' onslaught started with Alexander Semin shaking free from the defense and Richards for a 1-on-1 backhand attempt that Lundqvist denied with his right pad. Less than 30 seconds later, defenseman Dennis Wideman used a toe drag to snap a shot labeled five-hole that Lundqvist shut down. About a minute later, Mike Knuble whacked at a rebound from a Hamrlik shot, and again Lundqvist had the answer.
There was a also a stretch in which the Capitals held the puck in the attacking zone for nearly two minutes, but Lundqvist and the Rangers would not break.
"They caught us a couple times with long shifts and we just ended up collapsing and hoping for a save or we get the puck out and try not to get hurt," said Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who was trapped on the ice for nearly three minutes. "They kind of got some momentum off of that but we did our best job to not let that hurt us."
Del Zotto made it 2-0 at 10:05 of the third period by taking advantage of a poor Capitals line change. Gaborik broke into the zone and fired a long shot that was blocked. But three Capitals backed up too far on the play, allowing Del Zotto to jump into the void and snap a shot that beat Holtby to the stick side.
It turned out to be the second game-winning goal by a Rangers defenseman in this series after Hamrlik answered right back.
"He's probably been our most consistent at joining the rush," Tortorella said of Del Zotto. "He shoots the puck wide a lot, didn't on this one and scored. He has gone through quite a process here, from last year into what he's doing for us this year. He's been very consistent both offensively and defensively."
The loss ends what was a wild season for the Capitals -- they fired coach Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28 and replaced him with Dale Hunter, who instituted a more physical, defensive-minded approach. It paid off in a first-round win against the Bruins but came up a goal short against the Rangers.
"Obviously, it's disappointing," Holtby said. "We really did believe that we had (the ability), as a team, to do it all. To look at it, we gave ourselves a great chance and it's a tough loss, especially, but what we can take away is that New York was a very good team and we didn't leave anything on the table."
The Rangers will turn their focus to the Devils, a team they have openly admitted they despise, for what should be a slugfest.
"They're a great team," Lundqvist said. "We face them a lot so we know what to expect. It's going to be a real good series."