The New York Rangers looked like a team that had run out of energy four games into their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their 4-2 loss in Game 4 was the culmination of a run of seven games in 11 days, including two sets of back-to-backs.
It included the final three games of their seven-game first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, which had Games 6 and 7 on consecutive days. After a day of rest, the Rangers started the second round against the Penguins in a game that went to overtime. New York won then were shut out in Games 2 and 3 on back-to-back days. In Game 4, the Rangers had 15 shots on goal, a franchise low for a Stanley Cup Playoff game.
From those depths, the Rangers rose up to win three in a row and earn a second trip to the Eastern Conference Final in three years.
How did they do it? Here are five reasons:
1. Rallying around a teammate
When the Rangers arrived in Pittsburgh the day before Game 5 they were greeted by the news that France St. Louis, mother of forward Martin St. Louis, had died unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 63. St. Louis immediately left the team to be with his family in Montreal, but the next day he returned to Pittsburgh and was in the lineup for Game 5.
"I know deep down my mother would have wanted me to play this game," St. Louis said after Game 5. "She'd be proud of me coming here to help as much as I can. ... I owed it to her to do it. I know she would want me to do it."
Teammates were stunned when they saw him arrive for the pregame meal.
"He gets to the rink [for Game 5] and he's standing there ready to go," defenseman Marc Staal said. "Can't say enough about the guy. Comes in and doesn't want to leave us out to dry. Comes and wants to compete with us and try to win the hockey game. ... You want to play hard for a guy like that who's coming from such a tragedy. You want to rally around it."
St. Louis' emotional return brought the group together and provided a spark that had been missing in Games 2, 3 and 4.
2. King-sized performance in goal
It's no secret Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goaltenders in the world. But his performance in Game 7 against the Penguins continued to burnish his legend.
Lundqvist made 35 saves, none better than the three he made late in the third period with the Rangers clinging to a 2-1 lead. He stopped James Neal's low shot from just outside the crease and held strong with Evgeni Malkin jamming away at it. After Kris Letang's attempt on the rebound was blocked, Lundqvist fought through bodies to get his left pad on Paul Martin's backhand attempt that changed direction after hitting a stray stick in front. As the Pittsburgh skaters converged on the New York net, he covered the puck for a whistle with 5:16 remaining.
"That's three or four of the biggest saves I've seen [Lundqvist] make since I've played with him," Staal said. "Five minutes left to go, 2-1 hockey game and he comes up with that. ... That's massive."
After allowing four goals on 27 shots in Game 4, Lundqvist allowed three goals on 105 shots in Games 5, 6 and 7.
3. Offensive depth
The Rangers got 15 goals in the series from 10 players, none of whom were named Rick Nash, New York's regular-season leader with 26 goals.
But for a team that has its most success rolling four lines in rapid succession, the Rangers got offensive production from all over the roster. That includes fourth-line forward Brian Boyle, who scored the first goal of Game 7.
"What's gotten us here is playing our bench," coach Alain Vigneault said. "Playing our four lines, playing our six [defensemen], and playing the right way and playing a smart, high-tempo game."
4. Putting 'the Kid' to bed early
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby led the NHL in scoring during the regular season, but he was mostly a non-factor in the series; the Rangers limited him to one goal and two assists.
The Rangers targeted Crosby with their top two defense pairs all series, with Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi or Marc Staal and Anton Stralman on the ice almost every time Crosby jumped over the boards. Even with Game 7 in Pittsburgh, Crosby saw one of New York's top two defense pairs on 23 of his 25 5-on-5 shifts and he managed two shots on goal. In the Rangers' final three wins, Crosby had six shots on goal and was a minus-2.
Though Malkin is every bit the superstar Crosby is, Crosby is the focal point of everything Pittsburgh does. Shutting him down effectively shut down the Penguins.
5. Outstanding penalty killing
Much of the attention in the series was placed on the Rangers' struggles on the power play, but in seven games they made life just as difficult for the Penguins' extra-man units.
Pittsburgh scored six times in 29 attempts in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but the Rangers killed 19 of 20 Penguins power plays in their series, including the final 13 they faced in the last five games.
Each team scored 12 goals at even strength, making the special teams battle that much more important.
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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