PITTSBURGH -- When the New York Rangers trudged off the ice at Madison Square Garden after losing Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they were a group that looked out of gas and ready to start their offseason.
Three games later, the rejuvenated Rangers are heading to the Eastern Conference Final.
Brad Richards scored the winning goal in the second period, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist made 35 saves, and the Rangers defeated the Penguins 2-1 in Game 7 on Tuesday at Consol Energy Center.
Brian Boyle scored a first-period goal for the Rangers, who advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the second time in three years. They'll face the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens, who play their Game 7 on Wednesday, with a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994.
That the Rangers are still playing is something few who watched Game 4 last Wednesday thought would be possible.
"I think the biggest thing was we weren't even giving ourselves a chance after we lost three in a row," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "We weren't battling, we weren't competing on pucks, we weren't using our skating ability and our speed. That's what's been successful for us during the year. We wanted to prove it to ourselves individually that each one of us could play better, and prove it as a group to the rest of the world and to ourselves as a group that we can play good hockey here and make something special happen."
What they made happen was Rangers history; they won a best-of-7 series for the first time after trailing 3-1. The only time in 16 previous tries that New York forced a Game 7 after trailing 3-1 was the 1939 semifinals against the Boston Bruins.
It also was their second Game 7 road win. The first came exactly one year ago, when they defeated the Washington Capitals 5-0 in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.
"It shows you can't give up, you just have to believe in yourself and what you're doing here," Lundqvist said. "After we won Game 5, you slowly started to believe. You still feel like it's a lot of work ahead of us, but let's just focus on the next one and we'll see what happens. Then you win that one and then it's up for grabs here. I think it's extremely important that you stay in the moment and not think too much about the consequences of what might happen if you lose. Just go out and play your game."
The Rangers were able to do that in part because of Lundqvist, who was at his best in the third period when the Penguins made their final push. They put 13 shots on net but Lundqvist was up to the challenge. His biggest saves came with 5:16 left when he stopped James Neal's shot from the slot, and after a Kris Letang shot was blocked in front, Lundqvist got his right pad on a Paul Martin backhand from the slot.
"When they took their game to another level in the third period, our goaltender took his game to another level," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "He was able to stop a barrage of opportunities. He was the difference in [Game 7]."
The win was Lundqvist's NHL-record fifth straight Game 7 victory. In six Game 7 starts, he is 5-1 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .961 save percentage.
Richards also has proven himself to a Game 7 standout. He's 7-0 in Game 7s, with two goals and three assists in those games.
The game was tied midway through the second period when Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen was called for tripping at 6:45. Midway through the power play the Penguins got a shorthanded chance, but Brian Gibbons' shot attempt missed the net and Jussi Jokinen overskated the puck.
Rangers forward Chris Kreider turned the play other way, with the puck eventually getting to McDonagh at the right point in the Penguins' end. He sent a pass across the zone to Derek Stepan, who tried to send it through the slot to Martin St. Louis. The puck hit a stick and went below the goal line, but St. Louis flicked it back into the slot to Richards, who buried it at 7:56 for his fourth of the postseason.
"[Richards] and Marty I think have come in here and they settle everything down," Boyle said. "They come up big. They talk a lot with their play on the ice. It's been contagious. We're all trying to follow suit."
The Penguins had tied the game at 4:15 of the second period on Jokinen's seventh goal, but for the third straight game the Penguins were held to one goal.
"We had enough to go up 3-1 in the series," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We were not able to get enough in [Games] 5 and 6 and [in Game 7] in terms of goals."
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who led the NHL in scoring in the regular season, finished the series with one goal and two assists; he had no points in the final three games. Crosby finished the postseason with one goal in 13 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
"Obviously I would have looked to score more and contribute more," Crosby said. "Wasn't a lack of effort or competing or anything like that. I love to tear it up every series but that's not always the case. ... It's tough losing as it is. When you're not able to contribute that makes it tougher."
Boyle deflated the sellout crowd and put the Rangers ahead 5:25 into the game when he finished a nice passing play by the Rangers' fourth line by flicking a feed from Dominic Moore between the pads of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Now the Rangers can sit back and wait for the Bruins or Canadiens and continue a run that looked impossible a few days ago.
"There's too many things in history that tell you to never stop believing," Richards said. "When you play a game like you did in Game 4 ... we had to at least give ourselves a chance. It's amazing how once you get in it and get a good feeling, it goes through the lineup."