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Stepan gives Rangers Game 7 win against Capitals

by Brian Compton / NHL.com

NEW YORK -- Derek Stepan scored 11:24 into overtime to give the New York Rangers a 2-1 win against the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

The Rangers, who trailed the best-of-7 series 3-1, will play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

Game 1 is here on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"We enjoy this moment and we get ourselves ready for the Eastern Conference Finals," Stepan said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

After an icing, the Rangers won the faceoff, and Dan Girardi's shot from the point bounced to Stepan at the left side of the net, where he quickly put a wrist shot past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby for his third goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It was pretty much a hard-fought series," Stepan said. "Both teams back and forth, momentum swings. For most of overtime, they have the puck and we just find a way to stick with it. [Henrik Lundqvist] made some big saves and we were able to get a fortunate bounce."

Not since Stephane Matteau's goal against the New Jersey Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference Final had the Rangers played overtime in Game 7. Matteau was in the building Wednesday.

Kevin Hayes scored the tying goal, and Lundqvist made 35 saves for New York, which is 7-0 in Game 7 at home and has won 10 straight home games when facing elimination since 2008, the longest streak in NHL history.

"I think it's important that you stay focused on the positives," said Lundqvist, who is 6-1 with an 0.97 goals-against average in Game 7. "They won three out of the four, but it was close games. That's important to know that you don't need to change much to win a game. If you feel like you have to do so much more, you might be in a tough spot.

"But we knew that we were very close. There were a couple of things, the puck might need to bounce our way a little bit more and try to solve Holtby and we did. It starts with confidence and that you can do it and take one game at a time and we did a great job."

The Rangers became the first team to win a best-of-7 series after trailing 3-1 two years in a row; they eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round last year on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Alex Ovechkin, who said the Capitals would win Game 7, scored for Washington. Holtby made 37 saves.

The Capitals have been eliminated by the Rangers in three of the past four seasons (2012, 2013, 2015), with each series going the distance.

"Great battle," Ovechkin said. "One shot, one moment. I think we played great in OT, we had chances. But one moment can end the series and end the game. It's over. I wish them luck."

Ovechkin scored his fifth goal of the playoffs 12:50 into the first period to give Washington a 1-0 lead. After each team failed to score on a power play, Ovechkin took a cross-ice feed from Marcus Johansson and put a wrist shot from between the circles past Lundqvist.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he was proud of his leaders, especially Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green, who have been the core of a group that hasn't been able to reach a conference final.

"I thought my top guys delivered," Trotz said. "All my top guys delivered. Alex, [Backstrom] … they all delivered. They were great today. They grew up. They grew today.

"I know people went after Alex for saying what he did. I'd love to go in a foxhole with guys that will stick their neck out and say, 'You know what? I'm gonna deliver for you.' And he did. He was really strong. He got a goal."

Hayes tied it 1-1 at 6:22 of the second period on the Rangers' fourth power play. After Green was penalized for the second time in a 3:39 span, Hayes took a pass from J.T. Miller and poked it past Holtby. Not since Muzz Patrick in 1939 had a Rangers rookie scored in Game 7, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Washington has qualified for the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons but has lost in the first round three times and the second round four times. Since 2010, the Capitals are 3-11 with a chance to win a series.

"Obviously we had an opportunity to close it out, but all the games were close," said Holtby, who had a 1.71 GAA and a .944 save percentage in 13 games this postseason. "It could have been 3-1 the other way at that time and us coming back. We fought hard and it was a great series, one that could have easily gone our way, but it just didn't."

The Capitals were less than two minutes away from winning this series in five games before Chris Kreider scored with 1:41 left to tie that game Friday. Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh scored in overtime for a 2-1 victory.

Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle left Game 7 midway through the third period after being hit by Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik near Washington's blue line. New York coach Alain Vigneault said he hopes to know more about Boyle's condition on Thursday.

New York has home-ice advantage against Tampa Bay, which ended its second-round series against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 on Tuesday.

The Rangers went 0-3-0 against the Lightning during the regular season. Tampa Bay outscored New York 15-7, but they haven't played each other since Dec. 1 when the Lightning won 6-3 at Madison Square Garden.

"We played Tampa [Bay] a long, long time ago," Vigneault said. "So I'm going to take tonight, soak it in, and I'm going to start getting ready probably [Thursday] morning on that."

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