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Seven historical questions for Game 7

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

By Dan David,

Tonight's Game 7 vs. Washington at Madison Square Garden marks the first time since the NHL expanded its playoffs to four rounds and 16 teams that the New York Rangers have gone a full seven games in a second-round playoff series.

Since that 1979-80 season playoff expansion, Blueshirts teams have gone all the way to Game 7 before in the opening round (as recently as this year against Ottawa), the league's semifinal round (most famously against New Jersey in 1994), and the Stanley Cup Final (most recently against Vancouver in 1994).

The second round has been different until now. Over the past 32 playoff years, there have been 128 second-round Stanley Cup playoff series. Roughly one in four of them has gone the full seven games, but none involving the Blueshirts. Meanwhile, 23 of the 29 other current NHL teams have seen Game 7 in Round 2, including all five other Original Six teams and 19 of the other 20 teams that were already in existence when the 16-team format was introduced.

Stephane Matteau scored the most famous Game 7 goal in Rangers history at The Garden, but it did not come in Round 2 of a 16-team playoffs, where the Rangers have never before hosted a Game 7.

So as the Rangers prepare to play their first Game 7 in Round 2, only the Phoenix Coyotes (formerly the Winnipeg Jets) can claim to have avoided this situation longer. Phoenix, which coincidentally is already in this year's NHL's final four, has never had to play a Game 7 to try to get there out of Round 2.

Tonight's opponent, the Capitals, have gone the distance twice in Round 2 before, losing both times. In 1988, the Capitals lost Game 7 to a New Jersey team coached by current Rangers executive and assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld, and in 2009, the Capitals lost Game 7 to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. That series came right after the Caps had eliminated the Blueshirts in a seven-game Round 1 series.

As the team enters historically uncharted Round 2 waters tonight, questions naturally arise about what to expect from such a game. These questions can only be answered on the ice, but it is always intriguing to look back and see how things played out for other NHL teams facing this same situation in past years.

Here are history's responses to seven questions about Round 2, Game 7 might unfold.

Question 1: How important is home ice?

History says: Home ice is a definite advantage tonight.

Virtually everyone entering the building tonight will know that the Rangers have never lost a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. That's a significant stat in terms of the building's good-luck factor alone, but it's bolstered by the fact that home teams in Round 2, Game 7 have a 19-14 record since 1980 and a 14-9 record since the first round went from a best-of-5 to a best-of-7 format in 1987.

What's very notable is the boost that teams receive by returning to home ice after a series-tying loss in Game 6. Teams in that situation are 13-7, while teams that won Game 6 on the road to tie up a series are only 6-7 when coming back home. However, since the current playoff seeding format was established in 1994, teams that won Round 2, Game 6 on the road have also had a much better record of closing a series out on home ice. Such teams -- most recently the 2002 Colorado Avalanche -- are 5-2 in Game 7.

Historically, though, it is still much safer to be coming home off a Game 6 loss rather than a win. The most recent example of this can be found in last year's Detroit-San Jose series. The Red Wings rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 in San Jose. Coming home changed everything for the Sharks, who went on to win Game 7 and advance to the Western Conference finals.

In addition, teams that won Round 2, Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead are 14-10 in Game 7 after losing Game 6. When the home team won Game 5, it went 9-4 in Game 7, whereas road teams were only 5-6. The most recent example of that is Detroit's 2009 second-round series vs. Anaheim. The Wings led the Ducks 3-2 after a 4-1 victory in Game 5 at home. The teams went back to Anaheim, and the Ducks beat the Wings 2-1 in Game 6. In Game 7, Detroit edged Anaheim 4-3 to win the series and eventually reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Question 2: Did Washington gain a Game 7 advantage by winning Game 6?

History says: No.

Game-to-game momentum is really not an issue at this point. In the 33 Round 2 series that have gone the distance since 1980, Game 6 winners are only 13-20 in Game 7.

As mentioned above, teams winning Round 2, Game 6 on their home ice are only 7-13 when it comes to winning on the road in Game 7. The last team to do it was Montreal in 2010, when the Habs rallied back from a 3-2 series deficit and then closed out Game 7 with a 5-2 victory at Pittsburgh.

Question 3: How close will the game be, and is overtime a strong possibility?

History says: This game is more likely to be decided by one or two goals than by three or more, and overtime is not likely.

Of the 33 past Round 2, Game 7s, 18 were decided by one goal, including seven that required overtime. But over the past 25 years, only three of 23 Game 7s in the second round have seen OT. The road team won two of those three games.

Only 12 of the 33 total Game 7s were decided by three goals or more. The most lopsided were Chicago's 8-2 home win over St. Louis in 1990 and Toronto's 6-0 home win over St. Louis in 1993. The Leafs' victory was one of only five Round 2, Game 7 shutouts. The last Round 2, Game 7 shutouts in Round 2 came in 2002 when Toronto blanked Ottawa 3-0 and Colorado beat San Jose 1-0. All five of the shutouts were recorded by the home team. No visiting goaltender has posted a Round 2, Game 7 shutout since the 16-team playoff era began.

Question 4: How important is it that the Rangers have the more experienced and All-Star goaltender for this game?

History says: Not likely the difference-maker, but Holtby's age is an issue

The greatest of all Round 2, Game 7 goaltenders was Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, who won three of four Game 7 starts in the playoffs' second round while playing for two teams. He allowed only two goals in three wins and four goals in his four starts.

Four Hall of Fame or future Hall of Fame goalies have played in a Round 2, Game 7 since 1980, combining for eight starts. Patrick Roy is 3-1, but the other three (Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek) are a combined 2-2 for an overall 5-3 record. Even the greatest ones can lose in these situations. The list of other top-tier goalies who lost a Round 2, Game 7 during their careers includes Mike Liut, Tom Barrasso, Curtis Joseph and Tim Thomas.

As far as age goes, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is more than seven years older than Washington's Braden Holtby. In 10 matchups of two goaltenders with at least seven years' difference in age, the older goaltender has won five times and the younger goaltender has won five times. Holtby is also only 22 years old. The 33 previous Round 2, Game 7s included 10 starting goaltenders under the age of 23. Those young goalies have a record of 7-3, but the last one to win his the Round 2, Game 7 at such a young age was Felix Potvin with Toronto in 1994.

Since Potvin's victory for the Leafs 18 years ago, only one goalie under 23 has started a Round 2, Game 7. That was Semyon Varlamov, who was pulled from the Caps' 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in 2009. This trend suggests that being a successful goaltender in high-pressure playoff 0situations requires more experience than it did 20 years ago.

Question 5: What typically happens to teams that also went seven games in their Round 1 series?

History says: Having won a Game 7 in Round 1 does not make a team any more or less likely to win Game 7 in Round 2.

The Rangers and Capitals become the 11th and 12th teams since 1980 to go the distance in Round 2 after also playing seven games in Round 1. That's means only 4 percent of all teams in the playoffs over the past 33 seasons have actually been in this situation during the second round. The other teams have combined for a Round 2, Game 7 record of 5-5.

This is only the second time in 132 series (including this year), that two teams facing each other in a Round 2, Game 7 also played a Round 1, Game 7. The only other time this happened was in 2003, when Minnesota and Vancouver met in the second round. Current Rangers forward Marian Gaborik will make some history tonight by becoming the only player to have appeared in both of these games. Gaborik was on the winning side of the Wild-Canucks matchup, when Minnesota came back from a 3-1 series deficit and beat Vancouver 4-2 in Game 7. Gaborik looks to make it 2-for-2 tonight.

Question 6: Which previous NHL second-round series most closely resembled this one, and how did it turn out?

History says: Boston vs. Montreal in 1991

The most distinctive characteristic of this series has been that no team has won two straight games yet. Of the 33 series that went to a Game 7 in Round 2, only nine followed this alternating win pattern through the first six games. The pattern held up in four of the nine instances, where the team that won Games 1, 3 and 5 also won Game 7. This has not happened, however, since the Montreal-Boston Round 2 series of 1991.

The Bruins held on to win that series 2-1 at home, but since then, the 1,3,5,7 pattern has broken down four times, but only one of those four involved the road team winning Game 7 (Montreal over Pittsburgh in 2010).

Another distinctive characteristic of this series has been the consistently slim margins of victory as well as a relatively low number of total goals. Five games have been decided by one goal; one by just two goals; and two games have gone to overtime. Most of the past Round 2, Game 7s came in series where at least one team got blown out at some point along the line.

The 1991 Boston-Montreal series mentioned above was very similar to this one, involving two teams with an established playoff rivalry. Boston won Games 1, 3, and 5, while Montreal won 2, 4, and 6. Four of the first six games were decided by one goal, and two went to overtime. Boston won Game 7 at home 2-1 in what turned out to be Patrick Roy's only Round 2, Game 7 loss. The Bruins took a 2-0 lead early in the third period, but Montreal rallied to make it a 2-1 game with one minute left. Andy Moog held on to get the win for Boston, stopping 35 shots, while Roy made 31 saves.

Hockey greats Brett Hull and Peter Forsberg shake hands after the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Forsberg's Avs played three straight Game 7s before falling to Hull's Wings -- the best showing ever by a team that played 14 games in the first two rounds.

Question 7: How well have teams winning Game 7 in the second round performed in the rest of the playoffs?

History says: Not so great

This stat has been mentioned on broadcasts and in the press numerous times, but it is a fact: No team that has ever played 14 games through the first two rounds of the playoffs since the addition of a best-of-7 series in Round 1 has gone on to with the Stanley Cup.

Of the 10 teams that had to play 14 games to reach the league's semifinals, none survived the Conference Finals, with the closest being the 2002 Colorado Avalanche. Those Avs, defending Stanley Cup champs seeded No. 2 in the West behind Detroit, beat Los Angeles in seven games and then beat San Jose in seven games. They took the eventual champion Wings all the way to seven games, where they collapsed at the end, losing 7-0.

The 2002 Avalanche played a total of 21 games without reaching the Cup Final, which is why Peter Forsberg was able to finish as the playoffs' leading scorer without playing in every round.

On a more positive note, there have been four Stanley Cup champions and nine Stanley Cup finalists who won a Game 7 in Round 2 after playing a shorter series in Round 1. The last champion was the 2009 Pittsbrugh Penguins, who won a six-game series over Philadelphia in Round 1, beat Washington in Game 7 of Round 2, swept the conference finals against Carolina, and beat Detroit in an epic seven-game series

But the 14 games through two rounds played by both the Rangers and Caps already means that if tonight's winner reaches the Staney Cup Final -- or better yet, wins it -- history will be made.

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