Richards, Rangers hold off Caps to advance
Rangers' Brad Richards celebrates with teammates on the bench after he scored a goal n the first period against the Washington Capitals. (Paul Bereswill/Getty Images/AFP)
This is why the New York Rangers signed Brad Richards to that monster deal last summer, and why so many other NHL teams were left kicking the curb in frustration.
Richards and his linemates were instrumental from the opening shift of Game 7 on Saturday night, scoring in the second minute and setting the tone as the Rangers eliminated the Washington Capitals with a 2-1 win and advanced to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1997.
“I guess you know that deep down,” Richards said of the impact that he was expected to make from first time he pulled on a Rangers sweater. “I don’t talk about, but it goes without saying, the type of player I am and the hoopla around it.
“I was brought here to help, and I’m just trying to keep doing what I have been doing my whole career.”
The Rangers and a team they like to hate, the New Jersey Devils, will meet in the conference final with Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. Less than two months have passed since the clubs began a game with a line brawl, and though something similar is unlikely to happen in the playoffs, no one should expect anything less than a nasty, physical series.
In a best-of-seven conference semifinal that had only one game that was decided by more than a goal, Richards shone, registering points in five of the seven games.
Before a raucous crowd at Madison Square Garden that was so excited there were times when it felt like some fans were going to spill out of their seats and on to the ice, Richards scored at 1:32 of the first after he dominated with Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik. A one-timer from Richards on a pass from Hagelin beat Capitals rookie goalie Braden Holtby low to the glove side, and from there, most observers had the sense that the Rangers weren’t going to lose.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist made 22 saves, ensuring he will play past the second round for the first time in his career. The man they call The King in these parts was especially excellent in the second period, when he helped shut down a Washington team that didn’t wilt. Lundqvist made a big save on Alexander Semin and later, when the Caps controlled the puck for a long shift, stoned Troy Brouwer at the lip of the crease.
In the third period, defenceman Michael Del Zotto scored for the Rangers at 10:05. Caps defenceman Roman Hamrlik responded with a knuckleball 38 seconds later.
It was yet another frustrating end for Caps star Alex Ovechkin, who never has played in the third round. Questions have surrounded the future of Washington coach Dale Hunter, who instituted a defensive system that was effective but boring to watch. Hunter is a part owner of the London Knights, a team he also was coaching when the Caps lured him to D.C. in November, and there is some thought that Hunter will high-tail it back to London and the Knights, who will play in the Memorial Cup after winning the OHL title on Friday.
Hunter, after the game, refused to discuss his future, saying the time was not right.
Alexander Semin will be an unrestricted free agent and whether he returns to the NHL, let alone the Caps, is unclear.
“It’s a terrible feeling now,” an emotional Ovechkin said. “All I can say, we did our best and it’s probably best team I played (for). You know, the group of guys and atmosphere, it’s unbelievable to play and I hope everybody is going to stay here next year. It’s hard.
“We never gave up. Everybody supported each other.”
The team that scored first in every game of the series went on to win. Naturally, it was Richards, who won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa Bay and has 15 points in the past 11 games when his team has faced elimination, who got it for New York.
“You see he steps up in these moments and it seems like he thrives,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. “Right through the year he has been big for us and he’s going to have to continue to be big.”