The sublime symmetry of their rousing first-round victory hadn’t yet hit the New York Rangers, and that was thoroughly understandable. They were too busy piling on one of their Swedish heroes, No. 62, Carl Hagelin, who became the latest overtime hero Friday night, and then mobbing their other Swedish hero, No. 30, Henrik Lundqvist, who had just finished a most commendable night of work, turning away 37 shots by the Pittsburgh Penguins, a stalwart in blue, a central, glove-flashing character in a drama that played out for nearly 71 minutes at the Garden.
By the time it was over thanks to Hagelin and his goal at 10:52 of overtime the Rangers had their fourth 2-1 victory in a series that had an aggregate score of 11-8, that consisted of nothing but one-goal games. The last two victories came in extra time; the hero Wednesday night in Game 4 was right winger Kevin Hayes. The Rangers move on to play the winner between the Islanders and the Capitals, victors in a taut five-game crucible that had all the angst of seven games.
“Tonight was just nerve-wracking,” Lundqvist said. “It came down to battles all over the ice.”
Said Dan Girardi, defenseman and alternate captain, “Every play is huge. There’s not one easy play in the game. It comes down to one good play to win the game.”
At one end of the rink, you had Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins’ goaltender, kicking and gloving and blocking 34 Ranger shots, one of them on a Chris Kreider missile toward the upper left corner not even two minutes into overtime, blocking it over the top. At the other end you had Lundqvist stuffing a rebound attempt by the Garden villain-du-jour, Sidney Crosby, who was booed each time he touched the puck and also was the recipient of a variation on the old Denis Potvin chant. This, right after Lundqvist denied Patric Hornqvist, the Penguins’ winger, on a backhand.
Before overtime even arrived, you had teams surging, and counter-surging, pucks hitting pipes in both cages, and you had Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle, who assisted on Derek Stepan’s power-play goal barely four minutes into the game, missing perhaps the best chance of all in the closing minutes of regulation.
Taking a high-speed cross ice pass from J.T. Miller, Boyle one-timed it and missed wide left, by a lot. The crowd groaned.
“I’d like to get another crack at that one,” Boyle said. He didn’t, but a moment or two later, he took a hard whack at the Plexiglas with his stick, and didn’t miss.
Unlike last year’s run to the final, the Rangers carry with them the expectations that accompany the league’s best record. You can’t win 53 games and the Presidents’ Trophy and not assume the role of favorite. Mostly the Rangers downplay the notion that there is a weight attached to this, but it’s almost as hard to fight human nature as is to get a puck past Lundqvist.
“I wouldn’t call it a relief,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “It’s a different when you are expected to win the series.”
Long stretches of this series were tedious, and absent the flourishes of speed and creativity that mark the Rangers’ play when they are at their best. That was quite by the Penguins’ design, but the Rangers showed not just champion-caliber grit but the emotional resilience to keep grinding in a series that was not particularly their cup of ice.
“I think any time that you can win in overtime twice, it shows that your team has a lot of character,” Hagelin said. “A lot of guys in here are willing to go the extra step to win games. We’d do anything for each other, so we are definitely looking forward to the next series.”
With their four victories 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 the Rangers’ earn some recuperation time, after their shortest series victory since they swept the Devils in the first round of 2008. This can do nothing but help defenseman Kevin Klein and his broken arm, and you hope it will also benefit the little Norwegian firestarter, Mats Zuccarello, who took a Ryan McDonagh slap shot to the left side of his head in the first period, and did not return.
In all corners of the Garden, the symmetry of a victory in five games felt very good, no matter that the tension made it seem much longer. Hagelin scored. The teams had shaken hands. The Penguins were going back to Pittsburgh. The Rangers were victors in five. Yes, five. “It just as easily could’ve been a seven-game series, but we’ll take it,” Boyle said.
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