NEW YORK — It wasn't easy, but that's just the way the New York Rangers seem to prefer it.
For the fourth time in three seasons, the Rangers emerged victorious in a Game 7, surviving a late onslaught from the Philadelphia Flyers to win 2-1 on Wednesday night, April 30, in front of a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers haven't won a playoff series in fewer than seven games since 2008. It was a formula that led to them running out of gas in 2012, when a pair of seven-game series victories appeared to sap their energy in a six-game loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Final.
Would it kill this team to win a series in six games?
"Yeah, that'd be nice," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "Maybe four."
Don't take that as a prediction or proclamation that Staal believes the Rangers will beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games in their second-round series that begins at Consol Energy Center on Friday night. It was more of an ideal, a fleeting hope that the Rangers could find another level against a team that will provide even stiffer competition than what the Flyers provided in this series.
The Rangers obliterated the Flyers at even strength in this series, finishing with a Fenwick differential of plus-9.9, the fifth-best mark in the playoffs, according to Extra Skater. Yet it wasn't enough to dispatch the Flyers in fewer than seven games, as the Rangers' power play disappeared after scoring two goals in Game 1, and the penalty kill was just as ineffectual, allowing six goals in seven games.
The Rangers' power play Wednesday looked like it was allergic to the attacking zone after Zac Rinaldo gifted them a man-advantage situation with a boneheaded penalty in the first period. In what was almost a blessing for the Rangers, it was the only time they would be awarded (punished by?) a power play in the game.
This being a Game 7, the Flyers were only able to earn two power plays and failed on both, which would prove to be their downfall in this series. Goaltender Steve Mason should be allowed to sue his defensemen for defamation of the word defense and collect a hefty settlement after he made 28 saves over the first two periods to give the Flyers a sniff of a comeback chance in the third period.
For the Rangers, the challenge will be staying out of the penalty box against the Penguins, who boasted the No. 1 power play in the regular season and clicked at 20.7 percent in their six first-round games against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I think we'd like to play any team five-on-five," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "We feel real good about the way we play in our game. I think we proved that again tonight."
Vigneault has every right to feel good about his team's chances in a series with the Penguins that's played at even strength.
The Penguins have about as dynamic a top-six forward grouping as there is the NHL. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz were part of a group that thoroughly dominated the possession game at even strength during the regular season, and that carried over into their first-round series with the Blue Jackets.
The problem with the Penguins, however, was that their bottom-six groupings during the regular season were a catastrophe on par with the ending of Garden State or getting to an office party too late for a free slice of cake.
Injuries and ineffectual players littered the third and fourth lines and left Penguins coach Dan Bylsma with Brandon Sutter, Joe Vitale and a collection of forwards that were either better-suited for the AHL or dealing with injuries, like Marcel Goc, Bryan Gibbons and Jayson Megna.
Bylsma shuffled the deck a bit against the Blue Jackets and got some players back from injury, which gave the Penguins an improvement on the tire fire that was their bottom-six during the regular season. It's one of the reasons the Penguins were the second-best Fenwick team in the postseason entering Wednesday's games.
Even with the improvement in health and talent, that's the area the Rangers can exploit at five-on-five. Their third line with Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello and fourth line with Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett give the Rangers a slight advantage.
The bottom-six's value was on display in Game 7 against the Flyers, as Daniel Carcillo made it 1-0 in the second period thanks in large part to one of the more amazing passes you'll see from the crafty Zuccarello, then Pouliot scored what would be the game-winner about eight minutes later.
Crosby and Malkin are going to get their points and control things against the Rangers, no doubt about it. But if the Rangers can simply minimize the damage they cause and make this a five-on-five series, their lower lines can make all the difference.
"That's kind of been the story of our team throughout the year, too," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "With the injuries we've had and different guys stepping up in big games. It's great to see everybody playing to their strengths, not trying to do too much. Everybody did both great plays, offensively and defensively."
There's no question there's room for improvement in some areas for the Rangers, special teams being the most glaring one. But a pair of key individuals will need to contribute more if the Rangers are to oust the Penguins.
Rick Nash went seven games without a goal, but it wasn't as if he was an anchor around his teammates' necks. He had five shots in Game 7 and 30 for the series, as he was one of the Rangers' biggest drivers of possession. It's a sign that big things could be ahead for Nash if he continues to put the puck toward the net with that type of frequency.
Henrik Lundqvist was as steady as can be in this series, Game 6 notwithstanding. He finished the series with a 2.11/.919 split, which is nothing to write home about, but he stopped 26 of 27 shots in Game 7 and was exceptional in the third period with the Rangers sitting back and absorbing blow after blow from the charging Flyers.
"We all knew that at some point, they were going to have a push and he would have to make the saves that we also needed," Vigneault said. "He was real solid. We had a couple of breakdowns in front of our net and he made some real big saves."
As good as the Rangers were as a team in Game 7, they'll need to be even better to beat the Penguins, especially if they'd like to do it in fewer than seven games and earn themselves a rest.
"I think, for the most part in this series, we were playing our best hockey—we just have to find a way to play it every minute, every game," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "It's been like that the last couple years in the playoffs—win one, lose one. If there's anything we can improve on, it's being harder every shift and if we win a game, we've got to be ready to bring everything we've got for the next one."
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
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