The stands at Verizon Center were already littered with empty seats, many fans already on the streets of Chinatown with the Washington Capitals on the cusp of a deflating 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series Monday night.
But more than eight minutes still remained in the third period and New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t ready to give Washington an inch.
So when Capitals rookie Tom Wilson fired a power snap shot, Lundqvist stopped it. After center Jay Beagle collected the rebound, Lundqvist then made perhaps his finest save of the evening, swallowing the puck while sprawled flat on his back in front of the net.
Soon, a chant from the blue-clad fans that remained could be heard high up in the rafters: “Henrik, Henrik.”
There is no bigger reason why New York is moving on to face the Boston Bruins later this week in the Eastern Conference semifinals than Lundqvist. With his team facing elimination twice over the past 48 hours, he put together two shutouts and stopped 62 consecutive shots to end Washington’s season for a second year in a row.
In the process, he made the Capitals’ cadre of offensive stars look ordinary. Captain Alex Ovechkin finished this postseason with just one goal and one assist, neither of which came in the final five games of the series. Centers Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom were also largely non-factors.
“No. Not against this team,” said Lundqvist when asked if he expected to two straight shutouts. He had a 1.65 goals against average and .947 save percentage over seven games
“They have so much skill. Obviously the first two games, I felt like, ‘This is gonna be a challenge.’ . . . But the more we played, the better we played as a team and the more confident we got. As a goalie, when you feel that confidence from the group, it makes it a lot easier to play.”
That was a sentiment shared by Coach John Tortorella. With New York’s top defensive pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh shadowing Ovechkin’s line throughout, the Rangers won more battles along the boards, blocked more shots (27 in Game 7 alone) and controlled the front of the net.
Lundqvist said the biggest key to coming back in the series was his team’s discipline and avoiding Washington’s vaunted power play. But the Rangers derived confidence from the barrage of shots their netminder increasingly turned away. As Tortorella put it, “Henrik is our backbone.”
The latest proof of how he mastered the Capitals came moments after Game 7, as Lundqvist sat in front of his locker savoring his latest triumph.
NBC analyst Pierre McGuire approached to inform him Washington assistant coach Calle Johansson had requested an autographed stick. Lundqvist smiled and got the attention of an equipment manager, more than happy to oblige.