During a span of eight frantic minutes in the second period, the Washington Capitals tilted the Madison Square Garden ice in their favor.
Unfortunately for them, that was also the same time New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist decided to show why he’s a finalist for the Hart and Vezina trophies.
With the Rangers clinging to a 1-0 lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Lundqvist turned away dangerous scoring chances, in order, off the sticks of Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Troy Brouwer and John Carlson. And while the game wasn’t won during that stretch, coming up empty there certainly loomed large as the final seconds ticked off a season-ending 2-1 defeat.
“We were really pushing there in the second,” Knuble said. “On a couple of shifts, we really logged a lot of time in their end. We just couldn’t jam anything in.”
Lundqvist’s first highlight-reel stop came on Semin, who raced to the net unchallenged after Nicklas Backstrom threaded a pass to him through the Rangers’ defense. Before Semin could get off a quality shot on his backhand, though, Lundqvist sprung from his crease and thwarted the Capitals’ sniper with a toe save.
“Henrik made the saves at the right time,” Backstrom said of his countryman when asked about the play. “He’s been good all series.”
About two minutes after Lundqvist denied Semin, the 30-year-old Swede turned away Knuble on a rebound chance. Lundqvist had just stopped a point shot by Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik when Knuble, parked on the Rangers’ doorstep, got a strong whack at the rebound. Lundqvist, however, kicked out his right pad and got just enough of the puck to keep it out of the net.
The game-turning save elicited a booming chant of “Hen-rik!” from the capacity crowd. Lundqvist finished with 22 saves and advanced to the conference final for the first time in his seven NHL seasons.
“He held his own there,” Knuble said. “We felt like, as a group, we were going to get one.”
A few minutes later, Brouwer had a point-blank opportunity, too. But he wasn’t able to control a rolling puck and Lundqvist kicked it away.
“I tried to wait him out, but I kind of ran out of net,” Brouwer said. “He was a big reason why they won tonight.”
Brouwer also said there was some discussion on the Capitals’ bench about the need to generate more traffic.
“He made good saves, but we made it a little too easy on him,” Brouwer said. “We were talking after that flurry — we didn’t have enough guys to the net. You could see the goalie, which means our guys weren’t in front. We needed more traffic to the net, which is how we scored our only goal tonight.”
A prime example of the lack of traffic in front of Lundqvist came with about seven minutes remaining in the second period and the Rangers still protecting their one-goal lead. Carlson unloaded a slap shot from the point, but the three players closest to Lundqvist were in blue jerseys. Lundqvist left a rare rebound in the slot. But by the time Backstrom pounced, Rangers forward Marian Gaborik had control of the puck and skated it out of harm’s way.
“In a couple instances,” Brouwer added, “we had too many guys who wanted to be shooters and not enough guys who wanted to go to the net.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin agreed, adding: “Most of the time, if we had an opportunity to shoot the puck, we didn’t have one guy in front of the net. If [Lundqvist] sees it, he’s going to save it.”
Lundqvist, meantime, finally vanquished the Capitals. He had been 0-4 with a chance to close them out since 2009.
“They were coming hard” in the second period, Lundqvist said. “We talked about it going into this game, that there will be moments when we have success and we need to capitalize when we have that stretch. The same with them; they are going to have minutes where they are just going to come hard and we need to make sure we don’t get hurt.”
In the end, Lundqvist made sure his team didn’t get hurt.