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2012 stanley cup playoffs

The Rangers Advance!

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 and Brandon Prust #8 of the New York Rangers celebrate their 2 to 1 win over the Ottawa Senators in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 26, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Henrik Lundqvist and Brandon Prust celebrate last night's Game 7 victory.

It had to end like this. In a series that hinged so often on whether the Rangers could protect their leads, it had to end with New York taking a one-goal lead into the third period. It had to end with Ottawa threatening in the final minutes, setting up in the offensive zone like they were on the power play. It had to end with one more round of blocked shots and Henrik Lundqvist saves. And last night — following one final defensive stand after the Senators pulled goalie Craig Anderson and the subsequent penalty drawn by Carl Hagelin — a thrilling Game 7 ended with a 2-1 Rangers victory.

It’s been a while since we paid attention to this sort of thing, as it’s become pretty common, but five of the six Rangers who earned a point in Game 7 are homegrown. Both Rangers' goals came off the sticks of defensemen: In the second period, Marc Staal (who, it should be noted considering his difficult regular season, led the Rangers in ice time) scored the first Rangers goal and relieved just a bit of the tension in what had been a 0-0 game, and Dan Girardi scored the second 4:18 later, giving the Rangers a 2-0 lead and interrupting the brilliant “Alfie sucks” chant that began at the eleven-minute mark in the period. (For those unfamiliar with the traditions at Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place, Senators fans lately have been counting down the seconds from the 11:11 mark to the eleven-minute mark of each period, then chanting the nickname of their captain, who might have played his last NHL game last night.) Alfredsson, of course, wasn’t public enemy No. 1 to Rangers fans in this series. That title goes to Chris Neil, and the chant reserved for him last night was a bit harsher: “Neil’s an asshole (clap clap clapclapclap).”

Speaking of homegrown Rangers, by the way: Chris Kreider — who’s played in slightly more NHL games than you have — was outstanding last night. And though his effort isn't reflected on the score sheet, he started the sequence that set up the Rangers’ first goal, forcing the turnover that eventually led to Derek Stepan feeding Marc Staal for the one-timer. (Or maybe it was Eric Staal?) How much trust has Kreider earned through just five professional games? John Tortorella had him on the ice in crunch time of a Game 7 with his team protecting a one-goal lead.

This is what a Game 7 is supposed to look like, and sound like, and feel like. And games like this are why playoff hockey is so great (and also so terrifying, if your team happens to be involved.) It was a fittingly tense ending to a terrific series that saw five games decided by one goal, two others decided by two goals, and saw all manner of story lines develop. We knew going into the series that eighth-seeded Ottawa posed a threat in the opening round, and they gave the Rangers everything they had. But the Rangers rallied back from a 3-2 series deficit and avoided the first-round upset—and in doing so became the only one of the four Eastern Conference teams who had home-ice advantage to advance to the second round. (The Devils won a Game 7 on the road in double overtime last night and will play the Flyers in the second round. Three of the four teams still standing in the East, by the way, come from the brutal Atlantic Division.)

The Lundqvist–era Rangers now have their third playoff-series victory — and they also now have their first Game 7 victory. There isn’t much time to celebrate this one though: The conference semifinals begin tomorrow afternoon, at the Garden, against the team that eliminated the Rangers during their previous two postseason appearances. Bring on the Caps.

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Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images