By Steve Silverman
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Overtime had been the New York Rangers’ enemy. The team had lost seven straight playoff games in extra time as they played deep into the night against the Washington Capitals. As the sweat flew and the blood spilled, it was obvious that the third game would end dramatically.
This time there would be no regrets. As the third overtime threatened to turn into a fourth extra session, Brad Richards carried the puck through center ice and made a move in the Washington zone that allowed him to fire a hard shot that went past the far corner of the net. The puck would eventually find its way to Dan Girardi on the right side, who would send it back around the net to the left side where Richards was waiting for it.
As the puck skittered towards him, Richards liked what he saw. Marian Gaborik, who hadn’t scored a goal since the first game of the playoff, was stationed in front of the net, slightly to the left of Capitals goalie Braden Holtby with just a little bit of room. Richards corralled the puck on the tape of his stick blade and sent a pass to Gaborik in a perfect spot. Gaborik did not think, hesitate or strategize. He quickly fired the puck at the small opening between Holtby’s legs at the 14:41 mark of the third extra session. The Rangers had a 2-1 triple overtime win that gave them a 2-1 lead in the series.
Rangers fans of a certain age were harkened back to another triple overtime thriller that had been played decades ago. During the 1971 playoffs, the Rangers defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in the sixth game of their semifinal playoff series when the legendary Pete Stemkowski jammed a rebound past Chicago’s Tony Esposito at 1:29 of the third extra session. That allowed the Rangers to tie the series at 3 games apiece and force a seventh game at the raucous Chicago Stadium.
The goals by Gaborik and Stemkowski were quite similar. Girardi’s pass to Richards started the game-winning play against the Capitals, and Stemmer’s game-winning goal was also initiated by a defenseman. Tim Horton carried the puck up the ice and once he crossed center ice, he fired the puck deep into the left corner. Rugged left winger Teddy Irvine retrieved the puck and fired a hard shot at Esposito. Stemkowski was in the right place and jammed the rebound past Esposito before he could react.
In those days, home games were not televised and if you were a passionate Rangers fan, you listened to Marv Albert’s description over the radio. It was a thrilling moment for any Rangers fan, but it would be short-lived as the Rangers would be denied in the seventh game by the Hawks. The memory of Stemmer’s magical moment would have to sustain fans for many more years because a Stanley Cup was still 23 years away.
The current version of the Rangers have been tested through the first 10 games of the playoffs. While they have not dominated the No. 7 (Capitals) or No. 8 (Senators) seeds in the Eastern Conference, the team’s indomitable characteristics have come to the fore often enough that there is no reason to think that this team can’t eventually emerge from the East and get a chance to play for the most famous trophy in sports.
The Rangers have players who will block shots and take whatever physical abuse is necessary to win games. They have the best goalie in the league in Henrik Lundqvist. They have the element of speed in players like Gaborik, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider to make the sudden plays that allow them to turn any game quickly.
But the Rangers are not a dominant team destined to win the Stanley Cup, either. They are not the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s or the Edmonton Oilers of the late 1980s. There will be struggles along the way, just as there have been to this point. Any key injury or area of diminished play could prove fatal.
There’s a relentlessness to this team that was obvious in the third overtime. Instead of giving in to fatigue and pain, the Rangers made the best play of the night at the most critical moment. Championship teams are often forged in such moments.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).