NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The New York Rangers’ latest seven-game playoff victory came with a bonus: a much-needed break.
The overworked Broadway Blueshirts suddenly found themselves in a different and enviable position, resting and waiting for their opponent in the Eastern Conference finals.
Now they know they will meet the Montreal Canadiens with a spot in the Stanley Cup finals on the line.
The Rangers enjoyed a full day off on Wednesday before settling in to watch Game 7 between Montreal and the Boston Bruins. The Canadiens outlasted Boston, which led the NHL with 117 points in the regular season, and advanced with a 3-1 road win.
One night earlier, the Rangers also captured a Game 7 victory away from home when they knocked out the favored Pittsburgh Penguins.
After a hectic ending to their first-round series against Philadelphia, and a hurried and condensed start to their matchup with Pittsburgh, the Rangers got a three-day break before they face Montreal in Game 1 on Saturday.
“We’re as healthy as you can be at this time of year,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault told WFAN’s Mike Francesa. “Our group is battle-tested. We’re going to take the next 48 hours to heal our wounds a little bit and get ready for an exciting conference final.”
Although the Canadiens have one fewer day to prepare, they will have home-ice advantage. The Rangers were 1-1-1 this season against Montreal, which finished four points ahead of New York.
The Rangers returned from Pittsburgh after a stirring 2-1 win in Game 7 on Tuesday that capped the club’s first comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. This rally seemed particularly unlikely after the Rangers fell into the hole with a Game 4 home loss in their worst performance of the playoffs.
But once they stayed alive in Pittsburgh and then won Game 6 at home, the tide shifted into their favor as the NHL’s best recent Game 7 team set its sights on another winner-take-all matchup.
The Rangers are in the conference finals for the second time in three years, but they haven’t reached the Stanley Cup finals since winning the title in 1994.
“We battled so hard as a team the last three games,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said after a 35-save performance. “After losing that fourth game it was tough. We got such a good start in the series and then had a big letdown.”
New York began the series with an overtime win in Pittsburgh before dropping three straight, including consecutive shutout losses in Games 2 and 3. That marked the first time the Rangers were blanked in consecutive playoff games since 1937.
Lundqvist then picked up his game even more, to match Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, and delivered his team to the NHL’s final four.
“It’s been so intense the last couple days. Now it’s really important to reload physically and mentally,” he said.
The Rangers have won five Game 7s in the last three playoff seasons, an unprecedented feat in the NHL, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and they became the third team to win five consecutive Game 7s.
Lundqvist has been in goal for all of them.
The Swedish star became the first goalie to win five straight Game 7s, and in doing so has posted a 0.80 goals-against average and a .973 save percentage. He is also the first to allow one goal or fewer in five consecutive deciding games.
Lundqvist is 5-1 with a record-low 1.00 goals-against average in Game 7. In New York’s final three wins over the Penguins, he stopped 102 of 105 shots.
“I’m sure they were frustrated at Henrik and the way they were playing,” Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said of Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. “We knew Hank was going to make the save most times if he could see it.”
The Rangers wrapped up their first-round win over the Flyers with a 2-1 home victory in Game 7 that completed a stretch of three games in four nights. New York then started the second round after just one day off and jumped into an unprecedented second run of three in four days.
Vigneault was reluctant to say his team was tired, but did refer to the schedule as “stupid” following a frustrating home loss.
Yet somehow his club overcame it and the 3-1 hole against the favored Penguins. It remains to be seen how much the wear and tear will impact the Rangers against Montreal.
“It’s just going to get a lot more fun,” McDonagh said.
Since the NHL went to all seven-game series in 1987, no Stanley Cup champion has played more than one seven-game series before the finals.
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