By Sean Hartnett
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Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin can make all the guarantees he wants. In 10 years, Ovechkin is yet to take his team to an Eastern Conference final. It’s one thing to talk the talk, and it’s another thing entirely to walk the walk.
Ovechkin could play the game of his life in Game 7 and usher in a new era by leading the Caps to their first conference finals appearance since 1998. With his cannon shot and frightening power-speed combination, he is fully capable of dominating a single game. But in most cases, it takes contributions from the entire lineup.
Ovi and the Caps are yet to shake the tag of a team that fails to finish the job. Despite plenty of shot attempts, Ovechkin has run into a slump. He enters Game 7 without a point in four consecutive games and is a minus-two over this stretch. Playmaking center Nicklas Backstrom recorded an assist in Game 1. Since then, he is pointless in five consecutive games. It’s going take a top-to-bottom effort.
The Rangers have walked the walk. They thrive in pressure-cooker Game 7s. Everybody knows that this team succeeds because it has a collection of players that approach every game with a clean-slate mentality.
“We know it’s going to be a game that’s all about desperation and how much you want it,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “Just play smart hockey. You can’t be taking stupid penalties. You’ve got to be disciplined, you’ve got to get pucks deep. That’s what it comes down to.”
The Rangers have won each of their last five Game 7s. Hagelin, captain Ryan McDonagh, alternate captain Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, Kevin Klein and injured winger Mats Zuccarello have never lost a Game 7.
“We’re confident,” Hagelin said. “We’ve played in this situation before. We know what we can do in Game 7s. We’re going into the game thinking we’re gonna win.”
The Broadway Blueshirts don’t make predictions, they just get results.
“We let them talk,” Hagelin said of the Caps. “We’re gonna do everything we can to focus on (ourselves) and what we can do to win the game.”
LUNDQVIST IS RESTED, FOCUSED FOR GAME 7
It all starts with the supremely focused Henrik Lundqvist. In his last five Game 7 appearances, Lundqvist is 5-0 with a 0.80 goals-against average, a .973 save percentage and one shutout. He is the only goaltender in NHL history to win five consecutive Game 7s.
In his past nine games facing elimination at MSG, Lundqvist is 9-0 with a 0.97 GAA, a .968 SV percentage and two shutouts. King Henrik has allowed one goal or less in eight of those nine victories.
Following Game 6, it was evident just how gassed Lundqvist was. The Rangers failed to record a shot attempt in the final 14:56, piling on the pressure on Lundqvist. Between the conclusion of Sunday’s game and now, he’s had a lot of time to prepare and recover.
His body is ready. So is his mind. Lundqvist excels because of steely, stay-in-the-moment focus.
“The past is the past,” Lundqvist said. “You don’t think about it. You just go in there and approach it the same way we approached the last game and the game before that. It’s definitely great memories to have – when you (have) big games, important games at home. But (Game 7) is a new opportunity, a new team here, so you have to be in the moment.
“You can’t think about last year or the year before that. It doesn’t really matter. You stay in the moment right now. My only concern right now is how can I prepare the best way and go out and play my best game. That’s the only thing on my mind right now.”
In his first season with the Rangers, defenseman Dan Boyle has been impressed by Lundqvist’s ability to string together top-drawer performances.
“Goalies at this level can have an outstanding game,” Boyle said. “He seems to put them back-to-back-to-back over and over again. His consistency is what separates him from the rest.”
HAGELIN EXPECTS BIG THINGS FROM BIG-GAME BRASSARD
Since joining the Rangers in 2013, Brassard has recorded a team-leading 32 points. This playoffs, he has notched points in seven of 11 postseason games. He leads all Rangers with eight playoff points and is tied for the team lead with four points this series.
The bigger the game, the better Brassard plays. He’s an emotional player and every teammate can see the passion that ignites his game. He wants it so badly.
“He loves winning, he loves the big moments,” Hagelin said. “He wants to be the hero, he wants to be the go-to guy. In games like this, those are the type of players you want. You want guys that are ready to win, guys that are ready to do whatever it takes to win games. You can definitely see that he steps his game up in Game 7s. He’s going to do well.”
BOYLE CREDITS FOURTH-LINE CONTRIBUTIONS
It takes four lines. With Zuccarello sidelined, head coach Alain Vigneault was forced to shuffle his lines. The pressure was on James Sheppard to step in and solidify the fourth line as dependable center Dominic Moore was elevated to center the third line.
The Rangers are fortunate to have a versatile forward in Sheppard, who is comfortable at wing or center. Sheppard plays a powerful, heads-up game all over the ice. In Game 6, Sheppard dug out the puck behind the net to set up Boyle’s power drive at 4:24 of the third period. The goal proved to be the difference as the Rangers sneaked out of D.C. with a 4-3 victory.
“I’ve known him for a few years now,” Boyle said. “He’s a big body. He can skate real well. Unfortunately, he had some injury trouble. Aside from that, he’s a very intelligent player and pretty hard to knock off the puck.”
Both Sheppard and Tanner Glass have played unsung roles during the playoffs. Boyle appreciates the unique aspects the duo brings with their heavy game.
“They both play a different role on this team than most guys,” Boyle said. “They have to be physical. They’re big guys that can hold on to pucks. When they chip in offensively like they did last game, that’s an added bonus. That’s usually the sign of a team that’s going to go a fair ways (deep in the playoffs).”
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.