BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
If any Rangers fan wondered why they haven’t seen their team hoist the Stanley Cup since 1994, it’s because their best players never came through in a big moment in the playoffs.
Their core players never had the goods to get it done, especially Henrik Lundqvist in net. It’s why they were known as a nice playoff team and nothing more. It’s why no one thinks much of them when people talk about memories of New York playoff teams. They never gave that big moment when it really mattered, even though they rallied from 3-1 series deficits to win their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals and participated in one Stanley Cup Final.
While Rangers fans had their team in 5 against the Penguins, I picked the Penguins to win in 6 because I wondered if this core of Rangers had what it took to do well in the playoffs. For this team, it’s many players getting a taste of the playoffs for the first time in their careers.
In the end, the Rangers fans laughed last, even though it took seven games and a comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. I am sure those city slickers will say the Rangers in four against the Carolina Hurricanes (Hurricanes in 5). Whatever.
But on this Sunday night, the Rangers and their johnny-come-lately hockey fans can enjoy this. The Rangers stars played like stars in a moment of truth as Artemi Panarin scored the game-winner in overtime, and Mika Zibanejad scored the game-tying goal in the Rangers’ 4-3 Game 7 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their performance is why the Rangers will play the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference semifinals that begin Wednesday night at PNC Arena.
The Rangers needed a core player that could rise to the moment in the third period. They trailed the Penguins 3-2, and they were 5:45 away from losing Game 7. A drunk Rangers fan can say anyone can score, and it would be great, but this is a moment where the Rangers needed a star to be that guy. Pressure makes diamonds out of a player in the sense that he becomes folklore to the fanbase. A moment where a star can make his own legacy in his city and for his organization.
It was Zibanejad that answered it by scoring the game-tying goal in that period. He scored on a shot from the inside edge of the left circle on Andrew Copp’s pass.
That goal was his third goal of the series with all of his three goals coming in the last two games. To cap off a great night he had, he finished with three points, seven shot attempts with four shots on goals and 18-for-25 on faceoffs.
So not only did he find a way to save their season in Game 7, but he did it again in an elimination game the other night by scoring a couple of goals in the Rangers’ 5-3 victory over the Penguins in Game 6 Friday night at Pittsburgh.
After being dominated by the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guntzel-Bryan Rust line for most of the series, Zibanejad asserted himself when it mattered the most in two elimination games. That speaks well of him that he would find a way. It shows his toughness and resilience about him.
Over the years, most of the Rangers’ core players tend to be soft in these moments. So it was refreshing and neat to see a Ranger grow up to be a man in the playoffs. Right in the nick of time.
Zibanejad’s goal set up what Panarin did. The Rangers signed Panarin to a lucrative deal a few years ago to be the guy to shine in playoff games. They signed him to be their next Mark Messier. In this Game 7, he did by scoring the game-winner. The moment found him right there. He let it rip, and the goal went to the net. Just something no one can teach. Either a player has that skill and gift to do it or he does not. A player needs to let the game come to him in a situation like overtime. On this night, it was Panarin’s finest hour as a Ranger to do both.
This was not an easy series for the Rangers. It certainly wasn’t for Sunday night’s heroes. They could have folded when the Penguins took a 3-1 series lead. They were the anti-Minnesota Wild. They went to work and found a way as a result of their core players producing. They reflect the team’s identity of “No Quit in New York”.
Their stars got the job done. They made it count. This should be the takeaway of this decisive game.
Who knows what this will lead up to? No question Rangers fans will get carried away about Stanley Cup championship dreams never mind the rounds get harder, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning still in the midst after they showed their playoff mettle by tying the series three times to win Game 7. They have championship dreams now that their stars show they have the playoff goods. Shoot, they got liquored up and excited after the Rangers won Game 5, which had them trailing 3-2, so yeah they will get carried away.
On this Sunday night, Rangers fans earned the right to boast. It’s rare they have moments they can enjoy, so they earned the right to have their fun, even if they were in denial about a comeback.
When their team boasts stars that know how to get it done in Game 7, Rangers fans can be smug and haughty for one day.
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