Here’s my column from The Journal News and LoHud.com today (Associated Press photo):
By Rick Carpiniello
WASHINGTON — When these playoffs began, the Rangers were a mediocre, inconsistent sixth seed. When their first round was two games old, they looked exactly like what they had been for 48 games during the NHL’s regular season.
But funny things happen in the playoffs. There is an evolution. Sixteen teams get in. Eight go home right away. And the eight who move on evolve. You can be a dangerous team in the first round. But all first-round winners are dangerous.
So now the Rangers are that, a dangerous team for Boston. Just as Boston — which looked feeble at times in its first round, failing to put away Toronto, and then falling behind 4-1 in Game 7 — is a dangerous team now, too.
The Rangers are dangerous if they continue to get contributions from their depth, and if they continue to play hard on the forecheck, and in their own end. That might not be enough, of course, if Rick Nash doesn’t pop the cork on some offense, for example.
The Rangers, though, are going to have an edge in any series they play — between the pipes. Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t as good in the 99-day sprint as he had been the season before. But in the past two weeks, he’s been as good as he’s ever been, and better than every other goalie on the globe.
After Game 5 against the Washington Capitals, Lundqvist turned away from the waiting microphones, cameras and notebooks and stared into the top of his locker room stall, at nothing in particular, just out of his mind with frustration and disappointment at allowing Mike Ribeiro’s fluky overtime goal that put the Caps up 3-2 in the series. He flung his blocker. He looked like he was trembling.
Then one of the most competitive athletes in pro sports hung up back-to-back shutouts in elimination games to carry the Rangers into the next round. In the last three games in Washington, he allowed one goal in regulation. He had plenty of help — for example, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, bruised and bloody, holding Alex Ovechkin without a point over the final five games — and after the otherworldly 1-0 win in Game 6, Lundqvist had some offensive support in Game 7.
Still, if he doesn’t make the save on Mike Green’s break-in just moments before Arron Asham scored down on the other end, the Rangers are probably throwing their gear into Hefty bags today, not practicing for Boston.
Somebody used the hockey cliché, telling Lundqvist he “stood on his head.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said with a smile. “I felt I got the support that I needed to play my game, and it’s a lot of credit to the team.
“Obviously the way we played in such an important game is going to help us moving forward. Everybody did the right thing out there, and they played confident, and I felt like we set the tone in the first period, the way we wanted to play.
This is why they’re dangerous now:
“The more we played, the better we played as a team and the more confident we got,” Lundqvist said. “As a goalie, when you feel that confidence from the group, it’s a lot easier to play.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella didn’t want to be too effusive in praising Lundqvist because of the impressive way the other 18 skaters played.
“We have a good group,” he said after the four wins in five games. “We just stay with it. It’s a group that totally understands just taking it one game at a time. And down 2-0, I just didn’t think we were that far off. I think a number of people thought, ‘You’re down 2-0; you’re not going to get this done.’ It is a tough hill to climb. But we just went about our business, taking it one day at a time, and Henrik was obviously fantastic through the series, and we found a way.
“Henrik is our backbone, and for us to continue to play, to get through a series, a goaltender has to be. We certainly know we’re going to get that from Henrik.”