NEW YORK – Throughout this long marathon of a season, Brad Richards has tried to be the consummate teammate. Even when he struggled through an inconsistent regular season, it was all about others.
Even in a year during which he scored the least amount of points in a season since the 2008-’09 campaign, Richards kept positive, never forgetting to assist his teammates through the long season.
Saturday night, during the Rangers’ second do-or-die Game 7 of these playoffs, Richards took a feed from the hard-charging Carl Hagelin and one-timed it into the net just 92 seconds into the decisive game. The Rangers never relinquished the lead from there, winning 2-1 over the Capitals to advance to their first Eastern Conference final since 1997, and a matchup with cross-town rival New Jersey.
In the last 11 playoff games in which his team has faced elimination, Richards has now scored five goals and eight assists.
“That’s the type of player he is. He’s in the situation a lot of times and he always seems to be the go-to-guy,” Hagelin said. “That’s probably something growing up, he was the guy everyone was looking up to. He’s been great for us all playoffs.”
“He’s been great,” Brian Boyle said of the Rangers’ top-line center. “He’s been great for me, you get down on yourself, things weren’t going in early, he’s been great to me, he’s been great to other guys, he’s a fun guy to be around. He’s a huge part to our club.”
“It’s a big goal — not because it’s my goal,” said Richards. “Whoever scores that goal – the first goal for our team, in this game, on home ice – it’s a big goal. It gets the nerves out. You don’t exhale, but you have the 1-0 lead now, you got the crowd in it, they’re not waiting for something to happen. Then, you play.”
And play they did. Through a scoreless second period, then into an impossibly tense third. With 9:55 left in the third, Marian Gaborik’s shot was blocked by center Brooks Laich in the slot, allowing Michael Del Zotto a wrister that beat Holtby for a 2-0 lead.
When defenseman Roman Hamrlik answered with a tally of his own just :38 later, Del Zotto’s goal became the game-winner as the Rangers held off the Caps to win the series.
“I was just happy to contribute. It was a big goal for us,” said Del Zotto. “We said coming out of the second intermission we needed to get that next one to get insurance. Then, they scored next shift. Game of momentum shifts and surges, and we did a good job of getting the win.”
“We certainly know how to make it interesting, that’s for sure. Especially with that lead in the third, the confidence we showed to keep fore-checking, we didn’t give them anything,” Staal said. “That was a big part of it. We talked about it, but a lot of times that doesn’t happen because your natural tendency is to back off. We kept fore-checking and were creating chances.”
For Richards, it was yet another chance for him to make his name as one of the most clutch players currently in the NHL. It’s a mindset; some players are scared of Game 7’s. One mistake could end their season; one moment can make you the hero. Richards, who won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Lightning, has been a hero more often than not.
“He’s been there,” said Boyle. “There were times when he wasn’t scoring or doing what he wanted to do, but he was still that guy – he’s great to me. Just watching him lead by example and not letting his dissatisfaction with his play at certain times affect him.”
“He steps up in these moments. You saw it tonight, you see it last series,” said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. “It seems like he thrives on these moments. Right through the year he’s been big for us, and he’s going to have to continue for us.”
So now, it’s to the Eastern Conference finals, the first time since 1997 the Rangers have advanced past the halfway mark of the playoffs. And, it’s the Hudson River Rivalry, as New York will face New Jersey for the right to play for the Stanley Cup against either Los Angeles or Phoenix.
“It’s a huge win for us. Guys stepped up in big moments,” said Callahan. “We’ll enjoy this tonight, then tomorrow gotta get focused. We play again Monday.”
The team that scored first won all seven games of the series.
Del Zotto’s game-winner is the third time in these playoffs a Rangers defenseman has scored the game-winning goal. Dan Girardi had the winner in Game 7 of the conference quarters, and Marc Staal had the overtime winner in Game 5 of the conference semis.