NEW YORK – When Carl Hagelin scored the overtime winner midway through overtime, he did more than send the Rangers into the second round of the playoffs.
He gave his team a chance to breathe. He gave his team a chance to recover from the bumps and bruises of a physical series. He gave his team a chance to do something it hasn’t had a chance to do since the first round in 2008, the last time the Rangers won a series in less than six games.
Their next game isn’t likely to be until at least next Thursday, and they won’t even practice again until Monday.
“I think it’s good for us right now,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 37 saves in the winning effort. “We have a couple guys that need a couple days to recover and take care of some stuff. I think it’s huge for us, to regroup a little bit and come ready for the second round.”
“Anytime you can close out a series and heal some bumps and bruises – which we certainly have a few – it’s a good thing. We’ll take the next couple of days here to recuperate and recover, and we’ll get right back to strategizing for the next series.”
Perhaps the most pressing injury concern is to first-line winger Mats Zuccarello, who took a shot off the side of his head during the first period, and did not return. After the game, the Rangers released little information on his condition, saying only that he was being evaluated.
During last season’s improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers were forced to play back-to-back seven-game series in the opening two rounds. There will be no such drama in the first round this year,
“You don’t want to lean too much on last year,” said center Derek Stepan. “It’s brand new; everything is new. Every situation is different. Like I said, we wanted to get better through the series. We wanted to make sure we were competing the right way every single night, and I thought we did that.”
After struggling through the start of Game 4, the Rangers knew they needed a better effort in Game 5, and that’s exactly what they got. They dominated the opening 20 minutes, but only scored once thanks to the brilliance of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (34 saves).
“We played a good team and kept it close,” said Fleury. “But at the end of the day, we still lost.”
“You try not to change anything, but you know what’s at stake,” said Henrik Lundqvist. “You know the importance of the game. The second you win Game 4, it’s a huge win. At the same time the pressure is kind of on us to take care of home ice and not go back to Pittsbugh.”
Well, they’re staying home thanks to Hagelin’s heroics.
“I can’t describe it,” Hagelin said of his emotions after scoring the series-clincher. “It’s just goose bumps, [then the celebration began]. One of the happiest moments of my life.”