New York Rangers 2, Ottawa Senators 1
NEW YORK — Even the most unexpected joy ride can end suddenly, with a thud.
So it was in Manhattan Thursday night when the plucky Ottawa Senators, contenders in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series until the last drop of the puck, fell in seven games to the New York Rangers.
The Rangers delivered a 2-1 victory to their raucous fans, making the club a perfect 4-0 in Game 7s at MSG. They’re a grinding team, and this was the Rangers at their grinding best.
The series will go into the NHL record books as a first seed beating a No. 8, but that scoreline won’t represent how close the Senators were to an upset, at least until the critical moments of Game 7. Though the stage suddenly looked too big for some of Ottawa’s players, and not just the kids, either, in the end the Senators lacked nothing more than a big play late in the game. They fully expected to come back, as they had so many times this season.
To the surprise of no one, captain Daniel Alfredsson played his heart out in what could have been his swan song as a Senator. Whether or not he returns, he leaves a legacy for the next wave to follow.
“It’s an empty feeling,” said Alfredsson, “especially when the game goes down to the last seconds.
Alfredsson said it “feels weird” and called it “tough” that the playoffs are suddenly over.
With so many young players getting their first taste of playoff action, Senators general manager Bryan Murray and head coach Paul MacLean could have not have scripted a better scenario than a late-season push to a playoff position and then an extended series to chalk up to experience.
Fans of the Senators will hardly be beating themselves up over this defeat. They were thrilled that their team could be here, in a could’ve-gone-either-way playoff series, at the end of a season devoted to retooling for the future.
The Senators, themselves, though, will take a different view, as they cast a look around at the scorched earth of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs to see what an opportunity they have missed. With so many of the most highly-skilled, highly-paid NHL rosters now making vacation or world championship plans, the path was clear for a lower seed to go on a long run this spring.
All season, the Senators were a team that dared to seize openings, and it will sting, to have this door closed on them so abruptly with losses in Games 6 and 7 of a series they had in their grasp.
“It felt like we had something special going,” said centre Jason Spezza, “that’s what makes it disappointing.”
The loss marks the fifth time the Senators have clashed with an Original Six club, and Ottawa has lost all five. The previous four were against the Toronto Maple Leafs between 2000 and 2004.
Both teams were into it early, trading chances and clearing out the front of the net with zeal. Throughout the series, goals have been scarce and that didn’t figure to change in the deciding game.
As usual, the Rangers selflessly threw their bodies at pucks, blocking nearly as many shots (23) as the Senators put on the net, 27.
“It’s like playing against six goalies,” said Senators winger Nick Foligno.
In a first period that got the series finale off to a smoking start, including fans chanting obscenities at Senators players, Craig Anderson kept the visitors in the game with a couple of terrific stops on Marian Gaborik. Anderson was fortunate, too, that while he was lying on the ice behind the net after getting bumped by Brandon Prust, Rangers defenceman Dan Girardi took aim at the open net from the point but blasted his shot wide.
These and other adventures around Anderson and Henrik Lundqvist kept the game scoreless after one. The Senators had the only power play of the period, but weren’t able to get pucks through a wall of blue.
In the second period, the Senators were guilty of over-committing on defence, getting caught on odd-man rushes and abandoning coverage. It was only a matter of time before they paid the price.
The Blueshirts did get on the board early in the second, converting a two-on-one chance created when Jared Cowen went for the hit at the blueline, and defenceman Marc Staal jumped up to beat Anderson.
Dan Girardi, left all alone in front, put the Rangers up by two, and oddly, right in the middle of a derisive “Alfie” chant to mock Alfredsson, but the captain got his revenge a few minutes later. On a power play, Alfredsson ripped a slapshot to the short side of Lundqvist.
With Alfredsson pondering retirement after the season, fans in Ottawa will savour that blast, just in case it’s his last.