Friday, May 25, 2012

Seventh Heaven

Game Seven.

When those two words are placed together, they evoke a multitude of emotions from sports fans: excitement, anticipation, desire, hope, nervousness, fear, and even dread, to name a few.

 One of the most emotion-inducing numbers in sports

Unlike a one-and-done tournament format, Game 7 represents the culmination of an evenly-matched playoff series. Over the course of two weeks, fans become familiar with players from both teams. Heroes, goats and villains emerge from great plays, missed opportunities and underhanded tactics.

For the optimistic fan, it is a reward for positive thinking -- a chance to watch their team succeed in the ultimate playoff pressure situation. For the pessimist, Game 7 is surgery without anesthesia -- a fear that every passing second will lead to their team's demise.

 Much like a classic stage performance, Game 7 features comedy and tragedy

Game 7 means everything to a team's season. Win, and you're one step closer to the ultimate goal of capturing a championship. Lose, and there are no more games to play. The failure will stick with you for months -- or possibly even years.

The drama is the drawing card that separates Game 7 from other playoff contests. Countless times, I watched them on TV or listened on the radio, wondering what it must be like to experience such raw emotion in-person.

On Saturday, May 12th, I finally got my chance. The New York Rangers were set to host the Washington Capitals in a do-or-die Game 7 of the NHL's Eastern Conference semifinals.

 My first Game 7 in any sport -- courtesy of the National Hockey League

For much of the 2011-12 regular season, the Capitals were a team in turmoil. After being proclaimed Stanley Cup contenders during the summer, Washington stumbled out of the gate, going 12-9-1 and resulting in the firing of head coach Bruce Boudreau in late November.

Under new coach and former Capitals' great Dale Hunter, the team struggled to adjust to his defense-oriented system, and Washington remained on the outskirts of a playoff berth. As late as March 28th, they were in 9th place in the East. But a late-season surge vaulted the Caps into the #7 seed and a 1st round playoff date with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, whom they defeated in seven games.

 The Capitals' journey to the playoffs was loaded with hurdles

The Rangers, on the other hand, were flying high the entire season under head coach John Tortorella, holding the top spot in the Eastern Conference since late-January. Utilizing their own defense-first approach, New York allowed the fewest goals in the East, thanks in large part to star goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

The playoffs would prove to be a completely different test, however. In the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Rangers were pushed to the limit by the 8th-seeded Ottawa Senators, before finally dispatching the underdog in seven games. Now, New York -- which went 51-24-7 in the regular season -- was facing its second Game 7 in two rounds of the postseason.

 The Rangers learned that the playoffs are a much greater challenge than the regular season

As the clock ticked closer to the 7:30 pm opening faceoff, a warm, summer-like evening greeted those who emerged from the PATH train station on the bustling streets of midtown Manhattan. Tourists, showgoers and locals all lined the sidewalks, trying to reach their destinations.

 Madison Square Garden awaits Game 7 between the Rangers and Capitals

Just two blocks away, however, stood the center of the NHL universe -- at least on this particular night. Madison Square Garden -- dubbed by some as "The World's Most Famous Arena" -- awaited another chapter in its illustrious history.

Outside the Garden, a band dressed in Rangers' attire played for passers-by. Nearby, a statue of Samuel Rea, who was instrumental in the construction of New York City's Penn Station, was adorned in an oversized Blueshirts' jersey. Numerous stores and bars had Rangers' signs and logos displayed in windows.

 Stanley Cup Playoff fever was gripping midtown Manhattan

Just inside the arena, thousands of white rally towels -- proclaiming "It's Up to You, New York" -- were stacked together at the gate entrances, ready to be handed out to everyone in attendance. In just over an hour, nearly all of these towels would be waved in unison.

 No shortage of rally towels for Game 7

With roughly an hour to go until gametime, the Garden's seating area was mostly empty, aside from a small smattering of Rangers' and Capitals' fans. To maintain ice quality, most of the arena lights were turned off, giving the rink a glowing effect. It was the calm before the Game 7 storm.

A dark-and-empty Garden, prior to warmups

When warmups got under way, the players took the ice -- going through the same routines they had used for several preseason games, 82 regular season contests and 13 previous playoff matchups. 

Tonight was different, however. The winner advances to the Eastern Conference final and will be halfway to their goal of taking home the Stanley Cup. The loser faces a four-month vacation, left to wonder what went wrong and when the next opportunity may present itself.

 Not just any ordinary warmup session

Little-by-little, Madison Square Garden began to swell with fans wearing some form of red, white and blue. While a few-hundred Capitals' fans made their presence in the Big Apple, the overwhelming majority were decked out in Rangers' colors.

 Capitals' fans were sparse at Madison Square Garden

As the clock ticked closer to Game 7, the intensity inside the Garden became palpable. With the arena lights dimmed, random chants of "Let's Go, Rangers!" sprung up throughout the crowd, as the scoreboard showed inspiring videos and messages. Some fans waved the rally towels above their heads, while others clapped and yelled encouragement at an empty rink.

 The scoreboard clock ticks closer to gametime

When the Rangers and Capitals took the ice, a mix of hearty cheers and boos filled the arena. The lights were now shining brightly, with the main event about to take place. Nearly eight months of the seasonal grind was about to be determined in 60 minutes of regulation time -- and possibly overtime.

During the singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" by longtime Garden staple John Amirante, balloons in red, white and blue emerged from the arena's four corners. Some took to batting them around like beach balls in the seconds leading up to the opening faceoff.

 Red, white and blue balloons appear during the national anthem

At the drop of the puck, loud but nervous chants of "Let's Go, Rangers!" echoed throughout Madison Square Garden. The fans were now watching helplessly, hoping that their team will make the game-winning play and not the series-losing mistake.

 Opening faceoff in Game 7 

One of the keys to playing a Game 7 at home is getting off to a fast start, to help elevate crowd noise and put the visiting team on its heels. The Rangers would waste no time in accomplishing that feat. Just 1:32 into the contest, center Brad Richards took a pass from Carl Hagelin at the left circle and fired a slap shot past Washington goalie Braden Holtby, beating him on the glove side to give New York a 1-0 lead.

As the Rangers' players gathered and celebrated the goal along the near-side boards, the sold-out crowd of 18,200 was in a frenzy, roaring with delight. The white rally towels waved furiously as the goal horn sounded and spotlights zig-zagged throughout the arena.

 It didn't take long for the Rangers to get on the scoreboard

Once the euphoria of the opening goal subsided, however, the jitters returned for many Rangers' fans. Gaining the lead was achieved, but maintaining that advantage would be the next challenge.

The early lead allowed the Garden faithful to antagonize Washington's best player, left wing Alex Ovechkin. Everytime the Russian superstar touched the puck, a steady stream of boos would rain down from the stands.

 Alex Ovechkin was a verbal target for Rangers' fans throughout the series

The level of focus in the crowd was incredible. Every hit, every shot, every pass and every save was met with a louder-than-normal reaction. For several seconds after a particular play, the seating bowl would buzz with discussion. The tone would be determined by how it affected the Rangers.

Watching from Section 308, I could tell that this was anything but an ordinary game. In fact, it was unlike anything I experienced before -- just as I had hoped.

 Panoramic view of Madison Square Garden from Section 308

The Rangers carried the 1-0 lead into the 1st intermission. During the 18-minute break, fans took time to wander the concourse, get food or hit the restroom. Most importantly, it gave them a chance to catch their collective breath.

 The home team led at the end of the 1st period

Once the teams returned to the ice for the 2nd period, the war of attrition continued. Capitals' and Rangers' players battled for puck possession along the boards, defenders slid in front of shot attempts and the goalies contorted their bodies to make saves. Any and every effort was necessary in this Game 7.

 Rangers and Capitals giving their all in Game 7

Midway through the period, Washington was able to generate some sustained pressure. For over a minute, the Capitals kept the puck in the offensive zone. While defensemen Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik quarterbacked the play, forwards like Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin jockeyed for position in front of the net, hoping to screen Lundqvist or pounce on a rebound to tie the game.

Henrik Lundqvist denies Mike Knuble on the doorstep

The Garden crowd grew antsy as the Rangers struggled to clear the puck. Every time the Caps maintained possession, the fans dressed in blue would groan. Some people stood to release nervous energy, desperately hoping for a break from the stressful moments.

Shots that reached Lundqvist were greeted with gasps, then cheers as the star goalie used his padding to stop the puck. When the little black disc finally moved beyond the Rangers' blue line and into neutral territory, the crowd roared and sighed with relief. Chants of "Hen-rik! Hen-rik!" echoed throughout the Garden, in admiration of the Blueshirts' netminder.

 Lundqvist turns aside another Washington shot

At the other end of the rink, Holtby was up to the task, stopping all 12 shots the Rangers threw his way in the 2nd period. For a 22-year-old rookie playing in just his 21st NHL game -- regular season and postseason combined -- the Washington goalie remained incredibly composed.

 Braden Holtby makes a save amid crease traffic

When the buzzer sounded for the end of the stanza, the scoreboard still read "Rangers - 1, Capitals - 0." New York was now 20 minutes of game action away from the Eastern Conference Finals and a date with the New Jersey Devils. The end of regulation couldn't come quickly enough for Rangers' supporters, however.

 The Rangers' early goal was standing up so far

During the intermission, I turned to the person sitting next to me and joked, "Just another game, right?" Wearing a royal-blue Ryan Callahan jersey, all the man could do was sigh, look to the ceiling and let out an exasperated laugh. Game 7 is not for the faint of heart.

Spotlights accompanied the Rangers' return to the ice for the 3rd period, with Lundqvist leading the charge from the locker room. In the stands, fans waved their rally towels once again, hopeful that the home team could maintain their slim lead and advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

 A rally towel is waved prior to the start of the 3rd period

As the final 20 minutes of regulation got under way, the tension resumed and reached almost-unthinkable levels.

Every time the puck would enter the Rangers' defensive zone, the crowd's breathing collectively became more shallow and rushed. Heart rates started to jump. Some people tried to yell, but couldn't find any strength behind their voice. The score was still 1-0 -- in Game 7 -- with the season on the line.

At the player benches, the magnitude of the moment was evident. During stoppages of play, the forwards and defensemen would continually peer up at the scoreboard in-between swigs of water or Gatorade, going through countless scenarios and game situations in their head. Meanwhile, Rangers' head coach John Tortorella and Capitals' leader Dale Hunter plotted their next strategies.

 Both teams knew what was at stake in this Game 7

New York and Washington seemingly alternated scoring chances in the middle portion of the period. A wraparound attempt by Rangers' forward Brian Boyle was denied by Holtby. At the other end, a one-time slap shot by Ovechkin was turned aside by Lundqvist.

Finally, with 9:55 remaining, Blueshirts' defenseman Michael Del Zotto fired a wrist shot from the high slot that evaded Holtby's outstretched right arm and hit the net, giving the Rangers a 2-0 lead. Madison Square Garden erupted with cheers as nearly all of the 18,200 in attendance stood, clapped and waved their rally towels. Some started to hug in celebration. A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals was that much closer.

 The Rangers celebrate Michael Del Zotto's 3rd period goal

The Capitals, however, had mastered adversity throughout the season. Just 38 seconds after the Del Zotto tally, Washington defenseman Roman Hamrlik received a drop pass from center Brooks Laich, skated into the slot and wristed a wobbly shot that went over Lundqvist's right shoulder and into the goal!

The Garden crowd groaned with disappointment, and suddenly, the butterflies had returned to almost everyone's stomachs. Before the public address announcer could even finish speaking about the Rangers' 2nd goal, their lead was cut in half, to 2-1.

 The Capitals wasted no time in answering the Rangers' goal

Only 36 seconds after the goal, New York left wing Ruslan Fedotenko took a delay of game penalty, resulting in a Capitals' power play. The Rangers were seemingly starting to implode. A sense of dread began to wash over the full arena.

While shorthanded, Boyle provided the Rangers with a scoring chance, jamming the puck under Holtby and over the Capitals' goal line. The referee, however, immediately waved the play dead and said that Holtby had corralled the puck before being pushed into the net. The score was still 2-1, and Rangers' fans started booing the officials.

 Rangers' captain Ryan Callahan gets the "no goal" explanation from the referee

With under 3 minutes remaining, the excitement and intensity of Game 7 overtook the sold-out crowd. Virtually everyone inside Madison Square Garden stood from their seats, looking intently at the action on the ice. Continuous, nervous cheers of "Let's Go Rangers!" emanated from the crowd.

As the game reached the final minute, Washington pulled Holtby in favor of an extra attacker, the last desperate ploy to tie the game. Upon recognizing this, the cheers grew louder. Rangers' fans then started chanting, "Hen-rik! Hen-rik!" in support of their goaltender.

 Empty net for the Capitals

Just over 30 seconds remained as the Capitals pushed into the offensive zone. Rangers' players tried to keep the puck to the perimeter, while Washington focused on setting up scoring chances. Fans were trembling and yelling at no one in particular. Shots by defensemen Mike Green and John Carlson were blocked by blue-shirted defenders.

 One final battle along the boards

As the clock reached :00.0, fans started to wildly celebrate as red, white and blue confetti fell from the Garden ceiling. Rangers' players gathered near their goal to mob Lundqvist and each other with congratulations. New York had won by the slimmest of margins, 2-1, and were heading to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1997.

Confetti falls as the Rangers celebrate a Game 7 win

At the other end, a dejected and exhausted Washington Capitals team milled about the ice, waiting for the traditional post-series handshake. Through bumps, bruises and blood, after scrapping their way through 82 games to reach the playoffs -- then battled through two tough seven-game postseason series -- their season had come to an end.

The crowd continued to cheer as the Rangers and Capitals met one last time at center ice, offering handshakes and pats on the chest for a series well-played. It's a show of sportsmanship that has endured for decades and is unique among professional sports.

 After seven hard-fought games, it's time to shake hands

As the Madison Square Garden crowd exited onto 7th Avenue and 32nd Street in midtown Manhattan, the nearby Empire State Building had its lights shining in blue, honoring the Rangers. In a city of over 10-million people with diverse backgrounds and interests, this particular area in New York was awash in hockey delirium.

 Madison Square Garden, with a blue Empire State Building in the background

It's pretty amazing to consider how over the course of eight or nine months, one game -- or even one particular play -- can determine whether a team's season is a success or failure. In Game 7, that moment occurs right on front of your eyes.

For a journalist or innocent bystander, Game 7 is heaven. The storylines and drama of an all-or-nothing situation are wrapped into a neat little package. For those with a vested rooting interest, it is a combination of heaven and hell -- because Game 7 can lift or crush your spirit.

For me, the only downside to Game 7 was that it had to end.

A classic Game 7, and an amazing experience

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