NEW YORK - Henrik Lundqvist went from shaking his head in disgust to raising his arms in celebration when time finally ran out on the Washington Capitals.
Such is life as a New York Ranger these days.
Lundqvist was perfect in yet another nail-biting game that was razor close throughout the tension-filled, seven-game series, until the Capitals cut the Rangers' brief two-goal lead to one in the third period of Game 7. But Washington couldn't muster much else, and New York held on for a 2-1 victory on Saturday night that sent the top-seeded Rangers into the Eastern Conference finals against the No. 6 New Jersey Devils.
"We didn't expect the first blowout," said Rangers forward Brad Richards, who staked his team to a 1-0 lead just 1:32 in. "We expected another tight game. It came down to that again. It's just the way this series has gone, and it didn't change."
Michael Del Zotto also scored for the Rangers, who enjoyed the two-goal lead for all of 38 seconds before Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik made it 2-1 with 9:17 remaining.
Coming into Game 7, these teams were tied or within one goal of each other for 90 percent of the time, and the finale provided much of the same.
Lundqvist finished with 22 saves for the Rangers, who improved to 5-0 in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden. Now they will face the Atlantic Division-rival Devils in a rematch of the 1994 East finals, won dramatically by New York on Stephane Matteau's double-overtime goal in Game 7. That propelled the Rangers toward their first Cup title in 54 years.
It was that series that truly put this regional rivalry on an international stage. With stars on both sides, the Rangers and Devils, separated by just six miles and the Hudson River, played 27 periods of dramatic, tense hockey that ultimately resulted in each team winning a Stanley Cup over the next 13 months.
This next installment will open Monday in New York. The Devils have been off since eliminating the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 on Tuesday.
"It feels good to get that win," Rangers forward Marian Gaborik said. "You have to enjoy it for a little bit, but Monday we start from scratch again. We need to feel good about ourselves and get ready for the next series."
New York and Washington alternated wins and losses from Game 1 on, and this one didn't come easy for the Rangers, who missed a chance to eliminate the Capitals in Game 6 on the road.
It was yet another heartbreaker for Washington, which was trying to reach the conference finals for the third time. Six of the Capitals' seven playoff losses were by one goal, and only one of their 14 games overall were decided by more than one.
As they came off the ice following the final buzzer, the Capitals could be seen and heard smashing their sticks against the wall as they headed down the hallway to their dressing room.
"It's disappointing," said Braden Holtby, who made 29 saves. "We really did believe in here that we had the team to do it all. We gave ourselves a great chance. It's a tough loss. What we can take out of it is that New York is a very good team. We didn't leave anything on the table."
Before the cheering subsided following Del Zotto's goal, Hamrlik sent a shot off New York forward Derek Stepan that fluttered past Lundqvist for his only blemish of the night and left him shaking his head.
Suddenly, the jubilant crowd was thrown back into a state of nervousness, even though the score board pleaded all night for the fans to "Believe."
"Anytime you experience a surge like this, the momentum can turn. But we didn't let it happen," Del Zotto said. "We weren't happy about some of our play in the middle period but we found a way to keep them at bay."
The shots were 12-11 in favor of the Rangers in the scoreless second period, and New York took over in the third with an 11-4 edge.
Both the Rangers and the Capitals reached the second round of this year's playoffs with Game 7 wins. New York knocked out Ottawa, and seventh-seeded Washington eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
History isn't all on the Rangers' side. Since playoff expansion, no club has played 14 games in the first two rounds and went on to capture the Cup. They did reverse a recent trend in which Washington eliminated them from the playoffs in two of the previous three years, including the Capitals' comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round in 2009.
New York played a very disciplined game, taking only one penalty for delay of game against Ruslan Fedotenko in the third period. The Rangers' power play did nothing on its two chances, but keeping Washington's man-advantage unit off the ice helped secure this win.
The Capitals tried to pull Holtby for an extra skater with 1:22 left in the game, but he had to scramble back to cover the vacated net before he ever got to the bench.
He finally got off the ice, and the Capitals pressured in the Rangers' end. The puck was stuck in the corner when the final seconds ran out, and Lundqvist thrust both arms in the air as streamers poured down from the ceiling.
Matching the Capitals' quick start in Game 6, the Rangers jumped out quickly and took a 1-0 lead when Richards scored on New York's first shot.
PHT: The Penguins' win in Game 4 shoved the Senators to the brink of elimination, but Ottawa has vowed to bring a better effort tonight (Coverage at 6:30 p.m. ET; Live Extra, NBCSN).
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