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How Rangers and Devils survived Game 7 thrillers

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How Rangers and Devils survived Game 7 thrillers

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW YORK (AP) -- With so little offense from their key playmakers, the New York Rangers dipped into a backup plan that no NHL team had used in more than 60 years. Goals were at a premium throughout the first-round playoff series between the top-seeded Rangers and the upstart Ottawa Senators, who were looking to advance out of the No. 8 hole. New York defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi staked the Rangers to a two-goal lead in the second period, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist bent but didn't break as the Rangers held on for a 2-1 win in Game 7 on Thursday night. Not since 1950 had an NHL team won a Game 7 without the benefit of a goal from a forward, according to a fact released by the Rangers, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau. "We found a way," relieved Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "We were fortunate. I'm very happy with the group, and they should be real proud of themselves -- for about an hour." The Rangers earned the right to play the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals, a seven-game upset winner over the No. 2 Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions. Game 1 is Saturday in New York. It wasn't easy for New York, and after a home loss in Game 5, it almost wasn't likely. But the Eastern Conference's top-seeded team gutted out a big road win and then made it count in Game 7. "You don't want to relax too much" said forward Derek Stepan, who had three points in the Rangers' Game 6 win and then helped set up the opening goal in the clincher. "We have a big round ahead of us and we have to make sure we stay focused and keep that emotion high." Staal and Girardi scored 4:18 apart in the second period, Lundqvist made 26 saves and the Rangers completed a rally from a 3-2 series hole. "We were talking about it in Ottawa that if we could bring it back here, the fans would be behind us," Girardi said. "The way we play all year got us ready for games like this. We came with a great effort (in Ottawa) and another one tonight." Staal broke the scoreless deadlock, and Girardi gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead with his first NHL playoff goal. Lundqvist allowed Daniel Alfredsson's power-play goal in the second but stood tall the rest of the way to send the Rangers to the second round. The Rangers hadn't hosted a Game 7 since their Stanley Cup victory over Vancouver in 1994, but they stayed perfect at home in deciding games -- winning their fourth. New York is 4-5 overall in Game 7s, and the Senators dropped to 0-5. "We knew they were going to come out strong," said Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who made 27 saves. "I just wanted to make sure that I gave my team an opportunity to win the hockey game -- make the next save for the guys. "They had their fans. They had lots of energy." Lundqvist withstood tons of pressure from the Senators, who spent most of the closing 5 minutes in the Rangers' end. The win wasn't secure until Sergei Gonchar tripped Carl Hagelin as he skated toward the empty net with 36.2 seconds remaining. "It's playoff hockey at its finest," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "They are making a last surge, trying to play for their season. We stood in there and blocked some shots. Hank came up with some key saves. It's how we have been playing all year, and we have to continue to do that." New York rallied from a 3-2 series deficit for just the second time, building off the momentum of its 3-2 victory in Ottawa on Monday night. "It was a hard series against a very good team," Tortorella said. "I thought both teams went toe to toe in all areas of the game. Sometimes the first round is the hardest round. That's all this is, one round." Just like in Game 6, when the Rangers scored three goals in the second period, New York used the middle frame to take over. While waiting for their big guns -- Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards -- to spark the offense, a pair of defensemen stepped up to get the Rangers going. "It was big for our team," Girardi said. "We were able to take care of our end first, but if we get goals it's nice, as well." Rookie Chris Kreider, whose first NHL goal was the winner Monday, forced a turnover and got the puck into the Ottawa end. Callahan nudged it ahead to Stepan, who sent a pass from the right circle to the left circle to Staal for his first goal of the series 4:46 into the second. Staal, limited to 46 regular-season games because of the lingering effects of a concussion sustained last season, thrust his hands up in delight when his shot beat Anderson. Staal had only two goals in the regular season. "I feel pretty good," Staal said. "The last few weeks of the season and into the playoffs I feel my confidence is back and I feel a lot better on the ice." It didn't take all that long for Madison Square Garden to erupt in cheers again for another blue-liner. Rangers forward Brandon Prust had the puck knocked off his stick, but teammate Brandon Dubinsky was there to get it and smack it into the slot to Girardi, who wound up for a hard slap shot just a few feet from the crease and slammed it past Anderson at 9:04. Like Staal, Girardi isn't known for great offensive prowess. He had five goals while playing in all 82 regular-season games, but had scored only once in the previous 44 -- including the first six of this series. Just when the nervous towel-waving fans began to relax and feel confident that the Rangers would survive and move on to the second round, Alfredsson gave the Senators a big boost and brought back the tension. Ottawa went on its second power play when Michael Del Zotto was called for cross-checking nemesis Chris Neil in front of the net. Alfredsson, who missed three games in the series after an elbow from Hagelin in Game 2 gave him a concussion, made New York pay. Alfredsson took a pass above the left circle from Chris Phillips and one-timed a shot past Lundqvist with 8:26 left in the second to bring the Senators back within a goal. Now the question remains if the 39-year-old Senators captain will retire after 16 NHL seasons -- all with Ottawa. "I'll take some time and see how I feel physically and mentally after time off, but this year has been unbelievable," said Alfredsson, who struggled this season with concussions. "I had a lot of fun, and it's been a great group of guys to be a part of. They've kept me upbeat and happy when I'm a grumpy old man at times." NOTES: Former Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy rejoined the Ottawa lineup after being scratched the previous three games. He replaced Matt Carkner, who was a healthy scratch in Game 1, played in the second game, was suspended for Game 3, and was in the lineup for the previous three. ... Staal has three career playoff goals. Alfredsson has 47. ... It is the first time since 1996 that no Canadian teams reached the second round.

Devils 3, Panthers 2 (2OT) SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) -- Adam Henrique's first Game 7 was one he'll never forget. The rookie scored his second goal of the game at 3:47 of the second overtime to give the New Jersey Devils a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers early Friday. He skated out of the right circle and into the slot, getting goalie Jose Theodore to guess wrong. It sent New Jersey to Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference semifinal opener Sunday, and the resurgent Panthers home for the summer. "Got a pretty good bounce," Henrique said. "Found myself alone and tried to get it on net." Just like that, the Devils were winners of a postseason series for the first time since 2007. And with the game ending in the early hours of April 27, it marked the 20th anniversary of Martin Brodeur's first postseason appearance in goal for New Jersey. Henrique doesn't remember Brodeur's debut. After all, he was only 2. But this night, that'll be unforgettable. "Pretty cool, I guess," said Brodeur, who stopped 43 shots. Stephen Gionta also scored in regulation for New Jersey, which wasted a 2-0 lead in the third period. Stephen Weiss and Marcel Goc scored third-period goals for the Panthers, and Theodore made 33 saves. The Panthers made a surprising run to the Southeast Division title this season, earning their first postseason berth in 12 years. "This is not where the hockey people predicted us to be at the start of the year," Weiss said. "We did some good things. We're obviously disappointed not being able to move on. It's been a fun year. It's been a fun playoff in front of our fans." The Panthers thought they were on the board 1:50 into the third period when Mike Weaver's shot from the right point got past Brodeur. Shawn Matthias was whistled for goaltender interference, nullifying the goal -- and further firing up the already desperate Panthers. "Yeah, they probably missed one on that one," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "But what are you going to do?" Weiss cut the lead in half at 5:02 of the third, burying a one-timer from the right circle after a pass from Brian Campbell. The equalizer nearly came 3 minutes later, when Weiss had another shot blocked, Scottie Upshall nearly got his stick on the rebound -- the Devils' Andy Greene tied him up just enough to thwart that chance -- and Kris Versteeg's try was batted away. Didn't matter. The Panthers kept coming. And with Marek Zidlicky in the penalty box for a delay of game call, Florida got the franchise's biggest goal in 16 years. Shawn Bergenheim made a nifty move to get free for a shot that Brodeur stopped. The rebound rolled left, nearly on the goal line, and Goc knocked it home from an extremely tough angle to tie it at 2 with 3:28 left. And to overtime they went. "Exhausting," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "A fitting end to the series." The Devils and Panthers played 11 games this season. New Jersey won six, Florida won five, and the Devils outscored the Panthers 29-28. As close as could be, all the way to the end. "Just a bounce here or there," Versteeg said. "That's what happens." The first 2 minutes of regulation -- probably long forgotten by the time the game ended -- went about as badly as could be for Florida, which quickly found itself down both a goal and a center. Henrique opened the scoring when he tipped the puck past Theodore to get New Jersey on the board and silence an anxious crowd. Anton Volchenkov camped out at the left point, waited for a pass from behind the net to bounce off the boards and carom his way, then fired a one-timer that Henrique -- considered by many to be the league's best rookie -- directed into the net. A half-minute later, things got worse for Florida. Panthers center John Madden and winger Tomas Kopecky collided near center ice, and Madden took the brunt of the big hit. He writhed in agony for several seconds before trying to crawl to the Florida bench, the blood pouring from his face leaving a blotchy red trail along the ice. Two workers emerged to scrape up the mess. New Jersey dominated the opening minutes, taking eight of the first 10 shots. Eventually, the Panthers settled down -- getting 10 shots at Brodeur in the final 10-plus minutes of the first period, yet still heading into the first intermission trailing 1-0. "They got one lucky tip," Kopecky said in a televised interview between periods. "You know, we weren't in a lane and we were kind of cruising around in our zone and it ended up in our net." Lucky or not, it was enough to get the Devils going. And fittingly, Henrique not only got his team started, but then he finished the job. "I think I blacked out when I heard the thud of the back of the net," Henrique said. "It was a great feeling." Greater still for Brodeur, who still has a chance at his fourth Stanley Cup. Brodeur was no fan in this series of Florida's tradition of tossing toy rats on the ice to celebrate. He was the last Devils player to leave the ice, and the last thing he did before joining the dressing-room celebration was to scoop up one of the plastic critters with his stick and send it skyward. "Feels pretty good," Brodeur said. "For a day. And after that, we have to face the Flyers." NOTES: The Devils and Flyers split six meetings this season. It'll be the fifth time in the Brodeur era that the teams have met in the playoffs; Philadelphia won in 2004 and 2010, while New Jersey prevailed on their way to Cup titles in 1995 and 2000. ... Florida had as many broken sticks -- two -- as shots in the second period. ... Madden returned to the ice about 13 minutes after needing to leave following the collision with Kopecky.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.