By Justin McCahren
The Saturday night sports schedule featured a pair of game seven playoff clashes. On NHL ice, the New York Rangers hosted the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden. 3,000 miles away, an NBA elimination clash was staged at Staples Center in Los Angeles between the Lakers and Denver Nuggets.
In professional sports, it doesn’t get more intriguing than game 7. Tonight we had the unique aspect of the two largest television markets in America being involved. A game 7 at Madison Square Garden is big no matter what the sport. On a New York stage, everything is amplified. In Los Angeles, the Lakers are the kings of the city. A game seven at Staples Center is like the Academy Awards.
Neither game disappointed. The Rangers immediately set the tone against the Capitals with a goal just 1:32 into the contest. Brad Richards goal for the Blue Shirts got the MSG crowd into it early. The score also looked like it took the air out of Washington, who didn’t put together much of an attack until midway through the second period.
The Capitals dominated most of the second half of the second period. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist remained sturdy in the net for New York. His defensemen in front of him seemed to have a stick on everything. Despite ratcheting up the intensity and taking over the bulk of the possession in the period, the Caps headed into the 2nd intermission still scoreless.
The Rangers continued to stymie the Capitals in the 3rd period. The game remained 1-0 until Michael Del Zotto put New York up 2-0. The MSG faithful only enjoyed the two goal cushion for 38 seconds however. Caps defensemen Roman Hamirlik scored with 9:17 remaining to set up a frantic finish.
Shortly after, the Capitals earned their first power play of the game and the momentum seemed to be shifting. The power play however, was lackluster and unorganized and Washington never seemed to recover. The Rangers nearly scored a third goal, but the officials waived the goal off. Washington never mustered much of an attack in the last 3 minutes.
The Rangers would earn a deserved 2-1 victory to win the series 4-3. The series was close the entire way, every game was decided by 1 goal. The series featured two overtime games. Game 3 was a 3 overtime marathon won by New York, game 5, the other overtime affair was also won by the Rangers. That seemed to be the only measure of seperation between the two teams. New York seemed to get the goals when they most mattered.
The goaltenders for both teams played brilliantly. Capitals revelation Braden Holtby became a star for Washington in these playoffs. He had 29 saves on the night. Henrik Lundqvist meanwhile, proved again why he’s one of the best goalies in the NHL.
The Rangers advance to the Eastern Conference Finals to meet their metro area rivals, the New Jersey Devils. The Devils are well rested after eliminating the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 earlier this week.
The Staples Center in Los Angeles was full of it’s usual stars and celebrities. Game 7 would also be dictated by a star, right? Steve Blake isn’t exactly Kobe Bryant, but he did put on his best Steve Kerr impersonation. He would steal the show for the Lakers as they held off a talented, younger and quicker Denver Nuggets team to advance to Western Conference semifinals.
Blake would score 19 points and go 5-6 from 3 point range. The diminutive guard squelched several Nuggets momentum swings with big shots. While Blake picked up the slack in the backcourt, Los Angeles fans saw something strange in the paint. Both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum came to play. Nuggets coach George Karl summed it up best in his postgame presser, “Their size simply beat out our quickness tonight.” The Lakers twin towers who seem to go AWOL at times in big situations, combined for 35 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.
The Nuggets watched the Lakers build a 16 point lead early in the third quarter. Ty Lawson and Al Harrington would heat up to bring Denver back from the dead in an instant. Both Lawson and Harrington would score 24 points on the night. By the end of the third quarter the Nuggets were down by just one. After shooting 7-27 in the fourth quarter however, the underdog Nuggets saw their chances disappear.
Kobe Bryant meanwhile, played a calculated and controlled game. He knew that he couldn’t force the issue tonight. The Nuggets gameplan was to force bad shots for Bryant and make him rely on his supporting cast. Kobe trusted the same cast that let him down in games 5 and 6, with the noteable addition of Metta World Peace.
World Peace chipped in with 15 points, 4 steals and 2 blocks. To go along with his patented defense, his return was welcome. Pau Gasol led the Lakers with 23 points, while Andrew Bynum scored 16. To go along with their monster night on the boards, Kobe’s trust was rewarded. Bryant sealed the game with a tough 3 point dagger as the shot clock expired to give the Lakers a late 7 point lead. Los Angeles had a 96-87 win when the final buzzer sounded.
The Lakers, pleased with advancing, weren’t in any mood to celebrate. They’re now set to face a rested, young, hungry and motivated Oklahoma City Thunder team. Led by the NBA’s smoothest scorer, Kevin Durant and dynamic point guard Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are one of this years favorites. Not to mention a hot shooting James Harden who took the worst of Metta World Peace’s elbow at the end of the year. He and OKC will have no shortage of motivation.
The Lakers will have to get consistent performances from Gasol and Bynum to compete with the Thunder. The same issues that LA had with Denver, it will have even more so with OKC. As good as Ty Lawson is, Russell Westbrook is simply more seasoned. He will attack the heart of the Lakers defense and slash to the hoop with even more ferocity. Metta World Peace will play an enormous role in trying to contain the biggest issue with the Thunder, Kevin Durant. Durant cannot be stopped, only contained. When World Peace draws Durant as his defensive responsibility, he will have to make Durant as uncomfortable as possible. The series may ride on how physical they allow World Peace to be. Chances are, with the recent history these teams have, Metta will be watched closely and the whistle will blow often. Making Durant uncomfortable will be the differnce in him scoring 40 or being held to 30.
The Nuggets season ends with many positives. Point guard Ty Lawson is one of the games best and is only getting better. Head coach George Karl will no doubt have a couple more pieces added to the puzzle in the offseason. To go along with a young core of Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee and a deep bench, Denver will be a contender in 2013.