GREENBURG, NY — Alexis Lafreniere could be on the ice or on the street in his hometown of Saint-Eustache, Quebec, when it was time to pretend it was Game 7 he was always wearing the red, white and blue of the Montreal Canadiens and playing at the Bell Center in front of more than 20,000.
Well, Lafreniere will be in Game 7 for real on Sunday, and he’ll be wearing red, white and blue. Only this time the colors represent the New York Rangers and he’ll be playing in front of 18,000 screaming fans at Madison Square Garden when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round (7pm ET; TBS, SN360, SNE, SNO, SNP, MSG, ATTSN-PT).
The winner moves to the second round, the loser to the offseason.
It is the first Game 7 at Madison Square Garden since May 29, 2015 and the ninth of all time. New York is 7-1 in the previous eight.
“Just to play in one, it’s really hard to believe,” said Lafreniere, the Rangers’ second-year forward. “It is very special.”
[RELATED: Complete Rangers vs. Penguins series coverage]
The Rangers and Penguins got to this point after some wild emotional swings in the last two games.
Pittsburgh appeared in Game 5 at the Garden full of confidence after winning Games 3 and 4 at home 14-6 combined to take a 3-1 series lead. The Penguins opened up a 2-0 lead and were in complete control more than halfway through the second half.
But Sidney Crosby left the game with an upper body injury with less than six minutes left in the second, Rangers scored three goals in a row and ended up winning 5–3.
The Penguins went home still leading the series and with another opportunity to fend off the Rangers and move on, but they were without Crosby. It didn’t seem to matter from the start because once again they opened up a 2-0 lead.
But the Rangers fought back again, scoring the next three goals and winning 5-3 to become the third team in NHL history to avoid elimination with back-to-back multi-goal comeback victories, joining the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers and 1950’s Detroit Red Wings.
It is the fourth time the Rangers have forced a Game 7 after losing 3-1 in a best-of-7 series; they are 3-0 in each of the previous 7 games, including against the Penguins in the second round in 2014.
“It’s a good thing, but we have to start playing probably in the first half,” said the Rangers forward. Artemi Panarin he said.
This will be the Rangers’ focus in Game 7.
Panarin said he’d like them to replicate the start they had in Game 1, when they went out with energy and their skating legs aggressively preceded the Penguins to force turnovers and play with the puck in the offensive zone.
New York led 2-0 in less than 24 minutes of Game 1, but it was the Penguins who fought back and ended up winning 4-3 in triple overtime.
“That’s a perfect example, if we could start every game like that, that would be great,” said Panarin. “I don’t know why we can’t do this.”
They don’t because the Penguins also have a say, and they could also have some reinforcements on Sunday with the possible returns of Crosby and goalie. Tristan Jarrywho has yet to play in the series because of a lower body injury he suffered on April 14.
Crosby and Jarry attended an optional practice on Saturday and may be available for Game 7. Rickard Rakellwho has not played since suffering an upper body injury early in Game 1.
“We’re going to take each day as it comes,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “I won’t speculate at this point. They’re obviously on ice. Right now, that’s encouraging. They’re making progress.”
Penguins also have more experience on their side.
Eleven of the 20 players they could wear have combined to play in 40 games 7. That number includes Crosby and Rakell, but not forward Brian Boyle (seven game 7s), who suffered an upper body injury in game 6 and did not skate on Saturday.
Crosby and Penguins Center Evgeni Malkin both are 5-2 in game 7s.
The Rangers have eight players with a combined 20 appearances in Game 7 among the 20 they must wear, led by the forward. Chris Kreider‘s six, all with the Rangers. He’s 5-1.
“We’ve been treating every game since we went down like it’s Game 7,” Kreider said. “It was do or die for us, so nothing changes.”
Sullivan won all three games 7 he coached with the Penguins. He also lost one as head coach of the Boston Bruins in 2004. Rangers’ Gerard Gallant lost the only Game 7 he coached, which was with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2019.
“There are a lot of emotions, and then there are disappointments, you have to be able to dust yourself off, get back into the fight,” Sullivan said. “We are obviously disappointed after [Friday] game of the night as far as the result is concerned. But we have a great opportunity ahead. That’s how we have to look at it. We have a very capable group. We’re excited.”
Independent NHL.com correspondent Wes Crosby contributed to this story