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Rangers win Game 7, advance to conference finals

The Rangers qualified for the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1997 by defeating the Capitals, 2-1.

Perhaps this is the way that it had to be.

Two hated rivals, separated by a body of water and 10 miles, will meet in head-to-head competition over the next two weeks to determine which area team will advance to the Stanley Cup finals.

The Rangers qualified for the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1997 by defeating the Capitals, 2-1, in Game 7 Saturday night on Michael Del Zotto’s game- and series-winning goal at 10:05 of the third period.

Del Zotto’s goal gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead. Roman Hamrlik cut the lead in half 38 seconds later with a goal that John Tortorella termed “fluky.”

“Biggest goal of my career. Yeah, it’s a good feeling. It’s always nice to have the game-winner,” Del Zotto said. He corralled a blocked Marian Gaborik shot before lifting a wrist shot past Braden Holtby (29 saves). “Two of their forwards were changing and so were we. So I just tried to get up on the rush and look for any junk. [They] blocked a shot and I guess I was the only one who saw it, corralled it, put it on net and it went in.”

The series win was the Rangers’ first over the Capitals since the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. Washington had beaten the Rangers in the 2009 and 2011 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

“I think it’s another step,” Ryan Callahan said of eliminating the Capitals. “It’s hard to compare year to year, but it’s another step for us. It’s another round and now we have to answer the challenge against New Jersey.”

The Rangers will meet the Devils for the right to represent the East in the Stanley Cup finals starting Monday night at the Garden. The Rangers are 4-1 all-time in the five series contested against the Devils. The last time the two teams met was the 2008 Eastern Conference quarterfinals which the Rangers won in five games. That series was marked by Sean Avery’s stick-waving antics in front of Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.

Unlike the losses in Games 2, 4 and 6, the Rangers never trailed. Brad Richards’s sixth goal of the playoffs — and his fourth of the series — opened the scoring just 1:32 into the match. The Rangers’ $60-million center one-timed a Carl Hagelin feed from the left faceoff circle low on Holtby’s glove hand.

The top line of Richards, Hagelin and Gaborik combined for a goal and three assists for four points and a plus-six rating.

“With Richie, we’ve talked about shooting the puck right away,” Tortorella said. “Hags doesn’t end up with many points, but he ends up with a couple tonight. He’s been very good this series as far as chasing down pucks and I thought that was key tonight. Gabby was skating tonight.”

The Rangers had the lead, but had to absorb a barrage of body blows as has been the case throughout their playoff season. Saturday night, it was a five-minute segment in which the Caps kept the puck in the Eighth Avenue end of the ice.

However, they were unable to break through as most of the shots generated towards Henrik Lundqvist (22 saves) came from the periphery.

“You talked about surges and they’re going to get their surges,” Ryan McDonagh said. “We just had to get through them. We know Hanky can makes some big saves and keep the puck out of the net. We just have to be patient and get the puck out clean. We did an excellent job of that. They got a couple shots, but it wasn’t in the prime scoring areas. It’s a good effort by everybody.”

The cruel immediacy of a collective unfulfilled dream was etched on the Capitals’ faces as they skated off the Garden ice one-by-one. Left wing Jason Chimera smashed his stick repeatedly against a brick pillar in the hallway leading to the dressing rooms.

“All I can say is we do have the best team,” Alex Ovechkin said. In the do-or-die game, Ovechkin only had two shots on goal while spending much of the night curling at the half boards, seemingly trying to be a playmaker instead of driving to the net.

“It’s part of the best team I’ve been on,”Ovechkin said. “The group of guys, the atmosphere … it’s unbelievable to play.”

Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.