Rangers Ride Henrik Lundqvist Into the Second Round

Unwrap the ankle tape, zip up the team hoodie, face the cameras. Henrik Lundqvist has been at this sort of thing for a dozen years, and the Rangers goaltender applies an almost robotic rhythm to the postgame ritual.

One series ends, another begins.

But this time, Lundqvist took a few moments to enjoy the whole process on Saturday night after his remarkable, series-clinching performance during the Rangers’ 3-1 triumph in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden. Lundqvist managed a reactive glove save off a rifled slap shot from Shea Weber in the waning minutes of the second period. He made a clinching, lunging stop with his left pad off a backhander in the crease from Tomas Plekanec inside two minutes of the final horn, when the Rangers were clinging to a one-goal lead.

In the end, the 35-year-old Lundqvist achieved what very few goalies have accomplished in recent seasons: In a taut first-round series decided by one or two turnabouts, he outplayed his Montreal counterpart, Carey Price, the 2015 winner of the Vezina and Hart Trophies.

“It means a lot when we put a lot of effort into every game,” Lundqvist said. “Price was playing really well, and we didn’t get anything for free. It’s just exciting and a great feeling to do it in front of our fans. That excitement when the puck goes in, you’re moving on. It’s been pretty intense the last few days, but it’s all worth it.”

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If the Canadiens were waiting for Price to dominate this series, they were sadly disappointed. Price was solid enough, but he was not Lundqvist. He whiffed, glove side, on Mats Zuccarello’s wrist shot from the right circle in the second period during a Rangers power play, without a screen to distract him. That goal evened the score at 1-1, reignited the Garden crowd and changed the complexion of the game.

“It’s lucky,” Zuccarello said. “It’s not every day you beat Carey Price like that. It’s a power-play goal. About time — that was big for us.”

A second goal by Zuccarello was tougher to stop, because it came at the end of a tick-tack-toe passing play. Price got his left leg pad on the puck. He just did not get enough, deflecting it back into the net.

Lundqvist finished the series with striking statistics: a save percentage of .947 and a 1.70 goals against average. In Game 6, he held fast in the face of a full-out Montreal assault during the first period. He allowed the Rangers to hang around long enough to find their legs.

As well as the Rangers played in front of Lundqvist in this series, Lundqvist played even better behind them.

“We faced a goaltender that was without a doubt their best player,” said Claude Julien, the Canadiens’ coach. “We had more chances than the other team. In the end, we couldn’t put it past their goaltender.”

What all this ultimately means is uncertain, because there is a significant caveat to the Rangers’ early postseason success. They have greatly benefited from the complex playoff system established by the N.H.L. and the players’ union. As a transplanted wild card, the Rangers are living a relatively comfortable existence in the Atlantic Division brackets, avoiding two clearly superior Metropolitan opponents — Washington and Pittsburgh — until at least the Eastern Conference finals.

If the Rangers win a second-round series against Ottawa, yet another good-but-not-great Atlantic team, then fall to the Penguins or the Capitals, will they really have proved much?

For now, they can beat only the teams they are facing.

“I’m going to have a glass of wine tonight, maybe two,” Coach Alain Vigneault said after the Game 6 victory. “We’ll start getting ready. What made our success during the year was we took a game at a time, never got ahead of ourselves.”

The Rangers have some things going right at the moment. Zuccarello, a perpetual motion machine, is in fine form. The team’s other top scorers, Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, have come around. The home fans have grown louder, more intense. Maybe the Garden is not quite Bell Centre, but on Saturday night, the place finally did not feel or sound like a family picnic.

The real difference maker, however, remains No. 30 in blue. For more than a decade, the face of the franchise has resided, ironically, behind the most concealing mask. Lundqvist will tell you that a goalie must be focused and that he requires a predictable, defensive structure from his teammates. A clear sightline always helps. So does a bit of luck, which was evident on that save against Plekanec.

“I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position,” Lundqvist said. “It was just a desperation save. Luckily, he didn’t put it in the far corner.”

There is considerable good and bad fortune involved in this pinball game of hockey. The Rangers got luckiest back in 2000, when nobody drafted a certain young Swedish goaltender before the seventh round, pick No. 205. For the record, there were only two rounds left.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist had defensive help from Rick Nash (61) against Andrew Shaw in Game 1 against Montreal. But Lundqvist stood tall in his own right in a six-game series victory. Credit Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Rangers Beat the Canadiens in Game 6 and Advance to the Conference Semifinals

Bodies obscured Henrik Lundqvist’s vision, and sticks jostled his pads. He shoved an interloper in the back and swiveled his head toward the crease. Less than two minutes remained in Game 6 and, he hoped, his Rangers’ playoff series against Montreal. And Lundqvist had already made a crude calculation.

“It was going to be one or two more saves,” Lundqvist said, “and if I can come up with those, we’re going to be in good shape.”

The Canadiens pelted Lundqvist with shots from all angles on Saturday night, and only one had slipped past. They tried badgering him with nudges and pokes and after-the-whistle mischief. When Montreal’s Alexander Radulov stopped abruptly in front of Lundqvist, spraying snow around him, he did not flinch.

The composure Lundqvist showed mirrored his serenity in the closing moments of the Rangers’ 3-1 win at Madison Square Garden, a victory that sent them into the Eastern Conference semifinals after a one-year hiatus.

The Rangers needed Lundqvist to make one more save, and he did, foiling Tomas Plekanec with his pad with 1 minute 47 seconds left. His teammates cleared the zone, and after Derek Stepan lofted in an empty-net goal with 17.8 seconds remaining, Lundqvist gamboled by his net and looked skyward. His math had checked out.

The victory, tense and taut, served as a microcosm of the Rangers’ postseason so far. They stumbled, they stabilized, and finally they regrouped.

After falling behind by 1-0 on Saturday, they eliminated Montreal on the strength of two second-period goals by Mats Zuccarello, the diminutive winger whom Coach Alain Vigneault affectionately called “a competitive little bugger.”

After falling behind by two games to one in the series with a listless Game 3 defeat at home, the Rangers stymied Montreal by winning three consecutive games to avoid duplicating last season’s early exit. They lost in the first round last year, one season after a Game 7 shutout loss in the conference finals.

Since the 2012 playoffs, the Rangers have won seven of eight home games in which they had an opportunity to clinch a series.

They move on to play the Boston Bruins or the Ottawa Senators, who lead that series by three games to two with Game 6 scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Boston. Despite having finished with more regular-season points than either of those teams, the Rangers, having reached the playoffs as a wild card, are assured of beginning the series on the road. It will not necessarily be a problem for the Rangers, who won two of three games in the series in Montreal and, at 27-12-2, had the league’s best regular-season road record.

Heading into Saturday night, the Canadiens’ predicament must have evoked a warm memory for their coach, Claude Julien, who confronted — and conquered — the same situation the last time he drew one of Vigneault’s teams in the playoffs: Trailing in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals by three games to two, Julien’s Bruins won two straight against Vigneault’s Vancouver Canucks to win the title.

As if conjuring that experience, Vigneault commanded his current team to seize the moment.

“I believe we’ve got every right to be urgent tonight,” Vigneault said Saturday morning, “so we are going to be urgent.”

Early on, that urgency manifested itself in some ways for the Rangers — Jimmy Vesey’s tussle with the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty, and persistent physical play along the boards — but not when they possessed the puck. It took almost eight minutes before the Rangers registered their first shot on Montreal goaltender Carey Price, and by then they trailed, 1-0.

The Rangers’ defensive negligence allowed Radulov, a force all series, to shovel a loose puck through the crease to Alexei Emelin, who ripped a wrist shot past a screened Lundqvist at 6:19 of the first period, for Emelin’s first goal in 29 career playoff games.

“They came out with a big push,” Stepan said. “I don’t think our group thought that we were good enough to match that intensity.”

It took until the second period for the Rangers to rediscover their purpose. A quick holding penalty on Jordie Benn gave a power play to the Rangers, whose series-long impotence (0 for 14) with a man advantage ended when Zuccarello used his skate to harness a cross-ice pass from Mika Zibanejad and beat Price on his short side at 2:26.

It was Zuccarello’s clumsy high-sticking penalty in Game 3 that handed Montreal a power play that the Canadiens converted into a critical goal. If his first goal on Saturday negated that mistake, then his second earned him even more good will.

J. T. Miller’s work in the corner freed the puck to Kevin Hayes, who zipped a pass to Zuccarello at the top of the crease. He banked it off Price, who was out of position, and into the net at 13:31 in the second to put the Rangers ahead by 2-1.

“He’s become a real big part of our team,” Vigneault said.

Vigneault challenged the Rangers after the lethargic Game 3 loss, demanding more production from his best players — Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider. Their best player, however, is Lundqvist, who like his team endured a wobbly end to the season.

The Rangers staggered down the stretch, going 5-6-4 in the final month, but they still had Lundqvist. As the crowd bellowed in the third period and the Canadiens’ own urgency increased, Lundqvist turned aside every shot, including Plekanec’s one-timed backhander from the top of the crease — a shot that Lundqvist said he did not see well.

“It was just a desperation save,” said Lundqvist, who stopped 27 shots. “Luckily, he didn’t put it far corner.”

Lundqvist seems to create his own luck in these situations: Since the start of the 2014 playoffs, he is 6-1 with a .966 save percentage when the Rangers can clinch a series. And now he is 4-2 in these playoffs, with an opportunity for more wins, more saves and more late calculations.

“It’s been pretty intense the last few days,” Lundqvist said, “but it’s all worth it.”

Stanley Cup Playoffs: 4/23/17 Open Thread

With only two more series left undecided, the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs could end tonight. With two Eastern Conference games on tap, the Rangers will be getting a preview of their second, and possibly even third round opponent if they make it that far. The matchups are as follows:

Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins Game 6 (OTT Leads 3-2) Puck is scheduled to drop at 3:00 PM EDT on NBC

Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs Game 6 (WSH Leads 3-2) Puck is scheduled to drop at 7:00 PM EDT on NBCSN

In the City of Champions, the Bruins are looking to keep their season alive one more time and force a Game 7 back at the Canadian Tire Centre. After a thrilling double overtime victory to stave off elimination in Ottawa, the Bruins will try and give the good people of the greater New England area another epic comeback that will go down in sports lore.

Meanwhile in Toronto, the Maple Leafs have gone from being happy to making the playoffs, to wanting to knocking off the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals. With one more win in front of the rabid fans of Toronto, the Leafs can set up a legacy-shaping Game 7 back at the Verizon Center Tuesday night. But those storylines are for then, and this is now. #BecauseItsTheCup. #W.I.N. #Family #Barkin

Enjoy the games!

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