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.”

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 have never seen Ryan McDonagh like this

Regarding the Rangers, whose patience, discipline and structure will be challenged by the Senators in what shapes up as a far less physical series than the six-game tong war against Montreal. Just make sure to keep your head up around Alexandre Burrows and Dion Phaneuf:

1. Round One represented the playoff series of Ryan McDonagh’s life. The captain seemed to take that Game 3 defeat at the Garden personally — he was not alone — and subsequently elevated his play and brought his team along with him. McDonagh has never played more fiercely or defended with as much purpose as he did throughout these six games in which he was relentless in puck battles, mean in front, sharp with his decision-making in all three zones and re-established himself as one of the elite of the league’s elite defensemen. No. 27 was on for 10:30 in the third period of Saturday’s Game 6 clincher and for 5:25 of the final 8:32 until Derek Stepan’s empty-netter sealed the 3-1 victory.

2. You wouldn’t be wrong naming Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Erik Karlsson as the three best players in the world. The Blueshirts’ coaching staff will be challenged to create a game plan to deal with the splendiferous Karlsson, the defenseman who does it all, and all at top speed across the entire 200×85.

Perhaps they should take the Fred Shero approach in the 1974 Cup finals against Bobby Orr, when the Flyers coach had his men repeatedly dump the puck into No. 4’s corner and hit him in order to wear him down.

If the outcome of the Henrik Lundqvist-Carey Price duel was determinative against Montreal, so too the battle between Lundqvist and Karlsson for Top Swede in this series is likely to be decisive.

3. We can take it for granted that Big Game Brass, who shows up wearing No. 19 for the other guys this time, will shine under the Broadway spotlight, because that is the essence of Derick Brassard, who had an assist on Clarke MacArthur’s overtime series winner in Boston and recorded eight points (2-6) against the B’s.

It is going to be on Mika Zibanejad, who improved steadily against Montreal and is a key part of the revived penalty-kill unit, to come as close as he can to negating Brassard in this delicious storyline.

4. The obvious cannot be stated more clearly than this: The Rangers need much, much more from Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller in order to keep this train on course to its destination.

Kreider’s high stick on Shea Weber behind the Montreal net at 9:07 of Saturday’s third period after No. 20 had allowed the defenseman to play the puck first was simply indefensible. You’d think Kreider would have learned from Miller’s equally mindless open-ice slashing penalty against Gallagher at 14:13 of the third period of the then-2-2 Game 5, or from No. 10’s own high-sticking infraction behind the Canadiens’ net at 16:23 of the second on Saturday, but apparently not.
Miller did make a play to Kevin Hayes on the sequence off which No. 13 set up Mats Zuccarello for the series clincher, but his series was replete with too many high-risk plays that yielded little reward.

5. Zuccarello, meanwhile, is a Ranger essentially because of one person. That would be current president Glen Sather, who, as general manager, insisted on re-signing and bringing No. 36 back from Russia late in 2012-13 after the winger had played the entire lockout season for KHL Magnitogorsk as a restricted free agent. That followed two years in the New York organization during which he played 52 games for the Blueshirts and 73 games in the AHL.

6. Alain Vigneault started the playoffs by dressing Tanner Glass, who merely scored the opening (and winning) goal in the Blueshirts’ 2-0 Game 1 victory. And despite No. 15’s effectiveness on a hard forechecking fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast, Vigneault replaced him with Pavel Buchnevich following Game 3, whereupon the Russian rookie contributed pace and playmaking ability the rest of the way. (Plus a couple of pretty nifty plays at his defensive line where he cleared the zone late in Game 6 with his team up by a goal.)

After sitting Nick Holden for the first time all year — after he cratered in Game 2 — Vigneault reinstated the defenseman for the remainder of the series, through which No. 22 played his best hockey since December.

When Brady Skjei turned in an impressive performance in Thursday’s Game 5 overtime victory in Montreal, Vigneault rode him with four shifts over the final 10 minutes of regulation and six in OT. But on Saturday, when the rookie was fighting it, Skjei rode the bench for the final 10:53.

Checkmark to the coach.

Skilled Depth Reigned Supreme in Rangers’ Victory Over Habs

The sports world loves the concept of “turning points” when it comes to analyzing the playoffs. Two teams close in merit battle it out, and a few select moments get singled out as ones that defined why one team won and the other lost.

The biggest turning point of the Rangers’ first-round series against the Canadiens might have come almost two full months before the playoff matchup even commenced.

The March 1st trading deadline defined the identity Montreal intended to embrace. Two diminutive forwards in David Desharnais and Sven Andrighetto were jettisoned. Dwight King, Steve Ott, and Andreas Martinsen - all known for their willingness to hit, fight, and agitate - were brought in. It was the kind of overhaul that brings in the usual praise that depth moves of this kind usually do.

“[The trades] addressed the need for size, grit and experience. If you’re into numbers, the Canadiens are 467 pounds heavier than they were last week, but Bergevin stressed that the Canadiens didn’t sacrifice speed,” was the Montreal Gazette’s reaction.

Add in Andrew Shaw and Michael McCaron, and the Habs’ forward depth is practically a Don Cherry fever dream. It made for a delightful contrast to a Rangers’ group that was criticized by numerous outlets for lacking the physicality and toughness supposedly necessary to sustain the rigors of playoff hockey. The lack of nuance created an experiment that would either confirm the paranoia about the Rangers’ stylistic makeup or put it to rest.

For sure, the Habs’ pugilism was on display all series long. Plenty of hits, slashes, and post-whistle meddling gave the TV broadcasts highlight reel material. In this way, their “presence” was felt.

But in terms of helping the Habs outscore the Rangers, their arsenal of brawny depth forwards was mostly ineffective. Shaw, Ott, King, McCarron, Martinsen, and Brian Flynn combined for a total of zero points the entire series. This could have been somewhat forgivable had they at least established a forecheck, kept the puck in the Rangers’ end, and generated some pressure. They did not. All six were negatives in shot attempts relative to their team. Only Shaw and Flynn had an expected goals percentage above 50%, and barely so (all stats via Corsica.Hockey). The Habs needed all the help they could get putting pucks past Henrik Lundqvist, who was in peak form. Instead, it often felt like the Habs few skilled forwards, plus the one positive depth influence in Artturi Lehkonen, had to do everything themselves.

The Rangers, on the other hand, got contributions from back-end of the lineup. One could argue the fourth line, with number of players rotating in, was the best line the entire series. Jesper Fast and Michael Grabner made meaningful offensive contributions, and along with Oscar Lindberg did a tremendous job of driving play forward. When both Lindberg and Fast were on the ice at five-on-five, the Rangers out-attempted the Canadiens 48 to 28. With Grabner added, it was 19 to 9. Buchnevich and Vesey created a fair share of offense and, with better fortune, could have racked up a few points themselves. Even Tanner Glass, the one prototypical grinder on the team, had what was probably the best three-game stretch of his Rangers career. He used his strength and tenacity to keep the puck below the Habs’ goal line for long stretches, and potted a goal to boot. Credit to him for a solid first round showing.

Many of the Rangers’ top forwards struggled to get going in this series, and more is needed from the likes of Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, and so on going forward. But that’s also how life works. You’re not going to get the best from everyone on every single day. That’s why it’s to the Rangers’ benefit to have four lines capable of contributing. In this case, their depth was able to compensate for the ineffectiveness of others. The Habs had no such safety net in place, and it’s a big reason why they’re packing up for the summer.

All hand-wringing about the Rangers being prone to bullying should be done with. They went up against a Who’s Who of grinders and antagonizers, and were completely unfazed by it. They won three-straight with their only traditional grinder in the press box. The Rangers’ skilled depth brought physicality when needed. Montreal’s physical depth couldn’t bring skill. This playoff result should reinforce trust in an offensive identity that has served the Rangers well for most of the season.

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