Rangers' goalie Henrik Lundqvist was brilliant in Game 2 of the NHL's Eastern Conference Finals, stopping 40 shots and withstanding Montreal's initial surge in New York's 3-1 win. Lundqvist has won five consecutive playoff games and the Rangers now lead the series, 2-0, heading back to New York for Game 3.
We figured the storyline in the Montreal-New York Eastern Conference Finals would shift to goaltending the moment Chris Kreider crashed into Carey Price in Game 1.
Who knew we’d be talking about the guy on the other end of the ice?
As much as this series is now about who is and isn’t playing in net for the Canadiens with Price done for the season, the focal point might end up being Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who has been nothing short of magnificent since New York trailed Pittsburgh, 3 games to 1, two weeks ago in the conference semifinals.
The Rangers haven’t lost since, and in the aftermath of another spectacular performance Monday by the three-time NHL All-Star in Game 2 at Montreal (40 saves in a 3-1 win), they now head back to New York with a 2-zip lead needing just two more wins to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 20 years. Game 3 is Thursday night.
Price is arguably Montreal’s best player (head coach Michel Therrien said so himself), so his absence no doubt leaves a void both physically and emotionally, but the Canadiens came out flying in Game 2, outshooting the Rangers, 14-9, in the opening period, and had several chances to bury New York early at the Bell Centre.
The difference was Lundqvist, who stopped all but one shot – a weird, flukey bounce thanks in large part to Mats Zuccarello losing the puck in his skates – and settled in nicely once Rangers' defenseman Ryan McDonagh tied the game 17 seconds after Max Pacioretty's goal put Montreal in front.
These weren’t wobbly wristers from the blue line, either. The Canadiens put some steam behind these shots, but Lundqvist was damn near impenetrable, no question his finest playoff performance and perhaps the defining moment in what has been a stellar career in New York that, fair or unfair, often gets compared unfavorably to that of Ed Giacomin or Mike Richter.
Once the Rangers tied the game and began putting pressure on incumbent Montreal goalie Dustin Tokarski, it was only a matter of time before the momentum shifted in the opposite direction. A 24-year-old former fifth-round draft pick with a history of winning championships at various levels, Tokarski wasn’t nearly as bad as regular backup Peter Budaj was in relief of Price in Game 1, but he wasn’t nearly as good as Lundqvist, either.
With each big save by Lundqvist, you could sense that feeling of despair from the Canadiens, as if they knew they were wasting quality scoring chances with nothing to show for the effort. Then they began getting sloppy, committing foolish penalties that put the Rangers in the driver’s seat, or, in the case of Thomas Vanek and his inexplicable slashing penalty in the first period, evened the odds on what could’ve been critical power plays.
The Rangers fed off Montreal’s sorrow, taking the lead for a good on a breakaway goal by Rick Nash in the second period and icing it in the third on a power-play goal by Martin St. Louis, who buried his mother less than 24 hours before the puck dropped for Game 2.
While the Rangers have undoubtedly rallied by St. Louis in the wake of his mother’s unexpected death (they haven’t lost since she passed away) that kind of emotion can only last for so long. The Los Angeles Clippers banded together and played brilliantly in the NBA playoffs following owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks until they ran into a better, stronger team in Oklahoma City.
The Rangers need more than that to hoist the Cup for the first time in two decades. They need a difference-maker – an equalizer – and it appears Lundqvist is up to the task.
Lundqvist will eventually break every record Richter set in New York. He’s already won more regular-season games and is two wins shy of breaking Richter’s record of 41 playoff victories. He’s also won five consecutive playoff games this year, the longest streak of his career, and, counting this year’s Game 7 win over Pittsburgh, has now won five consecutive Game 7s in the past three years.
The only thing missing from his resume is a Stanley Cup championship – and, for that matter, at least an appearance in the Finals, which he’s yet to reach in 10 seasons with the Rangers. Maybe this is the year. Maybe losing to Canada in the gold-medal game at the Winter Olympics with Price, of all people, in net for Canada has pushed Lundqvist to be that much better in this year’s postseason. This is the best he’s ever been, a hot streak that might be enough carry New York to the Finals, and with Nash finally breaking out of his playoff slump, the Rangers might have all the pieces necessary to make a run at a championship.
Game 2 was yet another example of what kind of difference a red-hot goalie can make in the NHL playoffs. For all the talk about who the Canadiens don’t have and who they now have to rely on this week, the real story is the forgotten hero turning away shots at a record pace for the Rangers.
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