The Rangers are officially Eastern Conference Champions. Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 18 shots and Dominic Moore’s second period goal was enough to shutout the Canadiens 1-0 in Game 6 at a wild MSG. For the first time in 20 years, they’ve advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Amazingly, it all came together at the right time. Finally home after witnessing the single greatest win in my 17 years, it still hasn’t sunk in. So, I’ll just let this sentence do the talking. The New York Rangers will play for the Stanley Cup for the first time since winning it all in 1994.
I can’t put into words what it means. All these years going to games and it’s finally here. By finishing off a gritty opponent who wouldn’t go away despite losing Carey Price after Game 1, the Rangers become the first team to reach the Cup Finals by going seven in the first two rounds. If the Kings close out the Blackhawks Friday night, they’ll join them. For the first time all postseason, we can actually sit back and relax as two other teams beat each other up and find out who the Rangers will play. Game 1 isn’t until next Wednesday, June 5.
After needing seven to oust the Flyers and Penguins, the Rangers actually gave their fans a break by eliminating the Canadiens in six. For the first time since ’08, they didn’t need seven to win a series. A welcome change from the nightmarish Game 5 at Bell Centre that saw them get beat 7-4 opening them up to criticism. Many including myself wondered how they’d respond to the Habs’ challenge. They were awfully confident entering last night. So much so that Rene Bourque chirped that Lundqvist hadn’t been better than Dustin Tokarski. To be fair, Tokarski played his best game of the series making 31 saves in defeat. He gave his team every chance.
Physically and emotionally, the Blueshirts were a mess Tuesday. It didn’t carry over. They came out from the opening shift and established momentum in front of a frenzied environment. The national anthem performed by John Amirante had plenty of decibels reminiscent of glory days. The electricity was unmistakable. “Let’s Go Rangers” chants rained down and playoff towels were waved in support of the home team. You could really feel it as soon as you walked in the building. Prior to the opening introductions which included former ’94 hero Stephane Matteau pumping up the crowd, I walked around with Justin’s friend Michael during warm ups. I ran into Kenny Albert and Dave Maloney before. Mike had never been around the Chase Bridges. It was good to take it all in. I took photos and videos. It probably will be up sometime this weekend.
Following Amirante’s rousing Canadian and American national anthems, it was finally time to drop the puck. Appropriately, coach Alain Vigneault opted to start his fourth line. A big part of the team Moore, Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett have been Vigneault’s guys. He trusts them enough to send them out for a regular shift. Their opening shift was tremendous. They immediately got the puck in deep and forechecked the Canadiens, forcing Tokarski to make a couple of tough stops. That only fired up the crowd more. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Unlike Game 5, the Rangers were much sharper with and without the puck. They attacked more vigorously and didn’t give the speedy Canadiens enough space through the neutral zone. Montreal struggled offensively and turned over the puck. A lot of it had to do with the Rangers’ team defense. Every player made a conscious effort to get sticks on loose pucks and force the Habs into mistakes. It was a complete reversal.
Continuing to skate and get shots through, they forced Tokarski to come up with some good saves. They outshot the Canadiens 11-5 and out chanced them. Lundqvist still had to make one key stop shrugging aside a tough backhand in the slot. He would make his best save a period later that people will be talking about for a while. Or at least until the next series. On a night he didn’t have to stand on his head, Lundqvist responded to the challenge the best way he could. By giving up zilch.
Due to Tokarski, the game was still scoreless after one. The Canadiens had a minute left on a power play entering the second due to a Marc Staal interference minor. Instead of building on it, they watched as each Ranger penalty killer outworked them and cleared the puck out. In fact, I nearly predicted a Carl Hagelin shorthanded goal before the period began. Sure enough, he broke in and tried a wraparound which Tokarski just got a skate on. As he has all series, Hagelin was flying. Rick Nash also had an opportunity on the same kill.
When P.K. Subban was nabbed for interference, the crowd let him know about it. It wouldn’t be Subban if didn’t protest and have to be forced to skate from his bench to the penalty box. That was only the tip of the iceberg for the former Norris winner. On their second power play, the Rangers moved the puck around looking to expose Tokarski side to side but simply didn’t get enough quality shots. For a third consecutive home game, they failed to score on the man-advantage taking the collar in four chances. They later failed with Andrei Markov off for tripping. So much for one of my keys to victory.
Montreal found themselves in a tie game with a chance to grab momentum. Thomas Vanek came very close to scoring the first goal. Off a Staal turnover, he was set up perfectly in front. One on one with Lundqvist, he sent a backhand that was labeled for the top half of the net. But Lundqvist made an unbelievable save that defied logic. I can’t begin to describe it. It was so acrobatic and reminded of Dominik Hasek. He flung himself at the puck getting just enough of it in mid-air to rob Vanek of a sure goal. It was incredible. The save came with under 5:00 left and got everyone up. Chants of “Hen-rik, Hen-rik!!” were well deserved. It was fantastic. That moment was the one that told me they would win. He basically said, ‘You’re not beating me tonight.’
Inspired by it, the Rangers finally broke the ice on Tokarski. It took a perfectly executed play to beat him. On a dominant shift from the fourth line, Moore scored the game’s only goal with 1:53 remaining in the second. Fittingly, it was that line which got the goal. All season long, Vigneault has preached rolling four lines. The polar opposite of John Tortorella, who despite those shortcomings helped prepare the core of the team for this moment. The line of Boyle, Moore and Dorsett kept the Habs’ third line pinned in for a long time. Cycling the puck behind the net, Dorsett was able to beat Markov and work it to a pinching Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh pushed it to Boyle, who quickly dished for a wide open Moore for a beautiful finish that sent the crowd into bedlam. The reaction was priceless. Everyone could tell that one goal might be enough.
Able to generate their best pressure in the final minute, the Canadiens searched for the equalizer forcing Brad Richards to take down a man in front which led to their second power play with 13 seconds left. It was a good penalty because it eliminated a scoring chance. When the period ended, Montreal still had 1:47 remaining. Having stood for Moore’s goal, I decided I wasn’t sitting down in our section again. My brother motioned to me but he figured out why I stood for the rest of it. Why mess with superstition?
I was already 2-0 during this run. But this was different. They were 20 minutes away. You had plenty of fans screaming that line during intermission. It was funny. All I was thinking about was killing the penalty and hoping the Rangers would play a good period. They saved their best period of these playoffs for that final 20 minutes. The Habs never got a sniff on the remainder of the power play. Even with Subban and Markov manning the points, they couldn’t even get set up. The only time they did was when Michel Therrien had the second unit out. It resulted in nothing.
The Rangers didn’t just sit back. They stood up at their blueline and took away Montreal’s biggest strength. That resulted in turnovers and led to plenty of chances. The third was simply dominant. In every aspect, they controlled the play. From puck possession to defense to quick transition, they were everywhere. Only Tokarski kept his team alive by doing his best work of the series. He stifled Derick Brassard at the end of a huge shift from the third line. They did everything but score with Brassard unable to lift the puck over a sliding Tokarski, who stacked the pads. Benoit Pouliot narrowly missed a rebound. After a miserable game Tuesday, they along with Mats Zuccarello were much sharper.
Derek Stepan had another strong game. He and linemates Chris Kreider and Nash were flying. They easily could’ve scored if not for Tokarski. What it comes down to is this. For a goalie who didn’t have much experience, he did a great job. Otherwise, it could’ve been 3 or 4-0. When they weren’t peppering him, the Rangers continued to win the battles and get pucks in. They outshot the Canadiens 13-5. When former Blueshirt Brandon Prust took a bad slashing minor with 5:42 left, he heard it. I didn’t partake in the chants because this is the same guy we supported. And he showed class apologizing to Stepan and again during the handshake. The fourth power play was awful. At least it killed two minutes.
The Habs really had a difficult time mustering anything. One shift saw Martin St. Louis hound Subban into a turnover which led to a Richards chance at the opposite end that Tokarski got a leg on. That kind of attention to detail is why the Rangers are moving on. When Montreal did get a shot, a cool Lundqvist used his head like a soccer player to knock it away.
Not once did I ever feel panic. The defense wouldn’t allow it. When McDonagh skated back in his end and cleared the zone with five seconds left, it was finally over. They had done it. It’s pretty amazing to think they’re playing for the Cup. When the buzzer sounded, it was pandemonium. Fans rejoiced. A Daily News cameraman took a pic of us with the headline. The building was loud and chaotic. It seems like a blur. I watched the teams shake hands shooting video and then took video of the on-ice presentation of the Wales Trophy. With de facto captain Richards agreeing with St. Louis not to touch it, the team gathered around and took a picture.
The whole thing is surreal. Sometimes, it things don’t seem real. This is one of those moments that you’ll never forget. It isn’t 20 years ago. This team isn’t supposed to be here. They’ll be heavy underdogs no matter who they face. And you know what? I’m fine with that. This is one hell of a run. Whoever they play, it doesn’t matter. They finally have a chance to play for the Cup!
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Ryan McDonagh, NYR (assist, 2 SOG, hit, takeaway, blocked shot, +1 in 33 shifts-25:27-a superstar is born)
2nd Star-Dominic Moore, NYR (series clinching goal-3rd, 7-for-10 on faceoffs, +1 in 23 shifts-13:53-of all the players is there a more fitting hero)
1st Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (18 save shutout-didn’t have to be great but they’re not here without him)