This was gut wrenching. Like a punch to the gut or solar system. The Rangers were so close to taking a commanding 2-0 lead in this emotional and very physical best-of-seven first round series. But the pesky Canadiens had other ideas. Playing with urgency, they wouldn’t be denied. Tomas Plekanec’s tying goal with 17.3 seconds left and Alex Radulov’s goal at 18:34 of the first overtime made them 4-3 winners in Game 2 before 21,288 screaming fans at Bell Centre.
The series is all even. Montreal was desperate and it showed. They did whatever it took to win. They overcame a superb performance from Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist. He faced 58 shots and turned back 54. But it wasn’t enough to save his team which got worn out by a relentless Canadiens attack.
Indeed, the Habs threw the kitchen sink at Lundqvist. It eventually paid off. Like Game 1, the hitting and pace was fast and furious. The physicality wasn’t predicted before the series. But these teams seem intent on killing each other. The final hit count was 74-55 in the Rangers favor. But they could regret taking their foot off the accelerator. Especially if they don’t respond with a win in a huge Game 3 when the series shifts to MSG on Sunday night.
This game had a bit of everything. If you love chaos, this was your type of playoff hockey. There was nothing boring about the game. In fact, the seven periods they’ve played have been tremendous. It’s been a battle for every inch and very intense. Funny. I can’t remember the Rangers ever playing this way under coach Alain Vigneault. Unfortunately, he may regret having Marc Staal and Nick Holden on protecting a one-goal lead in the final frantic minute of regulation.
To put it mildly, Staal and Holden have struggled mightily. They were victimized for all three Montreal goals against during regulation. The one net positive was Holden’s quick outlet for Jimmy Vesey catching the Habs in a change which set up Rick Nash’s tying marker halfway thru the second period. I don’t now how you could have Staal and Holden out at the end of the game when they’ve been shaky defensively. It made no sense. Sure enough, Plekanec tied it with his first of series redirecting the puck past an incensed Lundqvist with Holden down after breaking his stick.
It wasn’t the only time where Lundqvist reacted negatively on Friday night. He had one of the oddest goals beat him at 4:05 of the first when Montreal defenseman Jeff Petry scored from a tough angle. The reason he couldn’t stop it was he had no goalie stick. Habs antagonist Brendan Gallagher skated by and broke it the previous shift. Whether intentional or not, it resulted in Montreal getting the quick start they wanted. While Lundqvist played without a stick, Staal went down behind the net allowing Phillip Danault to come out and feed Petry, who wisely set up and took the shot for a 1-0 lead. A furious Lundqvist fumed at the bench while getting a new stick.
Unlike Game 1 when the Canadiens dominated the first, this one was more even. The Rangers didn’t back off following Petry’s goal. Instead, they were the aggressors looking for the equalizer. It was again the fourth line of Oscar Lindberg, Tanner Glass and Jesper Fast who did the grunt work by winning board battles. The third line of Kevin Hayes, Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller also had some good attack time.
In a period where the hitting was unbelievable along with a fast pace that featured almost no whistles, the refs let everything go. There were plenty of scrums. This was playoff hockey at its best. Players at each other’s throats. Astonishingly, the Rangers and Canadiens combined for over 50 hits in one period. They also totaled three goals with the Habs getting the upper hand.
The Rangers drew even thanks to a great defensive and individual effort from Grabner. The same guy who couldn’t put the puck in the ocean the last month. He’s two-for-two so far. On a good Montreal forecheck, Grabner forced Habs defenseman Nathan Beaulieu into a bad turnover. Beaulieu dove to keep a puck in which Grabner easily intercepted. He turned on the jets and then did Carey Price dirty with a beautiful double deke, backhand finish for an unassisted goal that tied it at 13:48.
But less than two minutes later, it was Montreal’s line of Plekanec, Paul Byron and Gallagher who struck back to go back in front. Byron was dangerous throughout. Prior to Grabner’s goal, he had a breakaway after a Dan Girardi shot was blocked. But Lundqvist made a huge stop to deny him on the backhand. Byron redeemed himself. On what amounted to a brutal neutral zone turnover from Chris Kreider, the Habs came in transition quickly. With both Staal and Holden behind the net, Gallagher fed Byron, who had enough time to beat Lundqvist with a quick wrist shot at 15:42. On the play, Kreider coasted. Only Mats Zuccarello came back hard but was too late.
Even though they trailed after the first, it didn’t feel like it. The shots were even at nine apiece. They forced Price into some tough saves. The game was exciting. Of all the series so far that I’ve seen, this is the best one. It has everything including terrific goaltending and surprisingly strong penalty killing. Neither team has scored on the power play. Plus the physicality and battles between whistles.
In the second, all hell broke loose. With no penalties being called and players from each side getting away with obvious ones, it was a matter of time before it boiled over. It happened shortly after a Montreal penalty kill of a Radulov slash which was a love tap post-whistle. How they decided that was the first penalty I have no idea.
What ensued afterwards was just your old fashioned old time hockey. On what was a deliberate cheap shot from Steve Ott on Zuccarello with the puck not in the vicinity, it led to a wrestling match. Players got together. Zuccarello went back at Ott, who somehow didn’t get a penalty for his shenanigans. Jordie Benn did get a roughing minor while Zuccarello somehow got a double minor. Meanwhile, an angry Weber decided to pummel Miller. He was driving them nuts. Miller didn’t want to go and got beaten badly.
Even with the Habs winding up with a five-on-four, they did nothing. Perhaps it was a make up call for an undetected Brendan Smith cross check. It was blatant and somehow refs Brad Watson and Trevor Hanson let it go. So, you can imagine Claude Julien’s anger when they put Radulov in the box for nothing. He was right. They let the teams play. But that doesn’t mean the officiating was good.
The Rangers needed a penalty kill. Oh. They got it. They were terrific, giving Montreal nothing. They also were without Weber, who was serving his fighting major. Lundqvist still had to make three saves from in tight. But the Rangers PK was good killing off all four Habs power plays including one in sudden death on a bad offensive zone slashing penalty by Kreider. He needs to be more assertive and smarter.
Still trailing by one, the Rangers caught the Canadiens napping. With the puck behind his net, Holden noticed that they were changing. He quickly passed for Vesey at the Montreal blue line. He then drew a defender and kicked to a cutting Nash, who quickly blew one over Price’s glove hand for his first of the postseason (13th career) at 9:58. A great read by Holden, who otherwise had a tough night. Vesey took the hit to make a play picking up his first career NHL playoff point. Nash shot quickly and accurately. A welcome sign right after I tweeted this:
Then this happened:
The odd officiating wasn’t over. Following a scrum, Brady Skjei somehow got called for “roughing.” He hardly did anything worth two minutes. More big saves from Lundqvist allowed them to kill it off. With momentum finally, Brendan Smith made a great play. He’s really good. On a forecheck, he stayed in deep and passed for Derek Stepan down low. Kreider helped by creating enough space. Stepan then fed Smith for a one-timer that redirected off Zuccarello’s shin past Price for a 3-2 lead with 5:13 remaining in the period. Here’s how it looked and sounded on MSG:
With Lundqvist on fire making big save after big save, things were looking good. He stopped all 18 Montreal shots in the second. The Rangers themselves had 12 on Price and got two past him. He didn’t look great by any stretch. But neither goal was his fault.
If there was a turning point, it was the Rangers’ inability to score on the power play. Seconds after Zuccarello’s go-ahead tally, Benn took a bad interference minor. In typical fashion, the Rangers couldn’t shoot straight. On a ill advised Radulov hi-sticking minor in the offensive zone, they got another chance with 1:13 left. Mika Zibanejad got one good look but his one-timer off a face-off win went right into Price’s pads. There was another instance where Zibanejad turned into Zibanebad when he had a one-timer lined up but tried a low percentage one-time pass across that didn’t work to Zuccarello. Awful.
Slowly but surely, the Rangers fell off the rails. For a second straight game, they tried to play smart hockey by clogging the neutral zone and taking away the blue line. It was working. They were taking short shifts and getting pucks deep. The problem was they rarely threatened Price even though the stats say he faced nine shots.
Instead, it was a hungrier Canadiens who started using their speed and relentless cycle game to generate quality shots and chances. They peppered Lundqvist with another 18 in the third. It looked like Vigneault would get away with it. He got strong defensive efforts again from Smith, Skjei, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. But somehow, after McDonagh and Girardi went off, out came Staal and Holden. It’s hard to pin a loss on two players. They weren’t the only ones out after Julien pulled Price for an extra attacker.
With it getting down to the nitty gritty for the Habs, Weber shoved Grabner down to the ice to keep the puck in. Eventually, it came down low where Alex Galchenyuk and Radulov were able to get it to Plekanec. Even though he’s not the offensive threat he once was, Plekanec is a smart player who does things that win at this time of year. With Holden breaking his stick on a slash down on his knees, Plekanec finished off a Radulov feed in front for the tying goal, sending the Bell Centre into a frenzy.
Following one more Lundqvist save because by then, his teammates were exhausted from sitting back, the horn sounded. Overtime would be needed.
In sudden death, the Habs were all over the Blueshirts. They kept getting pucks in and winning every battle. They forced Lundqvist to be great. On more than one occasion, he was. That even included a bizarre sequence where he actually came out of his net and reached up to make a save with Grabner clearing the puck out of harm’s way. He really wanted it badly.
Despite a large territorial advantage that even included a hellacious two and a half minute iron man shift from McDonagh and Girardi where the latter made two key clears off the boards to get out of trouble, the Canadiens had issues beating Lundqvist. They had to be wondering what it was going to take.
Price made his two biggest stops later in sudden death. He faced less pressure but wound up with eight saves in extras to finish with a game total of 35. With the overtime nearing conclusion, Montreal captain Max Pacioretty decided he had enough. Having been quiet for six periods, he stripped the puck from Nash in the neutral zone and finally had the impact needed to send the series back to Manhattan tied.
With Skjei and Smith out, Pacioretty started the winning play and stuck with it. Eventually, Weber pushed the puck down low to Pacioretty. He finally centered in front for Radulov, who was able to get free from Zibanejad and jam the loose puck past Lundqvist for the OT winner at 78:34. That sent Montreal into jubilation.
To be honest, they deserved it. They wanted it more. It showed. Even with Lundqvist making 54 stops on a ridiculous 58 shots, it wasn’t enough. Montreal also out-attempted the Rangers 103-69. It was that lopsided from the third period on. That’s how the Rangers played it. Too cautiously. It was like watching them try to protect those leads in the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals against the Kings. They got burned.
So, now you have a series. It’s all tied headed back to The Garden for a pivotal Game 3 Sunday night at 7 PM. The Rangers must put this one behind them quickly. It doesn’t matter how close they were. What matters is how they respond.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (54 saves including 18/18 in 2nd, 17/18 in 3rd but didn’t get enough help)
2nd Star-Tomas Plekanec, Canadiens (game-tying goal at 19:42 of 3rd-1st of playoffs, assist, 3 shots, +1 in 32 shifts-19:37)
1st Star-Alex Radulov, Canadiens (overtime winner at 18:34, 2 assists, 6 shots, 7 attempts, 7 hits, +2 in 30 shifts-23:20)
Playoff Notes: As noted, there were 129 total hits. The Rangers had 74 led by Glass’ 10. The Canadiens had 55 led by Radulov of all people with seven. He played on the edge even if he took a bad penalty. … Gallagher had a whale of a game for the Habs leading all skaters with nine shots and 13 attempts while continuing to drive the Rangers crazy. He was all over the ice and led the Habs even though he had one assist. … Weber had a strong game setting up Radulov’s winner while blocking seven shots, fighting Miller and going plus-two in 39 big shifts-32:25. Andrei Markov had more ice-time with 33:41. Petry had a goal and 31:33 in 40 shifts.
… McDonagh led the Rangers with 33:12 in 44 shifts with five attempts, five hits and four blocks. Girardi totaled 42 shifts logging 28:20 including 4:26 shorthanded with four hits and four blocks. Skjei had the next most with 23:17 in 42 shifts while partner Smith had 22:13 with an assist. Staal went minus-two in 36 shifts with three shots and three blocks in 21:51 (38 shifts). His partner Holden had an assist on the Nash goal but went minus-two in 36 shifts logging 22:29 including 2:23 on the penalty kill yet somehow didn’t receive any power play time. Holden is better offensively and has the best shot on the team. He should be utilized there. Not defensively where he is an adventure. He had three shots and finished with seven hits.
… Face-offs were again air tight in favor of the Blueshirts 39-38. Hayes had a good night going 12-and-9. If only he looked for his shot more. Lindberg was the team’s best going 9-and-2 while playing another effective game on the fourth line in 20 shifts-11:54. Montreal’s best was old reliable Plekanec, who dominated going 17-and-10 while having a big impact with the clutch tying goal with 18 seconds remaining. Danault was 10-and-10. … There were again a lot of giveaways with the Rangers having 16 (Girardi 3) and the Canadiens having 15 (four with 2). … As a team the Blueshirts blocked 28 shots with four apiece from Girardi and McDonagh. One one extended shift where they were caught out, both Miller and Zuccarello laid out for huge blocks. The Habs were credited with 17 paced by Weber’s seven.
In other playoff action, the Pens made it 2-for-2 defeating the Blue Jackets 4-1. Sidney Crosby scored his first and set up two others including Evgeni Malkin, who made Sergei Bobrovsky look bad. He’s been outplayed by Marc-Andre Fleury, who finished with 39 saves with Matt Murray’s status unknown. The Jackets got rough late with a blatant cheap shot from Matt Calvert on Tom Kuhnackl that could be reviewed. … The Blues made it two for two in St. Paul thanks to a goal from Jaden Schwartz with 2:27 left in regulation for a 2-1 win over the Wild. They head home up 2-0. … In the late game, the Oilers are holding onto a 1-0 lead on the Sharks in the third on Zack Kassian’s shorthanded breakaway goal. They try to square the series at home before it shifts to San Jose.
Lundqvist talks about bouncing back from a tough OT loss:
McDonagh discusses a stinging loss: