The Rangers answered the bell. Facing the prospect of a 3-1 series deficit, they refused to lose. The home playoff losing streak is over at six. Rick Nash’s goal in the second period broke a 1-1 tie to give them a hard fought 2-1 win over the Canadiens to take Game 4 at a more enthusiastic MSG. The first round series is now tied 2-2 with a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday night at Bell Centre. If it’s anything like tonight, it should be a good one.
Responding to adversity following a disappointing Game 3 in which they were disjointed and booed, the Blueshirts went the extra mile to square the best-of-seven match-up. There were battles all over the ice. Clean, borderline or dirty, the Original Six rivals pushed the envelope. Refs Francis Charron and Steve Kozari let everything go. It was old style playoff hockey. Essentially, kill or be killed.
That’s how the Canadiens played it. At times, they were malicious and vicious with their sticks. The Rangers played through it giving some of it back. This was not for the faint of heart. It was get your dirty jersey night at the oldest NHL building in the league. While there were beefs with how it was called, the officiating was consistent. They let the teams decide it.
Unlike Game 3, the Blueshirts were ready to go from the outset. Vigneault started the game with the newly minted third line of J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello. Even though they didn’t score, they set the tone with some good offensive zone time. It was the team in classic blue with red and white that was the aggressor. A different game than the one played on Sunday. It translated to three shots on Carey Price early and 12 overall in a entertaining first period that also saw the Habs come back late.
All four lines Vigneault used were effective including the trio that consisted of rookie Pavel Buchnevich in his first NHL playoff game. Inserted for Tanner Glass, the just turned 22-year old Russian was reunited with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on a line the Rangers tried out early in the season. Buchnevich’s skating and skill got Zibanejad going. He was much more involved throughout getting three shots while attempting seven- even throwing a huge hit in the third that drew cheers. It was by far his best game. Kreider still was tentative to shoot the puck winding up with two shots but did have one big hit protecting a one-goal lead.
For his first taste of NHL playoff action, Buchnevich was largely effective on the forecheck creating chances for himself and teammates. He wound up with three shots and two hits in 17 shifts (12:23). That included 1:58 on the power play. There weren’t many. Only two with the first abbreviated due to Nash taking the puck hard to the net and colliding with Price, who drew a goalie interference penalty that wiped out a power play goal.
By that point, the Blueshirts led thanks to another big contribution from the fourth line. This time, it was the always hustling Jesper Fast who got rewarded with his first goal of the series. Closing in on Andrei Markov behind the net off a Brady Skjei dump in, Fast took full advantage of a Markov turnover. He took the puck to the net and stuffed a backhand past Price for an unassisted tally with 8:21 left in the period.
It was important for the Rangers to get a lead. It helped energize the building who knew what this game meant. Realistically, they couldn’t go down 3-1 with two of the next three in Montreal. If they wanted to give themselves a chance, they had to get this game. They did what it took.
Of course, that included some clutch stops from Henrik Lundqvist. He had to deal with two Canadiens breakaways. Prior to Fast’s tally, he stoned Andrew Shaw by just getting enough of his shot with the glove. He made several tough saves from in tight including a couple on pest Brendan Gallagher. Lundqvist also made a timely stop on Artturi Lehkonen on Montreal’s last power play late in the second.
The goaltending in this series has been phenomenal. Both Lundqvist and Price have taken turns coming up big. It’s no surprise. It’s a battle of two of the game’s best. Aside from Game 2 when the Habs rallied for a 4-3 overtime win, goals have been hard to come by. In Games 1, 3 and 4, the teams have combined for nine. Only Game 3 was decidedly one-sided. Game 1 went down to the wire before Michael Grabner scored an empty netter. Game 2 saw Tomas Plekanec tie it with 17.3 seconds left with Alex Radulov getting the OT winner.
Game 4 saw the Rangers protect a one-goal lead with some nervy play and a bit of luck. Mainly the goalpost next to Lundqvist on a Shea Weber bomb with 1:18 left. Nothing comes easy for this team. It didn’t to post their first playoff victory at MSG since Game 1 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay on 5/16/15. Also by a 2-1 margin. How’s that for irony?
Trailing by one, the Habs didn’t back off. They drew even due to a bad line change from the Rangers. With Skjei battling Alex Radulov by the bench, the skilled Russian veteran caught Nick Holden out of position by sending a nice touch backhand pass to a cutting Shea Weber for a two-on-one. With Holden flat on his back, Weber dished across for an easy Torrey Mitchell one-time and a bang tying the score with 1:23 remaining.
What made it even nuttier is that both teams had six skaters out. Each could’ve been whistled for a bench minor. Instead, the four officials managed to miss it. The end result was a great play started by Radulov, who picked up his series-leading sixth point. It got even worse. The ending to a solid period also saw Ryan McDonagh pick up a slashing minor with five seconds remaining. A frustrating conclusion.
Encouraging is that the Rangers were able to kill off the remaining 1:55 at the start of the second. If the first was back and forth with the teams splitting goals with the Rangers holding a 12-10 edge in shots, that wasn’t the case in the middle stanza. It was largely dominated by the home team. Using their speed and forecheck, they controlled play. The balance of four lines which also included rookie Jimmy Vesey with Derek Stepan and Nash worked in their favor. They still finished checks but were hard on the puck and pinned the Habs in.
A great keep and terrific pass by McDonagh all the way through to Nash in front resulted in Nash beating Price with a beautiful backhand finish for his second of the series at 4:28. The goal came thanks to relentless pressure from the top line. But without McDonagh’s dynamic play at the left point, it never happens. He had been quiet during the first three games. However, the Rangers captain was a force in Game 4. He not only got his first point but played with an edge throwing the weight around. In a heated third, he delivered a couple of big checks while defending well. He led by example with 2 takeaways, 2 blocked shots and four hits with a plus-one rating in 26 big shifts (22:22).
He wasn’t the only one. Brendan Smith had a whale of a game. Banged around by the Habs legally and illegally including a missed Radulov chop to him late in the third, he took his lumps. It was the key acquisition from the Red Wings who led the Blueshirts in ice-time with 22:44 in 29 shifts. He really took a beating. But never missed a shift. He’s tough. Something this team has needed. Vigneault did a good job using him more.
The coach also limited Holden to 14:25 following his awful coverage on the Mitchell goal. Vigneault leaned heavily on the vets with Marc Staal also putting together a solid game logging 19:38 in 29 shifts. He and Dan Girardi were a factor on the penalty kill which went three-for-three. As Girardi told MSG’s John Giannone following the victory, they have to play smarter. Something that he emphasized moving forward.
The third was one of anxiety. Even though they only got six shots on Lundqvist, Montreal threatened early. But after a couple of close calls, the Rangers tightened up. They didn’t just sit back. Instead, continuing to push forward when the opportunity presented itself. Vesey nearly had his first NHL playoff goal on a superb effort. But Price robbed him. He played a very good game attempting four shots in 22 shifts (15:29).
Nash was in beast mode all night. He skated with purpose and went hard to the net making life difficult on the Montreal D and on Price. His game-winning goal was the only one he had but not from lack of chances. He narrowly missed another just wide. He finished with eight attempts and two hits while playing the kind of hockey the Garden Faithful delighted in. Make no mistake. Number 61 is having one of his best series. His two goals are tied with Grabner for the team lead.
With Stepan continuing to struggle taking an undisciplined hooking minor with 2:32 left in the second, Nash has really carried the load. Especially with Kreider continuing to puzzle. Ditto for Miller, who remains without a point despite being active. At some point, one of those two needs a breakout game. Hayes was better in this one. Maybe playing with the ornery Zuccarello rubbed off. He didn’t score but the pint sized Norwegian with the huge heart was his feisty self exchanging barbs with Steve Ott while competing hard.
On the fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and Fast, Grabner had another effective night registering five shots, seven attempts with two blocks in 12:34 (22 shifts). His biggest contribution was staying close enough to Lehkonen on a Habs set up to not allow him to get all of a one-timer which Lundqvist stopped. That attention to detail was what decided the game.
In the third, only some big stops by Price kept the Habs in it. He made 10 altogether to finish with 30 in the game. Lundqvist only had to make 23. A better number for the King. It still came down to a Weber blast which rang off the goalpost. That’s how dangerous Weber is. It was from way out. Lundqvist talked about how they got the lucky bounce this time unlike Game 2 afterwards.
That was the last hurrah for Montreal, who had a couple of shots blocked. They also were unable to get a final shot with captain Max Pacioretty kept behind the net by diligent Rangers checkers as time expired.
This was more like it. Sure. There were plenty of missed stick fouls. There also was a cheap Ott back kick of Zuccarello’s skate which was dangerous. But we know it won’t be reviewed. The Department of Player Safety is a joke. They only review plays where players are injured.
The Rangers have to feel a lot better headed into Game 5. They played the way they needed to. With purpose. They battled for every inch and were better. Something Pacioretty alluded to in the post game. Now, it’s a best-of-three series with the huge fifth game at Bell Centre. Montreal fan will be rabid. It will be a chaotic atmosphere. One in which the Rangers have dealt with before. They are a good experienced road team.
It just got a whole lot more interesting. The fun is just beginning.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Carey Price, Canadiens (30 saves including 10/10 in busy 3rd to give team a chance)
2nd Star-Alain Vigneault, Rangers (not kidding-he made the necessary lineup changes needed to succeed and managed the bench well)
1st Star-Rick Nash, Rangers (game-winning goal-2nd of series, 8 attempts in 27 dominant shifts-16:31)
Playoff Notes: Shots were 32-24 Rangers and attempts were 60-50. They deserved this one with tremendous effort. … The Blueshirts continue to hit winding up with 43 compared to the Canadiens’ 25. Most impressively, all 18 skaters were credited with one. The pesky Fast paced them with five. A testy Radulov had four along with Brandon Davidson for Les Canadiens. Key Stat: Giveaways MTL 16 (Markov 5) NYR 15 (Smith 4). If there was a notable difference, the Rangers had 13 takeaways compared to only 4 from the Habs. … Face-offs were 37-31 Montreal. Phillip Danault went a dominant 14-and-4. Tomas Plekanec was 13-and-10. Zibanejad was the Rangers’ best going 10-and-7 including one huge draw in which he went forward with the puck for a big clear to start a penalty kill. Lindberg went 5-and-4. … The Rangers didn’t have to block as many shots winding up with 13 (Miller 3) while the Canadiens had 18 (Jeff Petry 4).
… In other playoff action, the Blue Jackets staved off elimination by posting a 5-4 home win over the Penguins. Boone Jenner’s goal turned out to be the game-winner with the red hot Jake Guentzel making things dicey with a shorthanded goal at 19:32. The rookie’s fifth of the series. Pittsburgh will try to clinch the series at home on Thursday. … Meanwhile, it’s a Shark Attack in San Jose. The Sharks have responded in a big way to being shutout the last two games by Cam Talbot. They chased Talbot with a five spot on 24 shots in less than two periods. They then greeted backup Laurent Brossoit with a goal from Joe Pavelski making it 6-0 after two. Logan Couture has a pair for 30 career postseason goals and Pavelski has two. Patrick Marleau lit the lamp with a beauty top shelf that made it 3-0. So, it looks like that series will head back to Edmonton tied 2-2.