By Sarah Kwak
NEW YORK — For this Rangers team, it's been all about the bounce-back, about the response rather than the action. It wasn't so much about the horrible start to their season (2-6-0) as it was about responding to it, eventually coming out of it and reaching the playoffs. And in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, their ability to bounce back turned out to be their biggest step forward.
The Rangers left the sloppiness of their Game 5 loss in Montreal behind them and put together their best game of the postseason on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, a dominant 1-0 win over Montreal. Twenty years after they marched the Stanley Cup through the Canyon of Heroes on that sunny day in 1994, New York punched its ticket to once again play for the ultimate prize.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "But what took us there is the entire team really stepped up in key moments throughout the year, especially the playoffs. It makes it even more special when you have four lines stepping up in different times and just doing it together."
Thursday night's victory came on the backs of New York's grinders as well as its stars, with the Rangers getting the game-winner from fourth-liner Dominic Moore late in the second period. Drifting into the slot, he took a wonderful pass from linemate Brian Boyle, who was on the endboards -- the puck slipping through Canadiens defensemen Francis Boullion's legs -- and snapped a wrister through Montreal goalie Dustin Tokarski.
Despite their many chances, it would be the Rangers' lone goal of the game, but it was the only one they'd need, thanks to the bounce-back from their biggest star.
After a lackluster Game 5 in Montreal, when he was pulled after letting in four goals on just 19 shots in the first 28:58, Lundqvist responded with a spectacular effort. Though he did not see much action until late in the first period of Game 6 -- Montreal had just two shots through the first 15 minutes of the game -- the Rangers' netminder had plenty of opportunities to be spectacular. He saved shots through traffic, and moved post-to-post to deny a quality wraparound chance from Montreal's Daniel Briere in the first period. But it was his save late in the second, when he made an acrobatic stop on Canadiens winger Thomas Vanek, that floored the 18,006 fans in Madison Square Garden.
After Lundqvist made an initial blocker save on a low shot, the puck fluttered up and looked like it would float over the goalie and into the net. But that's when Lundqvist quickly read and reacted, shedding his paddle to block the puck in midair while flopping like a fish out of water in the crease. If inelegant, the move (reminiscent of Dominik Hasek) was expertly effective at keeping the game scoreless.
"It was a huge momentum shift," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "He made that save and then we go down and score a few minutes later. It was pretty incredible."
As excellent as Lundqvist was, making 18 saves on the night, the Canadiens managed to stay in the game once again because of Dustin Tokarski, who was a revelation. Thrown into the high-pressure situation as a relative unknown, the 24-year-old netminder did, in the words of his coach Michel Therrien, "a fabulous job. He gave us a chance to win every night that he was there."
Losing starter Carey Price to injury in Game 1 seemed like a certain death sentence for Montreal, but Tokarski was its stay of execution. In the end, what did the Canadiens in was a listless Game 6 in which they didn't play with the urgency of a team on the brink of elimination.
"We played on our heels way too much," Briere said. "To only get 18 shots, I didn't feel the desperation was up to their level. And they knew ... they knew they needed this game. They didn't want to come back to Montreal ... I just felt they had a little more desperation tonight.
"We were a little bit of a tired team tonight. I don't know why. I can't really explain it. We didn't have the jump and the zip that we usually have."
In the third period, down a goal, Montreal simply didn't muster much response. It took the Canadiens nearly 10 minutes to register their first shot of the period -- a dump-in slapper from 55 feet out. They were tentative with the puck, like they were playing a game of hot potato, while the Rangers broke up any hint of a forecheck with ease and won the majority of battles along the boards. For a team staring at the offseason, Montreal played like it was in the fifth stage of grief: acceptance.
Perhaps it was fatigue, a long season and their emotionally draining series win over the Bruins, but the Canadiens simply looked like they had nothing left to give.
"I think the first two games were key," Briere said. "To get beat twice in our building to start the series was kind of the mistake we made ... And it's tough to play catchup."
The Rangers, though, look like a team that is peaking at just the right time.
"We played, in my book, probably our best game of the playoffs," New York coach Alain Vigneault said. "We managed the puck a little bit better. When we lost the puck ... we didn't let [Montreal stretch the play]. We were able to have five-men units all over the ice."
With consistent play like they showed Thursday, the Rangers wouldn't need the bounce back. But where's the fun in that? At least their fans know, even if it falters, this team knows how to respond.