Focus Immediately Shifts to Game 3 for Blueshirts

By Matt Calamia

With the Rangers trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1, in the Metropolitan Division Final earlier this month, Henrik Lundqvist put the squad on his back and would not allow the Blueshirts to head into an early summer.

Since Game 5 on May 9, Lundqvist is 5-0, and has allowed two goals in a game just once. His 40-save performance Monday night in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against Montreal frustrated the Canadiens, leading to head coach Michel Therrien to state Lundqvist was the difference between the Habs knotting the series and going down 2-0.

“You know what? The reason why we lost the game tonight was Lundqvist,” Therrien said after Game 2. “Lundqvist was phenomenal. Phenomenal. Stole the game.”

Lundqvist was superb in the first period, making 13 saves, and was even better in the third, making 19 stops to preserve the team’s 3-1 lead.

“Obviously we were a little behind in the first with what we were doing, and the jump was pretty good and kept things calm,” Brad Richards told the media Tuesday morning prior to the Rangers returning to New York. “Didn’t look as calm probably as it was for us, but we were pretty confident if we could weather the storm with him back there doing it, it would give ourselves a chance to get out of the first period.”

Lundqvist’s regular season and Olympic accolades are well known, but No. 30 has never reached the Stanley Cup Final. While there is still plenty of work to be done before that happens, Lundqvist and the Rangers are as close as they’ve ever been since Lundqvist arrived on Broadway in 2005. He’s a man on mission, according to Rick Nash.

“Everyone wants to do it,” Nash said Tuesday. “Yes, he’s a big part of it, but it’s a team, and when you’re led by your goalie, special things can happen.”

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The Rangers snapped a long streak of losing playoff games after leading the series with their 3-1 win in Game 2 to bring the series back to Madison Square Garden Thursday up 2-0. With that in mind, though, the Blueshirts understand better than anyone that a series isn’t really over until one team reaches four wins. That experience makes the focus on Game 3 that much easier.

“You don’t get much of a boost,” Derek Stepan said when asked if there was in fact a boost to taking both games in Montreal. “You just try to focus on winning a Game 3, and that’s our main focus now is getting ready to play at home.”

The home crowd will be a welcome change for the Rangers, who have played three consecutive games in hostile territory dating back to Game 7 in Pittsburgh a week ago. Nash, though, said while they’re looking forward to playing in front of their fans, it is important not to be over-excited.

“I think just the way that all these playoff series have been going — no lead is safe, whether it’s in the game or in the series,” Nash said. “We’ve go to stay on our toes and get ready for the next one.”

It appears that sentiment is being preached from the top down, as head coach Alain Vigneault — like most coaches — said it is a day-by-day focus, and one that has brought the Rangers success thus far.

“What we try to do is — and I know you get sick and tired of hearing it — but one game at a time, one shift at a time and we want to play the right way,” Vigneault stated. “That’s what’s gotten us here, and that’s what’s going to keep us here.”

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The Rangers have benefitted greatly from a balanced lineup of veterans and young players, some of which are getting the taste of playoff success for the first time in their careers, led by Richards and Martin St. Louis, who won the 2004 Stanley Cup together in Tampa Bay.

Like Lundqvist, Nash’s regular season and international success has been well-documented. But despite being drafted in 2002, Nash is playing in his first Eastern Conference Final, and has thus far made the most of it, scoring two goals including the game-winner in Game 2.

Nash doesn’t quite feel he’s in the veteran group in terms of NHL playoff experience, but his history of big games on other stages helps him grasp the moment he and the Rangers are riding.

“It’s kind of in between,” Nash said when asked where he places himself on the team’s playoff hierarchy. “I haven’t experienced this part of the playoffs, but I’ve been able to play in big games and games that have been pretty meaningful. So it’s where in between where it’s new to me.”

Richards and St. Louis — who along with Daniel Carcillo — are three players on the Rangers with Stanley Cup victories. Nash said having that experience has benefitted the Rangers from the start of the postseason.

“We’re lucky to have guys that have been there before and that have won and know what it takes,” Nash said. “I think the biggest message is they said there are just lots of ups and downs and you’ve got to stay level headed through it all.”