Martin St. Louis' goal 6:02 into overtime Sunday night at Madison Square Garden lifted the Rangers past the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final, and put New York just one win away from advancing to the organization's first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in twenty years.
Now leading this best-of-seven series three games to one, the Rangers will try and close it out Tuesday night up in Montreal when they play Game Five at the Bell Centre. The Blueshirts won each of the first two games they played at the Bell Centre in this series, outscoring the Canadiens 10-3 in Games One and Two.
"It's tought to talk about, you don't want to get too ahead of yourself," Brad Richards said of possibly clinching a berth to the Cup final on Tuesday. "It's a great opportunity, and you'd sign up for these opportunities at the start of the year--it'd be a no-brainer. This is exactly the position every player hopes to be in the NHL. We want to do it as quick as possible, but we know it's going to be a battle--to close a team out, it's a lot tougher for some reason."
Henrik Lundqvist made five saves in overtime before St. Louis buried the game-winner past Habs goalie Dustin Tokarski. Richards won a pair of battles for loose pucks after failed clearing attempts by Montreal, and Carl Hagelin then sent a cross-ice pass to a wide-open St. Louis on right wing. St. Louis patiently skated in and beat Tokarski stick side for his sixth goal of the playoffs, creating pure bedlam inside The Garden in the process.
"Good play along the wall by Richie to keep the puck in, and obviously Hags being in good defensive position, also offensive position, to be able to slide it over to me," explained St. Louis, whose last playoff overtime goal came in Game Six of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals when he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning. "I felt I had room, and I tried to trust what I saw. Obviously I've gone to that side quite a bit the last few games and he's made some good saves on me. Sometimes you have to keep trusting what you see, and I was fortunate to get it by him."
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault added that there was no element of luck in that game-winning goal.
"The goal he scored tonight is exactly what you see at practice every time he's on the ice," explained Vigneault. "It's a 100 pucks, and he's trying to put it right there. Obviously he made a great shot on that goal."
The game marked the first time the Rangers--who lost Game Three at The Garden in overtime, 3-2, on Thursday night--played back-to-back playoff overtime games since Games One and Two of their 1995 series with the Philadelphia Flyers. It also was Lundqvist's 41st career playoff victory, tying him with Mike Richter for the all-time franchise lead.
"It's a big relief and exciting at the same time to get the job done at home," offered Lundqvist, who stopped 27 of 29 shots. "A win is a win, but the experience to win in OT at home is always a great feeling."
An evening full of undisciplined play finally caught up to the Rangers early in the third period when the Canadiens broke through with their first power play goal of the series to tie the game, 2-2. After killing off five Montreal power plays in the game, and the first 14 in the conference final, the Rangers saw P.K. Subban hammer a slap shot past a screened Lundqvist at the ten-minute mark of the third--Subban's first goal and point in the series.
Incredibly the Rangers took another penalty--a Brad Richards trip in the offensive zone--just 59 seconds after Subban's goal; but Lundqvist and his teammates killed that one off as again the Blueshirts tempted fate. Six of the eight penalties which the Rangers took leading to Montreal power plays were assessed in the offensive zone, including one for holding the stick by Benoit Pouliot just 30 seconds into overtime. Lundqvist made a pair of brilliant saves on Subban blasts during that penalty kill to keep the score tied and set the stage for St. Louis' game-winner.
"You start taking that many penalties, it starts wearing on you and it can get frustrating, absolutely," explained Marc Staal, who played 24:53, including nearly seven minutes while shorthanded. "I thought we did a good job on the kill, we stayed with it. To be successful on the penalty kill (Lundqvist) needs to be our best penalty killer, and he was tonight, and he gave us a chance to win the game. He was great again."
Montreal also came within inches of taking a late 3-2 lead, but Alex Galchenyuk's shot from between the circles with 3:15 remaining in the third period caught the crossbar and bounced straight out. Lundqvist got a piece of the shot and deflected it upward, making the puck strike the crossbar instead of finding the back of the net.
"Obviously I got a little lucky there," said Lundqvist. "It hit my stick and then the crossbar. I wasn't sure if I got enough of the shot. That time I had the luck."
The Rangers played without center Derek Stepan, who suffered a broken jaw on a Brandon Prust hit in Game Three of this series on Thursday. However they did get Derick Brassard back in the lineup, and he scored New York's second goal of the night and won an incredible 75 [percent of his faceoffs. Brassard had missed the previous two games with an unspecified injury suffered in Game One up in Montreal eight days ago.
After seeing their 1-0 lead--built on a Hagelin shorthanded breakaway goal in the first period--disappear when Francis Bouillon scored 8:08 into the second, the Rangers had a string of Grade A scoring chances denied by Tokarski, whose confidence seemed to be growing as the game progressed. However, Brassard brought down the house at The Garden by scoring on yet another breakaway--this one with under a minute to play in the middle period--to give New York a 2-1 lead heading into the second intermission.
Dan Girardi fired a home run pass from near the right-wing boards in his own zone cross ice to Brassard on left wing near the Canadiens blue line to start the scoring play. Brassard, who was in behind the defense, skated to the left circle and hammered a slap shot which beat Tokarski shot side at 19:04 of the second period. The goal was Brassard's fifth of the playoffs. On the play Lundqvist earned the secondary assist, his first career post-season point coming in his 85th playoff game.
"I was kind of sneaking in behind the defenseman and thinking that hopefully he's going to see me, and it was a great, great pass by (Girardi)," Brassard said of his goal. "I just trusted my shot there. I kind of hesitated for a few seconds and finally just decided to trust my shot, and it went short side."
Prior to Brassard's clutch goal it appeared that Tokarski was getting on a scary good roll between the pipes for Montreal. He made a sensational diving blocker save on Brassard during a scramble with 8:29 to play in the second, then followed with a stretching toe save on Hagelin's tricky left wing shot two minutes later. Tokarski made the save of the night at 16:50 when he made an utterly sensational glove stop on a St. Louis break-in.
Hagelin had given New York a 1-0 lead with the team in the midst of a sloppy start in which the Rangers took three first-period penalties in a span of five minutes. Brian Boyle sprung Hagelin with a long pass behind the Canadiens defense and the fleet winger beat Tokarski between the pads for his team-leading sixth goal of the playoffs 7:18 into the opening period. It was New York's first shorthanded goal this post-season, and Hagelin's second goal in the past two games against Montreal.
The shorthanded tally was the first scored in the playoffs y New York since Ryan Callahan's shortie in the team's 2008 series with the New Jersey Devils. It was the Rangers first shorthanded goal scored on home ice since Esa Tikkanen's tally in their 1997 series with the Flyers.
"We are obviously up 3-1, but we know how this can turn if we don't do the tings we need to do," shared Hagelin. "Our focus now is on to the next game, and to play Ranger hockey."
The Canadiens tied it at 8:08 of the second when Bouillon--playing his first game of this series--ripped a left-wing shot past Lundqvist off the rush with David Desharnais assisting.
In the end, though, it was St. Louis playing the role of hero--again--for a team he only joined roughly two months ago. He now has a six-game point-scoring streak and a team-high 13 playoff points, along with ten career game-winning goals in the post-season.
"You could just feel it when Marty got the puck," said Staal. "That's a big-time player making a big-time play."