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A listless beginning to their postseason, and to their 3-1 series-clinching victory at Madison Square Garden, gave way to total control.
In both cases, the Rangers started slow, then minimized their deficiencies and relied throughout on the stellar goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist to win the best-of-seven series and secure a berth in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Lundqvist protected a one-goal lead for more than 25 intense minutes until Derek Stepan’s empty-net score with 17.8 seconds left.
Mats Zuccarello scored the first two Rangers goals, including the winner 13 minutes 31 seconds into the second period, and Lundqvist had 27 saves to lead the Rangers. They lost in the first round last year, one season after a shutout loss in Game 7 of the conference finals.
Since the 2012 playoffs, the Rangers have won seven of the past eight home games in which they had an opportunity to clinch a series.
They move on to play the Boston Bruins or the Ottawa Senators, who lead that series by three games to two with Game 6 scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Despite finishing with more regular-season points than both of those teams, the Rangers, by reaching the playoffs as a wild card, are assured of beginning the series on the road. The Rangers, at 27-12-2, had the best road record in the league.
Heading into Saturday night, the Canadiens’ predicament must have evoked a warm memory for their coach, Claude Julien, who confronted — and conquered — the same situation the last time he drew one of Alain Vigneault’s teams in the playoffs: Trailing in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals by 3-2, Julien’s Bruins won two straight against Vigneault’s Canucks to win the title. As if conjuring that experience, Vigneault commanded his team to seize the moment.
“I believe we’ve got every right to be urgent tonight,” Vigneault said of the Rangers on Saturday morning, “so we are going to be urgent.”
Early on, that urgency manifested itself in some ways for the Rangers – Jimmy Vesey’s tussle with the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty, persistent physical play along the boards – but not when they possessed the puck. It took almost eight minutes before the Rangers registered their first shot on Montreal goaltender Carey Price, and by then they already trailed by 1-0.
The Rangers’ defensive negligence allowed Alexander Radulov, a force all series, to shovel a loose puck through the crease to Alexei Emelin, who ripped a wrist shot past a screened Lundqvist at 6:19 of the first period for his first goal in 29 career playoff games.
Lundqvist faced 11 shots in the period to six for Price, who flicked away the Rangers’ best chance, from Ryan McDonagh, with the shaft of his stick. Earlier in the day, Stepan noted how often, and swiftly, the momentum has changed – from shift to shift, period to period.
His Rangers played perhaps their best hockey against Montreal over the final 35 minutes of a Game 5 overtime victory on Thursday, but then – despite knowing what they did well, despite wanting to do those things again – were unable to sustain that vigor to begin Game 6.
Then came the second period, when the Rangers rediscovered their purpose. A quick holding penalty to Jordie Benn gave a power play to the Rangers, whose series-long impotence (0 for 14) with a man advantage ended when Zuccarello used his skate to harness a cross-ice pass from Mike Zibanejad and beat Price on his short side at 2:26.
It was Zuccarello whose clumsy high-sticking penalty in Game 3 had gifted Montreal a power play that the Canadiens converted into a critical score. If his first goal Saturday canceled out that mistake, then his second earned him even more good will.
J. T. Miller’s work in the corner freed the puck to Kevin Hayes, who zipped a pass to Zuccarello at the top of the crease. He banked it off Price, who was out of position, and into an open net with 6:29 remaining in the second to put the Rangers ahead by 2-1.
And then Lundqvist held the Canadiens at bay. He shined across the six games in the series, despite facing more shots — and more dangerous scoring opportunities — than Price. He stopped 195 shots in the series — including 54 in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 2.
Source: New York Times