Henrik Lundqvist jumped once, then twice, as a wave of blue-clad teammates skated toward their goaltender, ready to embrace him.
Simply, it was the biggest moment so far in a lifetime of hard work.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Lundqvist said.
Lundqvist made 18 saves to record his franchise record-tying ninth playoff shutout in the Rangers’ 1-0 win over the Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night at the Garden.
The Rangers won the best-of-seven series, 4-2. The Rangers will meet the winner of the Chicago-Los Angeles Western Conference finals starting Wednesday night. Los Angeles leads the best-of-seven series, 3-2, with Game 6 on Friday night in Los Angeles.
The Rangers won both regular season meetings with the Blackhawks, and split two games against the Kings.
“It’s going to be unreal the next two weeks,” Derick Brassard said. “It’s so hard to win the Cup. You have to go through some really good teams. We beat some really good hockey clubs and we’re looking forward to seeing who we’re going to play.”
Game 6 was the most important hockey game contested in New York City since June 14, 1994, the date of Game 7 of the Canucks-Rangers Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers won that game, 3-2, to win the franchise’s first Cup since 1940, and their fourth overall.
And the Rangers played like it meant everything. By head coach Alain Vigneault’s own admission, the Rangers did not want to return to the Bell Center Saturday night for their third Game 7 of these Stanley Cup playoffs.
Prior to Thursday night, the last time the Rangers won a series in less than seven games was the 2008 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Rangers defeated the Devils in five games before being eliminated by the Penguins in a five-game Eastern Conference semifinals.
“We knew we had to be good,” Vigneault said. “We definitely didn’t want to go back to Montreal, [and] under the scrutiny and the pressure they came up with their best performance.”
The Rangers controlled play in the first period, out-shooting the Canadiens 11-15, and out-attempting them, 22-12. But Dustin Tokarski, as he has all series, bailed out the Canadiens. Tokarski finished with 31 saves.
“I thought the kid did a fabulous job,” Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien said. “He gave us a chance to win every night that he was there. Yes, we lost our best player early in Carey Price, but we had confidence in the young man. Dustin was, as far as we’re concerned, he was really, really good.”
Both Tokarski and Lundqvist took center stage in the second period, as each goaltender made sterling saves.
Tokarski took the spotlight first as, with the Rangers on a power play, he partially deflected Derek Stepan’s off-wing drive a split second before the puck rang off the post 5:16 into the second.
A little more than 10 minutes later, it was Lundqvist’s turn to keep his team in the game, making a cartwheeling save on a Thomas Vanek backhander with 4:39 left.
“That was an unbelievable save,” Anton Stralman said. “I don’t think anybody saw that coming. For him picking up that puck, the way it bounced off his stick … that’s a tough save.”
Then 1:53 before the second period ended, the Rangers’ fourth line — which was stalwart throughout — broke the deadlock as Brian Boyle found Dominic Moore in the slot for a one-timer Tokarski couldn’t stop.
It turned out to be all they needed.
“We got the puck in,” said Moore, with the Broadway Hat perched atop his head. “We protected it well for a while and used each other down low and cycled it well. When [Boyle] got it behind the net, I tried to let him know I was there and he made a great play.”
Under former head coach John Tortorella, the Rangers often went into a defensive shell heading into the third period with a lead. Vigneault’s Rangers play the same strong defensive system as they did under Tortorella, but continue to press offensively. They fired 13 shots at Tokarski in the third period alone.
The Rangers finished with a 32-18 advantage in shots on goal, and out-attempted the Canadiens 58-36.
“We played a strong third,” Martin St. Louis said. “We managed the puck really well. Up a goal in the third, I thought we played the type of game that we wanted to play. We got some looks when they broke down [and] I thought we didn’t give them too much.”
Montreal had only five shots on goal in the third, and after clearing the defensive zone one last time, it was the Rangers who celebrated their accomplishment on the Garden ice before their leaders stressed serious business remains.
“It’s a great night,” Brad Richards said. “We’ve already talked about as a group that we’ll feel good for a couple days because we know we’re not playing until Wednesday. It’s something you feel good [about], but you have to keep in the back of your mind that this isn’t the ultimate goal. It’s an amazing achievement to be able to play for the Cup, but it doesn’t come around in these two and a half weeks. They go by real quick, and you don’t want to get caught behind to start the series. That is the mental focus we’ve got to keep, and we’ve got to stay sharp. I know it sounds crazy next Wednesday, but you can’t let it slip. We have to be ready and better than we were tonight in Game 1 to try to get into the series quickly.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.