Mats Zuccarello’s two goals lifted the New York Rangers to a 3-1 Game 6 win over the Montreal Canadiens and a 4-2 series victory in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Trailing 1-0 after six minutes, Zuccarello provided the game-tying and winning goals before Derek Stepan’s empty-net tally iced the game.
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped 27 of 28 shots in the victory, the 59th of his postseason career, including all 17 over the final two periods.
“It means a lot,” Lundqvist said after the win. “We put a lot of effort into every game here. It’s not done until you put that last puck in. It was a series of two teams that didn’t give much. It’s just exciting and a great feeling to do it in front of our fans.”
History was certainly on the Rangers’ side on Saturday night. In their last 17 postseason games at Madison Square Garden in which they had a chance to close out the series, New York was 14-3 dating back to the Patrick Division Finals against the Washington Capitals in 1986.
They were also 12-4 in their last 16 playoff games that were either a Game 6 or 7.
However, they did not look ready for the desperate Canadiens, who came out of the gates flying and quickly settled into Madison Square Garden with some physical play.
Four minutes into the game and two of the most unlikely combatants you’ll see, Montreal captain Max Pacioretty and Rangers rookie Jimmy Vesey, dropped the gloves.
While the two served their penalties, the Canadiens got on the board when Alexei Emelin snapped a wrister past Lundqvist at 6:19.
It was Emelin’s first goal since January 14, which also came against the Rangers.
The Rangers offense looked as though it reverted to its Game 3 ways, recording its first shot of the night a minute after Emelin’s opener.
They mustered just six in the first 20 minutes and were lucky to only be trailing by a goal at intermission.
Jordie Benn opened the door for the Rangers early in the second period though when he was whistled for a hold on Pavel Buchnevich 1:30 into the frame.
The hero of Game 5, Mike Zibanejad, sent a pretty cross-ice pass to an uncontested Zuccarello, whose low wrister beat Price through the wickets less than a minute into the power play.
It was the Rangers’ first power-play goal of the series after going 0-for-14 in the first five games.
“It’s lucky,” Zuccarello said. “It’s not every day you beat Carey Price like that. It’s a nice power play goal. About time, that was big for us.”
Zuccarello nabbed his second 11 minutes later thanks to the work of J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes.
Working from behind the net, Miller fed Hayes in front of goal, who sent a centering pass to Zuccarello. He was all alone with nothing but an open net in front of him and after an easy tap in, the Rangers were 26 minutes from advancing.
“I didn’t do much there,” Zuccarello said. “It was a really good play for Miller, Hayes and I was the lucky one to finish off the rush.”
That would prove to be the Rangers’ only tally of the period, but it was much improved compared to the flat effort they started the game with.
All signs pointed to an onslaught of Montreal attack as the visitors led the NHL during the regular season with 11 come-from-behind victories when trailing after two periods. Paired with the desperation of their season being on the line and the New York faithful might have expected a period in which their team spent most of its time in the defensive zone.
But that wasn’t a part of the Rangers’ gameplan as the hosts stayed aggressive and created some of the best scoring chances of the early portions of the third.
With Michael Grabner leading a 2-on-1 break, the speedy winger hit Oscar Lindberg with a one-time opportunity and an open net, but the center missed the goal in what could have buried Montreal.
The New York defense remained stout while Lundqvist was as impenetrable as ever, setting up Derek Stepan’s empty-net goal from 170 feet out in the final minute to seal the victory and the series.
The Rangers will now wait for the winner of the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins series. The Senators currently lead 3-2 with Game 6 being played on Sunday.
“We know it’s either Boston or Ottawa,” Vigneault said. “We’re going to start getting ready. I think what made our success during the year was when we took it a game at a time and never got ahead of ourselves. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves now. We’re going to focus on the next opponent.”