Three weeks ago, the New York Rangers were a game away from their season being over. But after digging themselves into a 3-1 hole against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, the Rangers scrapped out a win to keep the series going. Then they won again. And again. And again. They kept winning, all the way through the Eastern Conference Final.
And last night, the Blueshirts moved moved within four wins of the Stanley Cup. New York defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 1-0, to win the East and clinch its first Final appearance since 1994.
"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," center Brad Richards said. "It's an amazing achievement to be able to play for the Cup."
No Ranger knows that better than goalie Henrik Lundqvist. He's about to of to his first Stanley Cup Final in his nine-year career. And with his team so close to the championship round, Lundqvist played his best.
He shut down a Canadiens team desperate to take the series back to Montreal for Game 7. After Dominic Moore scored what would be the game's only goal early in the second, Lundqvist made it stand up. He stopped all 18 shots, including a clutch save in the second with two Habs on the doorstep.
"I don't think I've been more determined to win a hockey game," Lundsvist said. "To put ourselves in a spot where we can play for the Cup is extremely special."
The goalie has been key to the Rangers' success this postseason. He has looked sloppy at times — he gave up 7 goals in New York's Game 5 loss — but his 2.03 GAA and .928 save percentage are best among goalies still in the playoffs.
Lundqvist's shutout last night was also his 42nd career postseason victory — a new Rangers record. The previous wins leader? Hall of famed Mike Richter.
More important than the stats line is that King Henrik has been the leader of a squad who looked aimless most of the season.
After the Rangers' 4-2 loss to the Penguins to go down 3-1 in that series, Lundqvist was angry. His team played a lifeless game, and he slammed his stick on the crossbar out of frustration. But rather than rolling over, he put the team on his back and backstopped it to five straight wins. He only gave up six goals over that span, holding things down for an offense looking for its groove.
But last night was Lundqvist's biggest test. He passed with flying colors, and the Rangers are in the Stanley Cup Final.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Lundqvist said. "But what took us there is the entire team really stepped up in key moments throughout the year, especially the playoffs. It makes it even more special when you have four lines stepping up in different times and just doing it together."
Now the Rangers wait for their Western Conference opponent. The Los Angeles Kings lead defending Stanley Cup champions the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2. Game 6 is tonight in Chicago. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is Wednesday in either LA or Chicago.
Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP Photo