Seventeen seconds. That’s how long I was worried about the Rangers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals and now that’s how long I have been worried about them in the first two games against the Canadiens.
After Max Pacioretty scored the game’s first goal after Mats Zuccarello lost the puck in his feet in front of Henrik Lundqvist the way Dan Girardi loses the puck frequently at the point on the power play, the Bell Centre erupted and thoughts of doubt started to creep in. “What if the Rangers fall into an offensive slump? What if they can’t score? What if Dustin Tokarski becomes the Canadiens’ version of Michael Leighton for the Flyers in the 2009-10 playoffs? What if the Canadiens win Game 2?” I started to worry that the Rangers wouldn’t be able to overcome allowing the the first goal in a playoff and a one-goal deficit because they have so many times before. But 17 seconds later, Ryan McDonagh reminded me of what I wrote after Game 1: these Rangers aren’t the same old Rangers.
The Bell Centre PA announcer hadn’t even finished announcing Pacioretty’s goal to a raucous crowd that forced me to turn the volume down on my TV before McDonagh interrupted Montreal’s party with a goal as a result of just throwing the puck near the net. And after turning my volume down as the Habs fans tried their best to get me a noise complaint from my landlord, I thought I had previously turned the volume all the way down to “0” or accidentally hit the mute button. The Bell Centre had gone silent.
I spent some time on Monday listening to Montreal sports radio to get a real sense of the mood and atmosphere in a hockey haven following the news that Carey Price, the man responsible for their series win over the Bruins, would miss the rest of the Eastern Conference finals. For New York Sports fans, the radio hosts and callers sounded like the equivalent of Yankees fans on Oct. 21, 2004 coupled with Mets fans on Oct. 1, 2007. The tone from the voices on the air sounded as if Montreal had lost the Canadiens due to relocation rather than losing their starting goalie due to an injury suffered from a breakaway.
As Canadiens fans started to wonder who would start Game 2 for them and try to save their season, Michel Therrien was busy blaming Price’s injury on the “reckless” Chris Kreider after calling his collision with Price “accidental” following Game 1. And according to Therrien, “This is not the first time Kreider’s going at goalies.”
To Therrien, the breakaway and collision in question has become about what Therrien thinks Kreider was thinking. And when you call a collision at the end of a breakaway “reckless,” you’re implying that Kreider was coming down the ice at at least 30 miles per hour with Alexei Emelin trying to pull him down with the intention of taking out Price rather than scoring a goal. And if you’re not implying that he knew the entire breakaway he wanted to go feet first into Price, then you’re implying that in the 0.000001 seconds after his shot didn’t go into the night, he thought and decided, “I didn’t score, so time to go feet first into the goalie and sacrifice my body and put my season at risk!” If you think both of those ideas are insane, then you think Michel Therrien is insane, and after blaming Price’s injury on Kreider, he clearly is.
So because Therrien put the blame for Price’s absence on Kreider, the Canadiens fans followed along, booing Kreider every time he touched the puck in Game 2. But every time Emelin (the Canadiens defensemen who let Kreider get past him for the now famous breakaway) touched the puck, there wasn’t any booing from the Canadiens fans. How is Emelin off the hook for Kreider’s breakaway? And why didn’t Therrien call his defensive play “reckless” when asked for his thoughts on the situation?
The Canadiens and their fans have long been known for their excuses, always looking to blame someone or something rather than themselves when things don’t go right for the franchise with the most championships in the league. Therrien blamed Kreider and the calls and breaks of the series and Canadiens fans can blame the loss of Price, a perfect built-in excuse for Montreal, if the team isn’t able to overcome a 2-0 series deficit and their season is ended by the Rangers. The latest excuse from the Canadiens is P.K. Subban calling Henrik Lundqvist “lucky,” which might be more ridiculous than Therrien implying Kreider’s breakaway collision was planned. If the Rangers win the Eastern Conference, it will be because of Henrik Lundqvist and there’s nothing that Michel Therrien, Carey Price or the Canadiens can do or could ever do about that.
Lundqvist has long been the best goalie in the NHL despite what his critics say or what his one Vezina Trophy suggests. He has spent his career on a bunch of average and below-average Rangers team that he made above average. But even knowing all this and watching him take over games and series like he did against the Penguins and has against the Canadiens, there are still those who would cite Lundqvist’s 19-25 playoff record entering the season as a reason for him being anything other than the “King.” But they don’t mention that in those 25 playoff losses, the Rangers scored a total of 36 goals or 1.44 goals per game. This postseason, the Rangers are 10-6, and in two of the six losses, they were shut out (Games 2 and 3 against Pittsburgh) and in Game 3 against Philadelphia they scored once, but I guess those losses are on Lundqvist too. Why didn’t he score any goals in those games?
Lundqvist has been the reason the Rangers have been in the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons, and he’s the reason the team came back against the Penguins, the reason they are up 2-0 on the Canadiens and the reason they are two wins from playing for the Cup for the first time in 20 years.
For outsiders, the opening minutes of Game 2 must have been magical to watch as Lundqvist kept the Canadiens off the board, but I have grown accustomed to those types of Lundqvist performances over the last nine seasons to the point that I expect them. I actually envy those watching Lundqvist regularly this postseason for the first time the way I envy someone who tells me they’re about to start watching Friday Night Lights or The Wire for the first time. And the opening minutes were just the beginning as Lundqvist went on to stop 40 of 41 shots and relentless pressure from a desperate Canadiens team playing in the hardest place for opponents to play.
The Rangers have now played 16 games this postseason and Lundqvist has allowed two goals or less in 12 of them. Since Game 5 in Pittsburgh, he has allowed six goals in five games and has stopped 162 of 168 shots (.964 SV%). The Rangers have been outshot in three of those fives games and Lundqvist has faced 26 more shots than the Rangers’ opposing goalies have, or basically one additional full game of shots against.
McDonagh was given the Broadway Hat after Game 2 for his goal that shut up the Bell Centre and for his assist that helped set up Martin St. Louis’ power-play goal that put the game out of reach. But the Broadway Hat really belongs to Henrik Lundqvist and it always has. He just lets his teammates borrow it.
Ten down, six to go.