The New York Rangers were 17 seconds away from grabbing a 2-0 stranglehold on their opening round series with the Montreal Canadiens, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs are rarely so straightforward. Tomas Plekanec scored a late equalizer to send the game to overtime, and Alexander Radulov won it for the Habs in the first overtime period to tie the series at 1-1.
The Rangers were the masters of their own demise, playing an extremely tentative third period while holding a 3-2 lead, seemingly inviting pressure from the desperate hosts. Rather than staying aggressive on the forecheck and holding onto possession – two things the Rangers had excelled in doing to start the series – the team chose a more conservative route, icing the puck constantly and rarely threatening Carey Price’s net. Needless to say, the strategy backfired.
Make no mistake: Henrik Lundqvist was absolutely brilliant in this game, making a ridiculous 54 saves on 58 shots(!) in a heroic, losing effort. The King was visibly frustrated with his defense all night. If the Rangers are going to win this series, all six defensemen – no matter who Alain Vigneault chooses to dress – will need to play a lot better.
The Rangers actually started the game well, but found themselves trailing for the first time in the series just minutes into the first period. Jeff Petry scored Montreal’s first goal of the playoffs, off of an extended scramble that resulted in Lundqvist floundering without a stick. The Rangers were laughably disorganized, allowing Petry to walk in and snipe a wrist shot over the prone King’s right shoulder.
Michael Grabner answered with his second goal of the playoffs, a breakaway where the Austrian speedster faked Carey Price out of his pads. Unfortunately, the lead lasted less than two minutes. Chris Kreider turned the puck over at the red line, courtesy of a poor Nick Holden pass, and seconds later Paul Byron buried a Brendan Gallagher feed to give the Habs a 2-1 lead.
The Rangers’ playoff experience proved valuable in the second period, as two of their most dependable forwards came up with goals. Rick Nash scored the game-tying goal, an absolute laser of a shot over Carey Price’s left shoulder. Mats Zuccarello’s excuse-me deflection with 5 minutes remaining in the period gave Rangers fans a chance to dream of a short series.
But it wasn’t to be. The Rangers attempted to will the clock to zeroes, absorbing a tremendous amount of Canadiens pressure in the third. Montreal sent 33 shot attempts towards the Rangers net in the period, and with 17.3 seconds remaining, Plekanec redirected Radulov’s centering feed past Lundqvist to tie the game.
Overtime brought the usual taut, breathtaking hockey that makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so special. Unfortunately for the Rangers, they simply couldn’t snap out of their third period malaise. Alexander Radulov swatted home a rebound with 1:26 remaining in overtime, sending this series back to Madison Square Garden knotted at 1-1.
All in all, the Rangers will be happy having split the first two games of the series, but the way Game 2 ended will certainly leave a sour taste behind. The pressure now transfers to the Blueshirts, who head back to Madison Square Garden hoping to reverse the season-long mediocrity they’ve experienced at home in 2016-2017. The onus is on Alain Vigneault to make the necessary adjustments (benching Nick Holden, perhaps?) and on the players to be more assertive in front of the Garden faithful.
See you on Sunday.