NEW YORK -- So often throughout his nine years in New York, Henrik Lundqvist has been the savior, the guy bailing out his teammates. That's what made the irony so rich Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Entering the biggest night of his NHL career and the most important hockey game in the Big Apple in 20 years, it was the New York Rangers' goalie in need of a pick-me-up.
He got it.
The Rangers delivered their best defensive performance this postseason, and Lundqvist backed them up with an 18-save shutout to lift New York to a 1-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994.
Dominic Moore's goal late in the second period held up as the clincher in the Eastern Conference Final. The Rangers won in six games and now wait to find out who they play for the right to lift the Stanley Cup.
"It was such a great feeling to see how we responded from the last game," Lundqvist said, referring to Montreal's 7-4 win in Game 5. "The third period [Thursday night], I think we played our best period of the playoffs. When it mattered most the guys really stepped up. It was awesome to be back there and see the way we took charge and earned this victory."
New York will face either the Chicago Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final, which begins Wednesday. The Kings lead the best-of-7 Western Conference Final 3-2 with Game 6 set for Friday at Staples Center (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
The Kings-Blackhawks winner will have home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Final by virtue of their regular-season point totals. The Blackhawks had 107 points, and the Kings had 100. The Rangers finished with 96.
"It's a pretty spectacular place to be able to advance when you have the whole city behind you," Rangers forward Brian Boyle said of New York City. "That said, we know what the fans want, and we want the same thing. We haven't got it yet."
Lundqvist is now the Rangers' all-time leader in Stanley Cup Playoff wins with 42, moving one ahead of Mike Richter, who was in net in 1994, the last time the Rangers played for (and won) the Stanley Cup. He also tied Richter for the most career postseason shutouts in franchise history with nine.
He said after the game that he had never been more determined to get a win than he was Thursday night. It was obvious as to why, and it wasn't only because the Rangers would clinch a trip to the Final with a win.
Lundqvist was coming off his worst performance in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He gave up four goals on 19 shots in less than 30 minutes before getting pulled in Game 5. Lundqvist was testy Thursday morning when reporters tried to ask him about overcoming that performance.
He clearly felt the pressure. The thought of going back to Montreal for Game 7, to Bell Centre, which prior to this series was Lundqvist's personal house of horrors, was probably troubling for a goalie who had never before advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.
"Going into the playoffs you talk about it is a roller-coaster mentally," Lundqvist said. "You have so many highs. You have a few lows where you're questioning a lot of things, but then you just have to make up your mind. You can't have any excuses.
"I kept telling myself all day, 'Believe in what you're doing.' I've been in that spot before. You just have to stay confident."
Lundqvist gained his confidence off the performance of the skaters in front of him.
He didn't face a shot for the first 7:39 of the game. He faced only five shots in the first period and another eight in the second.
Instead of trying to protect their 1-0 lead in the third period, the Rangers went on the attack. The result was five shots on goal against Lundqvist, none for the first 9:03 of the period. New York had 13 against Montreal rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski, who kept it interesting by stopping them all.
Tokarski finished with 31 saves.
"He bailed us out a number of times in the series, and [Thursday night] we got no pressure on Lundqvist," Montreal forward Max Pacioretty said. "We weren't able to get pucks to the net. We weren't able to get bodies to the net. Obviously that's a good team over there, but we're a good team too, and it didn't feel like we threw our best at them [Thursday night]. And that's what's going to be thought about a lot over the summer."
Meanwhile, Montreal forward Thomas Vanek might be thinking a lot about the goal that almost was at 15:15 of the second period.
With the game still scoreless, Lundqvist made his best save of the night, really his best save of the playoffs, by flailing his blocker upwards to somehow stop Vanek's deflected shot that appeared headed for the back of the net.
Lundqvist threw his stick on purpose and almost did a cartwheel as he raised his blocker up to make the save.
"That was ridiculous," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said of the save. "That was a huge save. It changes the whole complexion of the game a huge save like that."
Indeed it did. Moore scored less than three minutes later, capping a long shift in the offensive zone by the Rangers' fourth line with a hard, blocker-side shot from the slot.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh pinched in from the left point and got the puck from Derek Dorsett in the corner. He wheeled it behind the net to Boyle, who from the trapezoid to the right of the net threaded a pass through Montreal defenseman Francis Bouillon and into the slot to a wide-open Moore. He cut into the slot from the right circle and fired a shot under Tokarski's blocker.
"I had to corral the puck and put it to an area I thought [Moore] was going to be," Boyle said. "I knew he was going that way. He had been harping on trying to get the goalie moving. It got to him, rolled a little bit, and he did a great job handling it. His finish was a thing of beauty."
The same can be said about the Rangers' defensive performance in front of Lundqvist in Game 6.
Earlier in the series Lundqvist talked about having no regrets, leaving nothing on the table. He felt the Rangers had more to give when they reached the conference final two years ago against the New Jersey Devils, a series they lost in six games.
That same feeling does not exist now, not after what coach Alain Vigneault called "probably our best game of the playoffs."
You'll hear no argument on that from Lundqvist.
"It makes it even more special when you have four lines stepping up in different times and just doing it together," Lundqvist said. "That's what it's all about. Everybody feels like they're playing a big part. I think that's a big thing when you're playing in the playoffs and you go through ups and downs, to make sure everybody feels like they're bringing something to the table here.
"That's been the case, and that's why we're playing in the Final."
|Brian Gionta Interference on goalkeeper against Henrik Lundqvist|
|Marc Staal Interference against Tomas Plekanec|
|P.K. Subban Interference against Brad Richards|
|Andrei Markov Tripping against Derick Brassard|
|Brad Richards Hooking against Thomas Vanek|
|Brandon Prust Slashing against Anton Stralman|