PITTSBURGH -- New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal has seen his teammate, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, do some pretty sensational things in their time together, almost enough to make the amazing look routine.
But the saves Lundqvist made late in the third period of Game 7 in the Rangers' Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday left Staal stunned on the bench. They were also the pivotal moments in New York's 2-1 victory.
With New York clinging to a one-goal lead during Pittsburgh's furious late push, the Penguins charged into the crease with 5:16 remaining. Lundqvist dropped to his knees and fanned out his right pad to get a piece of James Neal's low shot from the crease and held strong with Evgeni Malkin jamming away at the puck. After Kris Letang's attempt on the rebound was blocked, Lundqvist fought through bodies to get his left pad on Paul Martin's backhand attempt that changed direction after hitting a stray stick in front. And as Penguins converged en masse at the Rangers net, Lundqvist covered the puck for a whistle.
"That's three or four of the biggest saves I've seen [Lundqvist] make since I've played with him," Staal said. "Five minutes left to go, 2-1 hockey game and he comes up with that ... that's massive. Stepped up and made a bunch of huge saves. Battle hard for us. That got us the win."
The win not only got the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Final for the second time in three years, it earned Lundqvist a special place in team and NHL history.
He finished with 35 saves to help New York win a Game 7 on the road for the second time. Lundqvist played a major role in the first one, which came one year ago to the day, when he made 35 saves in a 5-0 win against the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He also won his fifth straight Game 7, an NHL record. In six career Game 7s, Lundqvist is 5-1 with a 1.00 goals-against average, a .965 save percentage and one shutout.
Then there's his record in his past 12 elimination games: 10-2 with a 1.32 GAA and a.957 save percentage.
"He's OK," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, eliciting a laugh during his postgame press conference.
Lundqvist was more than just OK, and the entire Rangers organization knew it. That was most evident in the third period, when he stopped all 13 shots the Penguins threw at him.
"When they took their game to another level in the third period, our goaltender took his game to another level," Vigneault said. "He was able to stop a barrage of opportunities. He was the difference in [Game 7]."
The Penguins put pucks and bodies at the net but Lundqvist never wavered.
"He was OK with guys being on top of him as long as we didn't take penalties," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "He really fought through screens, fought through loose pucks. It's an incredible effort when you see him diving around and covering loose pucks for us."
Even the Penguins were impressed.
"He was strong there and he was the difference in the game," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "Those 35 saves are the difference in the game. You've got to tip your hat to him and how he played."
With Lundqvist at the top of his game, his teammates could play free and attack, knowing they had the ultimate security blanket behind them.
"You go into a game and know he's going to be at his best," Staal said. "It's a calming feeling for everyone. You don't have to ever think about our goalie. You just go out there and compete. You make a mistake, he's going to do his best to battle in there for you and save it. It's a good feeling to have in a room going into a Game 7."
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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