Head coach Alain Vigneault said this morning that big game players have a "knack" for making the big play at the big moment. That was Mats Zuccarello Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Norwegian winger scored twice to lift the Blueshirts to a 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6, clinching the series 4-2.
The Rangers will face the winner of the Ottawa-Boston series.
"It was a good fought series there, a tough one," said Zuccarello, who notched his first multi-goal playoff game of his career. "Montreal played great, a tough team to play against. They made it hard for us but we have a tough team in here."
With the Rangers trailing early in the second period and on the power play, Zuccarello fired a wrist shot from the faceoff circle that beat Carey Price between the legs to even the score 2:26 into the middle frame.
Video: MTL@NYR, Gm6: Zuccarello beats Price for PPG
The goal was the Rangers' first with the man advantage in the series.
Zuccarello put the Blueshirts ahead for good when he converted on a pretty pass from Kevin Hayes on the side of the net with 6:29 to play in the middle frame.
Video: MTL@NYR, Gm6: Zuccarello slams home Hayes' feed
"He's a competitive little bugger," Vigneault said with a laugh. "He competes every shift. He's become a real big part of our team, not just what he does on the ice. He brings the team together. He's a real good teammate and he came up huge for us tonight."
Derek Stepan added an empty-net goal with 28 seconds remaining in the game to send the Rangers to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for fifth time in the last six years.
"It means a lot. We put a lot of effort into every game here. It's not done until you put that last puck in," said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 27 saves in the win. "It was a series of two teams that didn't give much.
Video: MTL@NYR, Gm6: Lundqvist preserves lead with pad save
Lundqvist - who Montreal head coach Claude Julien called New York's best player - saved his best for late when he stopped Thomas Plekanec with a pad save on the goal line with 1:43 left in the game.
"I knew I was in trouble because I wasn't in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me," he said of the save. "My first thought was don't knock it in, and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn't put it far corner. It was just a quick play."
The Rangers' struggles on home ice feel like a distant memory now after the Blueshirts won Games 4 and 6 at The Garden, and the venue made the ticking off of the final moments all the more special for Lundqvist, who is 7-1 with a 0.96 GAA, a .964 SV%, and one shutout in eight appearances at MSG when the Rangers can close out a series since 2012.
"It's just exciting and a great feeling to do it in front of our fans," said Lundqvist, who is 4-2 with a 1.70 GAA, a .947 SV%, and one shutout in the playoffs. "That excitement when the puck goes in, you're moving on. It's been pretty intense the last few days but it's all worth it."
The Rangers can now rest and heal after a physical series as they wait for their next opponent, either the Bruins or Senators. But with experience comes greater expectations. It's a marathon to 16 wins for a Stanley Cup, not a sprint to four.
"It's going to be nice, a couple days off, but it's only the first round," Zuccarello said. "We've got to regroup right now and rest up and get ready for the next round."