Members of the Montreal Canadiens gather around goalie Dustin Tokarski to celebrate their 7-4 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference finals, Tuesday, May 27, 2014, in MontrealMembers of the Montreal Canadiens gather around goalie Dustin Tokarski to celebrate their 7-4 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference finals, Tuesday, May 27, 2014, in Montreal. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
MONTREAL — There was the hat trick by Rene Bourque, the Montreal Canadiens winger who scored nine times in the regular season, and the two goals by Derek Stepan, the New York Rangers center who had surgery to repair a broken jaw four days before.
There was the stick-shaft save by Dustin Tokarski, the Canadiens goaltender playing his 14th NHL game, and the skate of shame by Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers goaltender pulled for the fourth time in 85 playoff appearances.
There was the back-and-forth action – it was 4-1 for Montreal, then tied, then a rout again – and there was the suspension-worthy head shot by Rangers defenseman John Moore on Canadiens winger Dale Weise.
“It was, to say the least, a strange game,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault.
But through all the craziness, this was the difference in the Canadiens’ 7-4 victory Tuesday night. This is why the Habs are still in this Eastern Conference final – facing a 3-2 series deficit, but knowing a victory in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden puts them back at the Bell Centre for Game 7.
“Calm,” said Canadiens defenseman Mike Weaver.
Weaver was describing the Canadiens’ bench 14:12 into the second period. The Rangers had just scored three goals in 4:24 – a fluky deflection, a sharp shot in the slot, a redirection into a yawning net on a power play – and just like that the 4-1 lead was gone.
The Montreal fans – so loud all night, from Ginette Reno’s rendition of the Canadian national anthem through the flurry of goals – were quiet. So were the Montreal players.
“There was silence,” Weaver said, “and everybody took a second to kind of regroup.”
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien looked at his team and assessed the situation. Here were the Habs on the edge of the cliff, staring down into the abyss, facing elimination. One more nudge, and they could have fallen. He could have called his timeout.
“I felt our attitude on the bench was good,” Therrien said. “When you decide to call a timeout, [it’s] because as a coach you have a feeling that your team’s losing confidence. But that was not the case.”
Less than a minute later, the Canadiens came down the ice. Center Lars Eller dropped the puck to Weise above the right circle. Weise sent it into the high slot for Bourque. A step. A move. A shot. A ping. The puck went through traffic and off the left post and in, and the horn blew and the Bell Centre was insane again.
The Habs had a 5-4 lead 15:10 into the second. Bourque added another goal in the third, and David Desharnais tacked on an empty-netter.
“Obviously you want to give them credit for making some good plays, but they also got some bounces,” said winger Max Pacioretty, who scored the Habs’ third goal early in the second. “We knew we were all over them in the first. We’d already chased their goalie. We knew when you do something like that, obviously we have even the mental edge. I think at the end of the day, we knew we had the momentum and just let it slip away for a little bit. Once we got back to our game, it seemed like it was right back to where it was before.”
Comebacks have been common in these playoffs – within games, within series. Teams are so evenly matched in this era, if one team is capable of putting together some goals or victories, so is the other team. Every time it happens, the belief grows, too.
Still, even in that context, there has been something special about these Canadiens.
After winning six of their first seven, they lost back-to-back games to the Boston Bruins, their archrivals and the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team. They faced a 3-2 series deficit in the second round. They blew out the Bruins in Game 6 at the Bell Centre, 4-0, and then won Game 7 in TD Garden, 3-1.
They got too high afterward and looked horrible in Game 1 of this series, a 7-2 loss in which they lost their star goaltender, Carey Price. They outplayed the Rangers in Game 2 and lost, 3-1, anyway, thanks largely to Lundqvist. But facing a 2-0 series deficit, they won Game 3 in overtime, 3-2, and could have won Game 4, losing in OT, 3-2.
And facing a 3-1 series deficit, they took that 4-1 lead, and they lost it, and they stayed composed, and they came right back and won the game. They should be dead by now, especially without Price, but they are still alive.
“We’ve been through it enough times,” Gallagher said. “We’ve given up leads. We’ve come back. We know what it’s like. You’re not going to change the situation. It’s 4-4. You’re playing for your lives. You can’t feel sorry for yourselves. You’ve just got to go out and fix it.”
The Rangers aren’t in trouble, not exactly, not yet. In the first round, Lundqvist allowed four goals and got pulled in the second period as the Rangers failed to finish off the Philadelphia Flyers on the road, and he allowed only one goal in the next game as the Rangers clinched the series at MSG. He doesn’t look mortal in consecutive games too often. If he plays the way he can in Game 6, this could be a nice footnote to help the Habs through the summer.
But the Rangers should be without Moore – who wasn’t technically late when he blindsided Weise in the third period, but who picked the head and received a match penalty – and the pressure’s on. As good as Lundqvist and the Rangers have been in Game 7s, they do not want to try another one. As well as Lundqvist played in the first two games of this series, he has struggled historically in Montreal and struggled again in Game 5.
Can the Canadiens win this series – after losing Price in Game 1, after facing a 2-0 deficit, after facing a 3-1 deficit?
To say the least, stranger things have happened.
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