Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t happy going into Game 6 against Montreal.
Given the hook midway through the previous game of the Eastern Conference final, the $100-million-plus Rangers goalie had been doing a lot of soul-searching.
“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,” Lundqvist said after Thursday’s 1-0 series-clinching win over Montreal. “You can’t have any excuses. You just have to go out there.
“I kept telling myself all day, believe in what you’re doing. I’ve been in that spot before. It gets silly, you get pulled. You have a tough game, but you just have to stay confident.”
The mental review concluded, Lundqvist returned to world-class form.
In dispatching the Canadiens to win the series four games to two, Lundqvist only had to deal with 18 shots. There were stretches of inactivity for the stylish Swede but he had to be razor sharp on a couple of occasions.
Lundqvist, in 20 playoff games this season, leads the NHL with a .928 save percentage and ranks second with a 2.03 goals-against average.
New York will need more of the same in the Stanley Cup final.
“He was totally focused,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said of his goalie. “He was probably a little upset tonight coming into the game. I don’t know if it was because of the opportunity or if he was upset with the way it ended in Montreal in Game 5.
“But he was definitely focused, and those are not easy games to play. I mean, there is not a lot of work, but you’ve got to stay sharp. He stayed really sharp.”
The biggest save came in the second period off Thomas Vanek. It was an amazing circus-like save with his arm and then blocker as Lundqvist, who lost his stick in the process, corkscrewed his body to stop the close-range shot that deflected off a diving defenceman.
Asked what he thought of the play, Vigneault replied: “Same thing you did. Wow.”
The Rangers scored soon after to book a ticket to their first Cup final in 20 years.
When the final whistle blew, the normally ice-cool Lundqvist threw his arms up in the air and pumped them in celebration, before being mobbed by his teammates as New York celebrated its 11th trip to the final.
The Rangers will open the championship series next Wednesday in either Chicago or Los Angeles.
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” said Lundqvist before knowing the identity of his opponent. “We’re going to play against a really good team. It’s about, for us, in the room to remind each other that this is such a special moment that you have to grab it. You have to make sure you’re ready and play your absolute best.
“You’re not going to get that many opportunities. I’ve been here for nine years. This is my first final, and now it’s all about preparing the right way and try to leave it all out there.”
In front of Lundqvist, the Rangers can roll four lines. Vigneault started the fourth line of Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett against the Habs in Game 6 and they responded with the lone goal on the night.
The goal came through nose-to-the-grindstone resolve as the Rangers outworked a tired Montreal quintet to keep the puck in the Habs’ end. Left alone behind the goal, Boyle sent a perfect pass through defenceman Francis Bouillon and Moore snapped a shot past Dustin Tokarski on the stick side.
The Rangers rely on goaltending and penalty killing to limit the opposition offence. It’s a recipe that worked well against Montreal, other than Game 5 when Lundqvist was pulled after giving up four goals on 19 shots.
New York also has speed in the form of Carl Hagelin, Mats Zuccarello and others. There are Cup winners in Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis. And first-class defencemen in Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.
There is character galore. Moore and St. Louis have had to endure personal tragedies in recent time, but found refuge at the rink, according to Vigneault.
The team is well-drilled and does the little things well, although there was a tendency to take poor penalties against Montreal.
Behind the bench, Vigneault is a calming presence.
In a year that saw the Rangers wobble out of the starting gate, forced to play on the road for most of October due to Madison Square Garden renovations, Vigneault kept the train on the tracks while changing the team culture.
Lundqvist also endured a rocky start, going 8-11 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in his first 20 games.
“We did change a lot of things going into the season. I think it was a time where we had to find ourselves a little bit as a group,” the goalie said. “But personally, I think it was my toughest start in my career, my 12, 13 years as a pro, if I combine the Sweden years.
“So it’s definitely a tough test. But it feels better when you turn it around and good things start to happen. It’s been a great ride so far, especially the second half of the season. It’s been a lot of fun to be around the guys, that’s for sure.”
Lundqvist, in the final year of a six-year, US$41.25 million deal, signed a seven-year contract extension worth US$59.5 million that will make him the NHL’s highest-paid goalie.
The win that moved the Rangers into the final came a year to the day that New York fired fiery coach John Tortorella, who is worlds apart from Vigneault.
“I personally just like how calm he is,” Lundqvist said of Vigneault. “Obviously, he changed a lot the way we play, so it was a big change early on in training camp and the first couple months for us to adjust and for me to adjust. It was a little different game. But he was very patient and calm and understood the process for us to get there. It’s going to take a while to get there.
“But obviously having Tortorella for almost five years and having that coaching style and then A.V. comes in, they’re opposites. As a player, you learn from both, and I enjoy both. But it’s refreshing when you see a new coaching style that you haven’t had before and the way he handles pressure situations. ... He’s pretty consistent with the way he talks to us good or bad.”
Vigneault is the picture of calm, although he is no automaton.
“Yeah, he gets worked up. He’s a human being, and he’s a coach,” said Richards. “Coaches have to do things sometimes to get things going. But his worked up is different than other people’s worked up. Different from my worked up and your worked up, everybody has different ways of showing it.
“I think you’ve just got to be around it and be behind closed doors, and you’ll know when he wants a little more of a practice or a little more preparation or whatever he’s doing. He still sets the tone when you see him that day, if things need to be changed or need to be worked on.”