NEW YORK — The Rangers desperately needed Henrik Lundqvist on Tuesday night. But, more so, they desperately needed themselves.
Lundqvist, as had been the case in the first three games of this first-round series against the Canadiens, delivered one of his playoff-worthy, A-plus performances. But it was only a difference maker because the rest of his teammates followed suit with passionate play of their own.
And, in doing so the Rangers won a playoff game at Madison Square Garden, snapping a six-game losing streak dating to Game 2 of the 2015 Eastern Conference final against the Lightning. They played their best game of the series so far, the Canadiens played their worst.
So this series heads back to Montreal for Thursday night’s Game 5 tied at two games apiece after the Rangers won Game 4, 2-1. The Rangers had scored a sum total of four goals through their six-game home playoff losing streak.
Sunday’s 3-1 Game 3 loss was a passive clunker for sure but the Rangers have now been the better team in Game 1, the first two periods of Game 2 and this Game 4. There’s no reason to think the Rangers, if they can maintain this level of intensity and with Lundqvist strong, can’t win two of the next three, if necessary.
“We need a lot of desperation,” Lundqvist said before making 23 saves in Game 4. “We have to play our best and see how far that takes us. It starts with that. Come into the building and leave everything out there.”
That they did as Lundqvist’s counterpart, Carey Price (30 saves), was nearly as good but still the second-best goalie with the Rangers creating more havoc around his crease.
Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Jesper Fast, Michael Grabner, Jimmy Vesey were all really good up front. Captain Ryan McDonagh was a two-way beast.
“We can’t afford to have two sub-par games in a row,” McDonagh said beforehand. “The other night was a frustrating one.”
The goalies entered Game 4 with almost identical stats, which was in line the pre-series expectations.
Price had a .944 save percentage and a 1.53 goals-against average, which was as much a reflection on the Rangers’ inability to create net-front traffic and an 0-for-10 power play that spent more of its time chasing the puck down the ice than setting up in the Canadiens’ zone than Price making spectacular saves.
Lundqvist carried a .941 save percentage and a 2.16 GAA, both superb numbers, into Game 4.
The main statistical difference was Lundqvist had faced 118 shots — he made a career playoff-high 54 saves in the Rangers’ 4-3 overtime loss in Game 2 — or 29 more than Price.
For many goalies, 29 shots in an NHL game.
Just like Game 2, Canadiens coach Claude Julien pulled Price for an extra skater with plenty of time left in regulation, this time with 2:27 left.
Unlike Game 2, Lundqvist and the Rangers were able to hold on through those desperate last minutes, with Shea Weber’s slap shot slamming off the post and away from danger.
If a strong effort from Lundqvist was a near given, the rest of the Rangers knew they had to be a much better team than they were in Game 3, quicker to the puck, stronger on the forecheck, smarter.
“I need the whole group to be better,” coach Alain Vigneault said before faceoff. “Everyone in that room, to a man, knows their game can be better and needs to be better.”
Again, starting goalies aside.
And the Rangers came out in the first period and were essentially everything they weren’t in Game 3, namely, the aggressors who were first to the puck.
Too much, at the start, still was coming from the outside but the Rangers, slowly but surely, drew their game closer to Price’s crease. And the Rangers took a 1-0 lead at 11:39 when defenseman Andrei Markov misplayed the puck at his feet in the right corner of the Canadiens’ zone and Jesper Fast swooped in to deposit a backhander through Price’s pads.
Meanwhile, Lundqvist was brilliant, stopping subsequent breakaways by Andrew Shaw and Torrey Mitchell. Yet Lundqvist was helpless on Mitchell’s two-on-one goal to tie the game at 18:37 of the first after Alexander Radulov took the puck from Brady Skjei and Mitchell and Shea Weber worked a give-and-go, with Mitchell, on the left, shooting it into an empty net.
But the Rangers continued to be the better team, improving as the game wore on and, after Nash gave them a 2-1 lead at 4:28 of the second period by getting to the crease for a backhand after defenseman Jeff Petry turned the puck over in his zone, they pressed harder rather than retreating into a defensive shell.
That was their disastrous strategy in Game 2 after taking a 3-2 lead.
But, at one point, the Rangers held a 10-2 shot advantage in the second period and finished the middle 20 minutes with a 12-6 edge.
Desperate hockey, indeed.