The Rangers needed Lundqvist to make one more save, and he did, foiling Tomas Plekanec with his pad with 1 minute 47 seconds left. His teammates cleared the zone, and after Derek Stepan lofted in an empty-net goal with 17.8 seconds remaining, Lundqvist gamboled by his net and looked skyward. His math had checked out.
The victory, tense and taut, served as a microcosm of the Rangers’ postseason so far. They stumbled, they stabilized, and finally they regrouped.
After falling behind by 1-0 on Saturday, they eliminated Montreal on the strength of two second-period goals by Mats Zuccarello, the diminutive winger whom Coach Alain Vigneault affectionately called “a competitive little bugger.”
After falling behind by two games to one in the series with a listless Game 3 defeat at home, the Rangers stymied Montreal by winning three consecutive games to avoid duplicating last season’s early exit. They lost in the first round last year, one season after a Game 7 shutout loss in the conference finals.
Since the 2012 playoffs, the Rangers have won seven of eight home games in which they had an opportunity to clinch a series.
They move on to play the Boston Bruins or the Ottawa Senators, who lead that series by three games to two with Game 6 scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Boston. Despite having finished with more regular-season points than either of those teams, the Rangers, having reached the playoffs as a wild card, are assured of beginning the series on the road. It will not necessarily be a problem for the Rangers, who won two of three games in the series in Montreal and, at 27-12-2, had the league’s best regular-season road record.
Heading into Saturday night, the Canadiens’ predicament must have evoked a warm memory for their coach, Claude Julien, who confronted — and conquered — the same situation the last time he drew one of Vigneault’s teams in the playoffs: Trailing in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals by three games to two, Julien’s Bruins won two straight against Vigneault’s Vancouver Canucks to win the title.
As if conjuring that experience, Vigneault commanded his current team to seize the moment.
“I believe we’ve got every right to be urgent tonight,” Vigneault said Saturday morning, “so we are going to be urgent.”
Early on, that urgency manifested itself in some ways for the Rangers — Jimmy Vesey’s tussle with the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty, and persistent physical play along the boards — but not when they possessed the puck. It took almost eight minutes before the Rangers registered their first shot on Montreal goaltender Carey Price, and by then they trailed, 1-0.
The Rangers’ defensive negligence allowed Radulov, a force all series, to shovel a loose puck through the crease to Alexei Emelin, who ripped a wrist shot past a screened Lundqvist at 6:19 of the first period, for Emelin’s first goal in 29 career playoff games.
“They came out with a big push,” Stepan said. “I don’t think our group thought that we were good enough to match that intensity.”
It took until the second period for the Rangers to rediscover their purpose. A quick holding penalty on Jordie Benn gave a power play to the Rangers, whose series-long impotence (0 for 14) with a man advantage ended when Zuccarello used his skate to harness a cross-ice pass from Mika Zibanejad and beat Price on his short side at 2:26.
It was Zuccarello’s clumsy high-sticking penalty in Game 3 that handed Montreal a power play that the Canadiens converted into a critical goal. If his first goal on Saturday negated that mistake, then his second earned him even more good will.
J. T. Miller’s work in the corner freed the puck to Kevin Hayes, who zipped a pass to Zuccarello at the top of the crease. He banked it off Price, who was out of position, and into the net at 13:31 in the second to put the Rangers ahead by 2-1.
“He’s become a real big part of our team,” Vigneault said.
Vigneault challenged the Rangers after the lethargic Game 3 loss, demanding more production from his best players — Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider. Their best player, however, is Lundqvist, who like his team endured a wobbly end to the season.
The Rangers staggered down the stretch, going 5-6-4 in the final month, but they still had Lundqvist. As the crowd bellowed in the third period and the Canadiens’ own urgency increased, Lundqvist turned aside every shot, including Plekanec’s one-timed backhander from the top of the crease — a shot that Lundqvist said he did not see well.
“It was just a desperation save,” said Lundqvist, who stopped 27 shots. “Luckily, he didn’t put it far corner.”
Lundqvist seems to create his own luck in these situations: Since the start of the 2014 playoffs, he is 6-1 with a .966 save percentage when the Rangers can clinch a series. And now he is 4-2 in these playoffs, with an opportunity for more wins, more saves and more late calculations.
“It’s been pretty intense the last few days,” Lundqvist said, “but it’s all worth it.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of a Rangers player who assisted on a second-period goal. He is Mika Zibanejad, not Mike.