NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers flirted with disaster Sunday night, abandoning their disciplined ways and almost surrendering control of the series as a result.
Thanks to veteran Martin St. Louis, whose feel-good story of the playoffs continued in Game 4 when he notched the overtime game-winner to knock off the Habs 3-2, the Rangers will take a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference final into Game 5 against the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday night.
If their penalty parade persists, however, they might allow the Habs to climb right back in this thing.
The Rangers, who took the fewest penalties of any NHL team in the regular season, were uncharacteristically undisciplined Sunday. They were whistled for a whopping nine penalties, and what was worse: seven of those occurred in the offensive zone. The worst? A mind-boggling holding-the-stick penalty by Benoit Pouliot just 30 seconds into the overtime period.
“It was us,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, pointing to his chest after the game. “They were penalties. Can’t do that.”
New York was lucky that, save for P.K. Subban's game-tying man-up marker in the third period, the Habs’ power play was largely ineffective. The Rangers were also benefactors from a superior penalty-killing effort that delivered when called upon frequently in the game.
With only one blemish on eight attempts Sunday night, the Rangers have now killed off 37 of the last 39 penalties, good for a dazzling 94.9-percent success rate, in their last 12 games. They also scored a shorthanded goal when Carl Hagelin beat Habs netminder on a breakaway 7:18 in the first period, the team’s first shorthanded goal in the playoffs since Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal on April 9, 2008.
“They played a huge part in this one,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who finished the night with 27 saves and also recorded his first ever postseason point with an assist on Derick Brassard's second-period goal. “I think the timing and the way they work together has been really good the whole playoffs, but tonight they really had to step up.”
“We put ourselves in a really tough spot by taking so many penalties,” Lundqvist continued. “You know, there were some questionable calls, but in the end we put ourselves in a tough spot where they might call that.”
The Rangers probably had legitimate reason to gripe on a few calls. Both Subban and Tomas Plekanec could have likely been called for embellishment in their overzealous reaction to two high-sticking penalties in the middle frame. But that’s no excuse for a Rangers team that has tried to remain focused and disciplined despite all the rhetoric and gamesmanship between the two clubs in the drama-filled days leading up to Game 4.
Hagelin felt like the staggering number of infractions was a combination of the team’s lack of discipline and the Habs’ ability to sell a few calls.
“Probably a mix,” Hagelin said. “We were definitely undisciplined. A few too many tripping, high-sticking calls. The ref is always going to call those. We’ve got to play smarter in terms of that for the next game, but again, we did a great job on the PK.”
Brian Boyle was a key element on the unit, as he has been all year. Vigneault lauded the thankless work by the rugged forward and said he was critical in helping set up Hagelin’s goal.
“He’s one of the first guys I send out with Hags every time,” Vigneault said. “Big body, blocks shots, good on face-offs, and he made a great play on that first goal.”
Though the Rangers penalty-killing unit has been superb all spring, the Rangers know they are in trouble if they rely on it too heavily. Becoming unhinged, no matter what sort of emotional element comes into play for the remainder of the series, is not an option.
They played with fire Sunday and were fortunate to emerge unscathed. They might not be that lucky next time.
“Sooner or later,” Lundqvist said, “When you take that many penalties, something bad is going to happen.”