Commentary

Habs' kid takes King Henrik to school

Dustin Tokarski trumps Henrik Lundqvist to turn Rangers rout into a series

Updated: May 23, 2014, 3:11 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Very little about the New York Rangers' playoff run has been chalk. So it probably shouldn't be surprising that the upsets continued, even if the storyline of their Eastern Conference finals series that returned to the Garden on Thursday night was The King vs. The Kid -- or how goaltender Henrik Lundqvist had a supposedly insurmountable advantage over Dustin Tokarski, the inexperienced emergency goaltender the Montreal Canadiens dared to lean on when Carey Price was injured in Game 1.

Lundqvist was supposedly going to be enough to lift the Rangers to a 3-0 stranglehold in this series.

[+] EnlargeHenrik Lundqvist
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHenrik Lundqvist was supposed to lift the Rangers to a 3-0 series lead.

And that looked like chalk too, after Rangers forward Chris Kreider -- whose collision with Price knocked him out of this series -- temporarily nominated himself as the most loathed man in Montreal (and perhaps the entire Canadian sports scene at the moment) by deflecting home a game-tying goal off Alexei Emelin's skate and into the net with 29 seconds left in regulation and Lundqvist pulled from his net and watching from the bench.

But then something even more unbelievable happened: It was The King who unthinkably got beat last, just 1 minute, 12 seconds into overtime. And it was Lundqvist who made the Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban look like a prophet after Subban predicted during the two-day wait for this series to resume that the former Vezina Trophy winner had been lucky until now, not just good.

The prediction came true as the Canadiens rode two fluky bounces for two goals in the final 4 minutes of regulation and overtime for a 3-2 win.

"Tough luck. ... Both of them," a sweat-soaked Lundqvist said as he sat on his locker room bench, looking a little disgusted after the game.

First the goaltender coughed up a goal with just 3:02 to play in regulation on a caroming pass that came out to Montreal's Daniel Briere from off the boards behind the net.

And it was Lundqvist -- not Tokarski -- who was beat in overtime, after the Garden had barely stopped buzzing about Kreider's dramatic goal, on another bounce that Lundqvist couldn't help muttering about later. This one was a high rebound of a shot he blocked with his leg pad -- only to see the puck go fluttering into the air and ricochet off the chest of Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk as the 20-year-old center flashed past Marc Staal toward the post to Lundqvist's left.

"All of the goals today weren't the prettiest," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh allowed.

So much for the pat predictions that this series win would come easy to the Rangers.

And time to pump the brakes on that talk that this season feels like '94.

The excitement about Lundqvist's 1.20 goals against average during the five-game winning streak the Rangers rode into Game 3 was understandable. The same goes for how he had stopped 162 of the 168 shots he'd faced over that span, or the destiny talk that began floating up after the Rangers' tear coincided with Martin St. Louis' emotional decision to play on after the sudden death of his 63-year-old mother.

But hockey is too maddening a game to trust anything to stay the same for very long.

"We knew it was going to be [hard fought] like this," insisted Mats Zuccarello, one of the many Rangers who had some terrific scoring changes against Tokarski but couldn't find the back of the net.

The Rangers may yet survive and advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter broke the Rangers' 54-year championship drought.

And it's still reasonable to expect that Lundqvist can indeed lead them.

It's just not going to be the cakewalk it might've seemed after the Rangers looked out on their feet against Pittsburgh Penguins, but then rallied from a 3-1 series hole for a Game 7 win and won the first two games of this series on the road, too.

But don't forget, Montreal's title drought of 21 years is just one year shy of the streak the Rangers are riding. The Canadiens' 1993 victory also marks the last time any team from Canada has won the Cup.

The Canadiens also knew they were playing for their postseason lives Thursday night, and you could see their confidence growing the longer Tokarski kept them in the game, especially early on. He turned away an onslaught of shots while the Habs' still had only four on Lundqvist deep into the second period.

Many of the Rangers weren't shy afterward about saying they thought they'd outplayed Montreal.

But Lundqvist didn't want to hear it.

He is 32 now, and he has been through too many of these Stanley Cup runs, with international and Olympic championship wars on top of that, to be placated by close-but-not-quite efforts, or glass-half-full assessments of what Thursday's loss means.

"In the playoffs, especially, it's about winning -- finding a way to win," Lundqist said. "You don't want a pat yourself on the back too much because we lost the game.

"We have to be better."

Lundqvist then went on to lean on the sort of things a goaltender always says.

He spoke about the Rangers having to have short memories.

He didn't feed into how the Rangers probably felt there was no way they could lose this game -- not after Kreider scored that rousing goal.

Not when they had The King vs. The Kid in the net.

"But we talked about this going into the last game, Lundqvist said. "You have to expect every goalie at this level. It doesn't matter if they're playing their first, second or 200th game, they're going to play well."

And that turned out to be right.

And instead a Rangers' romp, this is a series now.

"It was hard-fought game," New York coach Alain Vigneault said. "And the next one is going to be even tougher."

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