NEW YORK -- He is a 33-year-old journeyman center, and a survivor of nine NHL stops with a tragedy-related sabbatical sandwiched in between. Entering what was correctly billed as the biggest hockey game in New York in the past 20 seasons, he isn't a headliner with anything close to Mark Messier's magic credentials way back when, or Henrik Lundqvist's star power today.
But with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line in Game 6 Thursday at Madison Square Garden, Rangers fourth-line center Dominic Moore -- who sat out the entire 2012-13 NHL season as his wife was losing a nine-month battle with liver cancer -- snapped off a second-period shot and catapulted himself straight into Rangers lore. His goal at 18:07 of the second period gave the Rangers' a 1-0 win that clinched their Eastern Conference finals series over Montreal, four games to two, and left them just four wins away from seizing only their second Stanley Cup in 74 years.
"It's been a pretty amazing journey," Moore said after the game.
"You get chills," said his linemate Brian Boyle, who outfought a Canadien for the puck and made a pass from behind the net that Moore knocked home. "I couldn't see a whole lot ... I just tried to put it where I thought Dominic was. And he was there."
Of course Moore was.
"Every time we've had a big game, he's stepped up with a great performance," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "He's a guy that talks about it a lot, too. Not being afraid."
The Rangers have six days off before starting the Cup finals on Wednesday on the road. They await the winner of the Los Angeles Kings-Chicago Blackhawks series. But whomever they face will be confronted by a Rangers club that has something highly special and intangible going for them now, not just a nice blend of youth and experience and faith in the system that first-year coach Alain Vigneault brought in. The Rangers are being powered by a notable amount of talent and smarts, as well as togetherness and heart.
No matter who wins the West, the Rangers are now the team that nobody wants to play.
It all started two weeks ago, with their scramble back from the brink of elimination in their last series against Pittsburgh, when Martin St. Louis surprised his teammates by rejoining them for Game 5 the day after his mother died of a heart attack, and then scored a goal in Game 6 on Mother's Day, helping them surge back from a 3-1 series deficit.
It continued when first-line center Derek Stepan suffered a broken jaw in Game 3, skipped Game 4 to recover from surgery to insert a metal plate, then returned to score twice in Game 5 and play through pain in Game 6 that occasionally left him jackknifed on the bench, rocking in place.
To all of that, now add this game-winning goal for Moore, a sweet reward for all the perseverance required for him to even get to this point.
As hard as it has been for Moore to pick up and start with a new team in all but one of his nine NHL seasons, it was, of course, nothing compared to finding out just 17 months into his marriage that his wife, Katie, his college sweetheart at Harvard, was ill with a rare form of cancer. The morning after the diagnosis, she underwent an eight-hour "aggressive surgery" to remove her stomach, gallbladder and all the lymph nodes in her abdomen. Doctors tried experimental treatments, too. Nothing helped.
"She was the best-looking girl on campus," Moore once reminisced about how he met her. She was with him with for every twist in his NHL career -- "My rock," he said -- and he was at her bedside in a Boston hospital when she passed away, holding her hand.
That was in January 2013. By the time Moore bypassed a few other offers to sign with the Rangers this past July, his first NHL team, he'd been out of hockey 26 months, dating back to when he and his wife first received her diagnosis, prompting him to leave the San Jose Sharks during their first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues.
Thursday night, Moore admitted his re-entry experience wasn't easy. He said he "owes a lot" to the support he got from his Rangers teammates when he first came back, feeling rusty. He also said he couldn't have done this well without leaning on his close friend Lundqvist, whom he sits with on the team plane and bus, rehashing losses and reliving wins.
He even tried to downplay being the guy who scored the winning goal and instead threw around credit to everyone else -- Boyle for the pass, St. Louis for his inspirational example and leadership, the way everyone on this Rangers team has bought into the idea that "every little bit counts ... and everyone is a part of this."
And still, there was no shaking the memory of how fiercely Moore went after that pass from Boyle and smacked it home, then stood there screaming and shaking his clenched fists as his teammates mobbed him.
There was still a long way to go, it was true. It was only one goal, giving the Rangers the narrowest of leads. But this game was far different from the Rangers clunker in Game 5, when they were so "out of whack" (veteran forward Brad Richards' words) that the Canadiens ripped them for seven goals, and chased Lundqvist midway through the second period after he surrendered goals on four of the first 19 shots he faced.
This win was more a triumph of "the system" the Rangers wanted to play -- controlling the puck, forechecking, playing at their pace and playing smart -- than it was due to Lundqvist standing on his head. (Though he did do that once, stoning Tomas Vanek with a spinning, acrobatic save on a second-period shot from close range).
But the magic the Rangers have going for them felt palpable, too. The way the Rangers clamped down on Montreal from the start of their superbly played third period made it feel like they weren't going to squander this chance.
Not this Rangers team. And not on this night.
Moore was asked later what he was thinking as the final seconds counted down, and he finally cracked a smile and said, "Being on the ice when that [final] horn goes -- man, I skated as fast as I could toward Hank."
The celebration was already going on -- a celebration Moore made happen with his goal. Confetti was floating down. The Garden crowd was standing and roaring, "We want the Cup! We want the Cup!"
And Richards, another Ranger whose career has been revived this year, noted later how Moore -- like St. Louis -- had given the Rangers' postseason tear another amazing storyline.
"I think as you go through runs, that's just the way things go," said Richards, who won a Cup with St. Louis when they were both with Tampa Bay. "There always seem to be little things that you can grab and build on, and that's what makes it so special to win a Stanley Cup. The stars have to align, and it's great that those guys have the feeling that someone's watching over them, and helping them out."
Moore was right. It's been an amazing journey. For him. For all the Rangers.
And thanks to his goal, it's not done yet.