The Rangers were clinging to a one-goal Game 7 lead, built on two goals from the most unlikely of sources, and Lundqvist could not tell a lie after he had survived every third-period shot Ottawa whistled at him, often with traffic in front of the net, often with the Senators blocking his vision, wrestling for position, and generally fraying his nerves to the point he admittedly had to silence the inner voice that occasionally came screeching like a freight train through his head, unhelpfully reminding him, "Man, we have to win this game!"
"You're so happy [when it's over], but you're not happy before that -- you're not happy at all when you're still playing," Lundqvist confessed with a comical roll of his eyes, after the Rangers had held on 2-1 to win their first Game 7 at Madison Square Garden in 18 years.
How did the Rangers do it? With a mix of the expected and unexpected, same as they usually do. Lundqvist was terrific, stopping 26 Ottawa chances. But the Rangers' defense was staunch and selfless in front of him, with numerous players throwing themselves in front of shot attempts.
The Rangers' only two goals came not from snipers like Brad Richards or Marian Gaborik, but from two defensemen, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. In the second period alone, the duo matched the combined number of goals they had scored in their 69 previous playoff games before Thursday's victory. And the player who forced the blue-line turnover that led directly to Staal's goal? That was rookie Chris Kreider, a kid fresh out of Boston College who wasn't even with the Rangers until five games ago, but also played a huge role in their Game 6 win-or-go-home triumph in Ottawa.
"We found a way," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I'm proud of the group.
"They should be happy with themselves -- for about an hour," he cracked.
No wonder Lundqvist shook his head as he sat at his locker after the game. He was sweat-soaked and exhausted, and his goaltender pads were still strapped to his splayed legs as he laughed, scratched his playoff beard a little, and admitted that immediately after the game was over, "I probably screamed a little, yeah."
"It's just so nerve-wracking, there's just so much emotion," he explained. "[And] the last five to 10 seconds, it just starts coming up. When you realize how important this game is -- what it means to me, what it means to the team, what it means to the fans. … It becomes a mind game, a back-and-forth with yourself.
"You try to make yourself believe it's just Game 89, not a Game 7. But you know it's not."
No athlete in New York is under more pressure than Lundqvist to make 2012 his season to finally come through. He's expected to win his first Vezina Trophy, which goes to the best goalkeeper in the league. These Rangers finished the regular season with the second-most points in the NHL, and through the first 60 games played at a pace not even the beloved Stanley Cup team of 1993-94 could match. And if the Rangers had lost Thursday's game to eighth-seeded Ottawa after leading the Eastern Conference in points, the season would have been an abject disappointment for all of them -- but especially for Lundqvist, who has never gotten the Rangers past the second round in his six previous seasons. His career playoff record is a modest 19-23.
Still, Lundqvist is the biggest star on this team of lunch-pail players and up-and-coming kids that aren't quite stars themselves yet, just potential ones that leave even crotchety coach John Tortorella admitting "they make me lick my chops."
The beloved 1994 Stanley Cup-winning team led by Mark Messier, Mike Richter and Brian Leetch was the last Rangers club to play a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. And this time -- same as then -- the tension was thick enough to make fans leap to their feet and slap their hands on their head, screeching at every missed chance the Rangers forwards had. Or each scary shot that Lundqvist turned aside, none scarier than a point-blank shot by Ottawa's Milan Michalek late in the third period.
The atmosphere inside the Garden was a great throwback. But a reminder of just how much times have changed also came when Messier entered the Rangers' locker room, after it had nearly cleared out, with his young son who was wearing a Ryan Callahan jersey and shyly walked up to Lundqvist to ask him for an autograph while his Hall of Fame father, the most beloved leader the Rangers ever had, stood there in a business suit, smiling.
Time moves on, all right. And now these Rangers are moving on too.
They want their names engraved on the Cup, same as Messier's.
"Back to work tomorrow. Here we go," Lundqvist said.