NEW YORK – Multiple Rangers had reason to look towards the heavens as the final seconds of the Eastern Conference final ticked away.
Their loved ones were looking straight back down, straight at them. Their gaze penetrating the vibrating roof of deafening Madison Square Garden. Toasting each other up above it all as New York City showered ear-piercing screams of adoration and admiration for what’s been accomplished despite all of life’s roadblocks.
The Rangers are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994, after a 1-0 win in Game 6 against the Canadiens Thursday night at the Garden.
Dominic Moore, who scored the only goal of Game 6 – the conference-clinching goal – lost his wife to cancer last January. After sitting out all of last season, he returned to hockey, signing with the Rangers on a one-year contract this year, playing in her memory.
Martin St. Louis lost his mother, France, three weeks ago. The funeral was between Games 1 and 2 of this Eastern Conference final. France’s son played through it all, scoring four goals since his mother’s death, including the overtime winner in Game 4 earlier this week.
“I think as you go through [playoff] runs, that’s just the way things go with teams that go through runs,” said Brad Richards, who was teammates with St. Louis when they won the Cup in 2004, and might be closer with him than any Ranger. “There always seem to be little things that you can grab and build on, and that is what makes it so special to win a Stanley Cup, so many things you go through. 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.”
“Obviously, it’s been a tough year for me,” said St. Louis, who was acquired by the Rangers from Tampa in a deadline-day deal for Ryan Callahan. “This makes it pretty cool. Being somewhere for 13, 14 years and changing teams, to get a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final with these teammates of mine, who have been nothing but great through my tough time in the past few weeks, it makes it even more special. I am proud to be a Ranger and do it alongside these great teammates.”
It’s those teammates that helped get the high-scoring forward through one of the toughest times of his life. And it’s those teammates that welcomed Moore back when he decided to return to hockey this past summer.
“I just feel tremendously proud to be a part of this team,” Moore said. “I owe a lot to my teammates for helping me get through this last year-and-a-half, and I just feel tremendously proud to be a part of this team, especially amidst the circumstance of going to the Stanley Cup Final.”
It’s been a two-way street for the two mourning Rangers. They get their refuge on the rink, while providing the rest of the group endless inspiration.
“I think they’ve found refuge,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault “They’ve found a way to find a place where they can be happy, and that is at the rink with their teammates and on the ice. They’ve both been very inspirational leaders throughout the whole thing.”
“He’s not afraid of big moments, and every time we’ve had a big game he’s stepped up with a great performance,” defenseman Marc Staal said of Moore. “He’s a guy that talks about it a lot, too, not being afraid to make mistakes, going out there and playing confident. That’s exactly what he did.”
“In big games, you want to, there’s a tendency to tighten up. It’s natural,” Moore said. “As teammates, you want to encourage each other to make plays. I thought, to a man tonight, we did that. Everyone backed each other up, and you can’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
In a locker room overflowing with emotion, the Rangers spoke of community. They’re not just a group of players brought together for a common goal. They’re more than that. They’re a family.
“It’s a sense of accomplishment,” Staal said of advancing to the Cup Final. “You’re proud to have gone through this with your teammates, and to be able to enjoy this as a team. It’s such a great sport because you have to get so close and so tight.”
“I owe a lot to my teammates for helping me get through this,” Moore reiterated. “Especially throughout the beginning of the year, so I just feel a real sense of pride to be a part of it.”
“What’s demanded of us helps push us,” Brian Boyle said of playing in New York City this time of year. “It’s a pretty spectacular place to be able to advance when you have a whole city behind you. We’re fully aware of that, it’s a pretty special feeling. We know what the fans want, and we want the same thing. We haven’t got it yet.”
Not yet. There’s still four more wins left to earn. And they’ve got a pair of angels watching over them. Guiding them. Helping them along. Who knows? Maybe in a couple of weeks, those angels can even help them lift the 35-pound chalice they’re chasing.
Rangers owner James Dolan and general manager Glen Sather were both in the locker room after the game congratulating the players.
Derek Stepan spoke to the media for the first time after he suffered a broken jaw on a hit from Brandon Prust during Game 3. He said he’s on a liquid diet – and will be for six weeks.
During the post-game handshake line, Prust wrapped his right arm around Stepan’s helmet, and the two embraced. Prust, who texted the Rangers center after the injury, appeared to say something to Stepan before continuing to move through the line.
“I’m not going to hold it against him,” Stepan said. “He finished his check, he feels bad about it, he knows it was late, we move on from there.”
Henrik Lundqvist moved into sole possession of first place on the Rangers all-time postseason wins list with 42, passing Mike Richter. He also tied Richter for most postseason shutouts in a career with nine.
This will be the Rangers’ 11th appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. They’ve won it four times.