NEW YORK – There were less than two minutes left, and things were getting desperate. Henrik Lundqvist was beginning to lose hope.
Head coach Alain Vigneault motioned for his goaltender to head to the bench, the final, last-ditch effort to save a season that seemed like it had no chance.
So Lundqvist began the short skate towards pine. As he left his crease, his mind wandered. Would he get another chance to step foot inside the paint this season?
“You just leave your hopes to the guys that are out there doing their job,” Lundqvist said. “There’s not much you can control in that situation. You just hope for the best. Season is on the line. When you skate to the bench, there’s a quick thought there where you think about all the hard work you put in to be in that moment and try to stay alive.”
He never made it to the bench.
With 1:41 left in regulation, Derek Stepan wheeled in the offensive zone and found Chris Kreider at the top of the faceoff circle. He fired a one-timer through a screen and past Braden Holtby (41 saves). Kreider dipped to one knee, leaned back, and screamed in delight as 18,006 fans joined in the celebration.
“Obviously we don’t really care who scores that goal as long as it gets scored,” Kreider said. “I’m just happy to be able to play more hockey.”
“Finally,” Lundqvist said of his reaction to the game-tying goal that looked like it would never come. “Usually I get really excited, but tonight it was more big relief, and right away I knew, ‘Wow, there’s so much hockey left here, and we don’t know where this is going.’ I went right back to the net and tried to just refocus a little bit.”
Of course Lundqvist refocused.
So did his teammates. Ryan McDonagh was the hero at 9:37 of overtime, keeping the Presidents’ Trophy winners alive, sending this second-round series to Game 6.
The Rangers improved to 9-0 in their last nine elimination games at the Garden, an NHL record. Lundqvist has been there for all of them, posting a goals against average of 0.97, and a save percentage of .968.
He’s 12-3 in his last 15 elimination games, and now he gets at least one more – Game 6 in Washington on Sunday night.
“Going [to Washington] now, there’s a lot of pressure for them,” Lundqvist said. “I know for sure they don’t want to come back here for another game. So we try to use that to our advantage and go out and try to play our best game of the series, put a lot of pressure on them, and try to come back here and play in front of our fans.”
“We’re focused on one at a time, and I think that really helped us tonight,” said Derek Stepan, who had the primary assist on both Rangers goals. “We were focused on winning Game 5. We move on to Game 6. I know it sucks for reporters to hear that, but that’s the best way to say it. That’s what our focus is.”
The heart-attack Rangers played their league-record 12th straight one-goal game in the playoffs, dating back to last year’s Stanley Cup Final. They found a way, even when all hope seemed lost.
“You’ve just got to continue to keep yourself calm and focused. Obviously we know the building is going loud and the tension is rising, but at the same time you’ve got to be able to make plays and have poise with the puck,” said McDonagh. “It was pretty calm. We know the circumstances. This group is pretty strong in their mindset to understand what each player needs to do and their role.”
“Obviously it’s a great game,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “We’re excited to go back to Washington and put some more pressure on them.”