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Henrik Lundqvist's Game 5 clunker opens door for Canadiens

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Henrik Lundqvist's Game 5 performance was far below anything he's shown this postseason. (USATSI)
Henrik Lundqvist's Game 5 performance was far below anything he's shown this postseason. (USATSI)

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It was supposed to be a night for New York Rangers fans to drench themselves in nostalgia. Twenty years to the date since the famous “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!” goal, the Rangers had a chance to book their trip to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since that spring evening in 1994. That was the storybook version, anyway.

The Montreal Candiens, 21 years removed from their last trip to the Cup Final, had other ideas.

Things were still lining up for the Rangers even after the Canadiens scored the game's first goal just 1:48 into the game. At the other end of the ice was a rookie goaltender look as shakier than he has at any point through his first three postseason starts.

As Derek Stepan scored the game-tying goal halfway through the first, broken jaw and all, from about 25 feet out, there was blood in the water. Dustin Tokarski, minutes prior made a show-stopping stick save, but the goal Stepan scored was as ugly as the stick save was stunning.

With Henrik Lundqvist in the Rangers' crease, all was square on the scoreboard, but the game on paper still looked good for the team with the postseason's best goalie in its net. That feeling lasted one minute and 40 seconds.

Tomas Plekanec answered Stepan's goal from distance with one of his own. The King looked not unlike The Rook had less than two minutes prior as he made a futile stab at the puck with his glove hand.

Good players are allowed to have bad games and Lundqvist undoubtedly had that. But when those bad games come with a chance to put away a series, it becomes especially bad, with the potential to become cataclysmic.

Lundqvist did not end up picking up the loss, but he may as well have, as he gave up four of the Canadiens seven goals en route to a 7-4 win in Game 5.

The Rangers may have the cushion winning three of the first four games of the series affords them, but with an opportunity to end the series and the other goaltender looking ripe for a torching, this will certainly feel like a lost opportunity.

Coming into Tuesday night's action, the 32-year-old Lundqvist looked to be on the brink of a true coronation with his .931 save percentage over the entire postseason and essentially the exact same mark through the first four games of the Eastern Conference Final. Standing between him and the first Stanley Cup Final appearance of his brilliant nine-year career was 60 minutes where he probably only needed to be slightly above average to help his team come out on the better end.

Instead, Lundqvist had his worst playoff performance since Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Final. In 2012, Lundqvist gave up four goals on 16 shots over the full game. Tuesday night, his defense wasn't as strong and the other offense more formidable, but he gave up four goals on 19 shots before being pulled halfway through the game.

The Rangers very nearly took Lundqvist off the hook. After two early second-period goals to give the Canadiens a 4-1 lead, Alain Vigneault pulled his starting netminder. Shortly after, the Rangers began their march to a comeback and scored three goals in less than five minutes to tie the game. It saved Lundqvist from the L, at least.

The excitement was short-lived as Rene Bourque broke the tie just 58 seconds after Chris Kreider's power-play tip-in made it 4-4. The freshly inserted goaltender Cam Talbot was beaten cleanly by Bourque, who had snuck a shot past Lundqvist earlier in the period and then added a hat-trick goal to twist the knife in the third period.

The interesting thing about Lundqvist's night is that after the Rangers tied it and then were only down one goal to start the third period, the hottest debate on the intermission shows and on social media was whether or not Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault should put Lundqvist back in.

“I pulled him because I thought at that time we needed a little momentum shift, and I thought it might catch everybody's attention,” Vigneault explained after the game. “It did for a while. Obviously it didn't work out.”

If it was only about momentum, perhaps putting Lundqvist back in after the momentum had been restored temporarily would have been more appealing.

It was telling when it was Talbot who skated to the visitor's net when the third period began despite the Rangers trailing just 5-4.

After the game, Vigneault was asked if he ever considered putting Lundqvist back in. He said he did not.

Lundqvist didn't have it and even though the game was close, he wasn't going to get a chance to prove he magically found it. It was bad enough that Vigneault was willing to take his chances with Talbot whose lone postseason experience was 20 minutes of garbage time in an opening series rout at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The NHL's best goaltender this postseason had his worst game at a rather terrible time. It's not necessarily the worst possible time, but it now opens the door for the Canadiens to climb back in. Not taking care of business when they had the chance could come back to haunt Lundqvist and New York.

The Rangers do have the advantage of heading home for Game 6, with another chance to close out the series.

Lundqvist, ironically, had been much better on the road coming into Tuesday night's game. He carried a .943 save percentage over nine playoff contests on the road this year against a .916 mark at Madison Square Garden, also in nine games. It's a small sample, but that makes the window the Rangers just cracked open seemingly slide a little higher for the Habs to crawl through.

Lundqvist could one day end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is quite clearly the best netminder of his generation, but he had a bad night. Lucky for him, they don't happen often, but until Thursday and Game 6 roll around, the doubt creeps in, especially with how his last Eastern Conference Final appearance went.

If the Rangers have one point of consolation, however, the last (and only) time Lundqvist was yanked this postseason -- a stunning 5-2 loss to the Flyers in Game 6 of the first round -- he followed it up with a 26-save performance, allowing just one goal as New York eliminated Philadelphia in Game 7.

Lundqvist has earned the benefit of the doubt with how he has played for the bulk of the playoffs, but Game 5 was as bad as he's looked so far in 2014 and the Candiens have faced a 3-2 deficit in these playoffs before.

Good players can have bad games, but this one has the added discomfort of having the potential to be a series-altering one.

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