NEW YORK - During a stoppage in play in the first period on Thursday night, a television camera found Alexei Kovalev in the crowd at Madison Square Garden.
When the ex-New York Rangers forward was shown on the centre-ice videoboard, he grinned and opened his jacket to reveal a 1994 Stanley Cup T-shirt. The fans, 18,006 strong, ate it up.
Twenty years after Kovalev was part of the most recent Rangers Stanley Cup champion, the 2014 group is going to get a shot at hoisting the big silver mug.
That became fact when the Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens 1-0, winning the Eastern Conference best-of-seven final 4-2 as other Rangers alumni including Stephane Matteau, Brad Park and Mike Gartner watched from the stands.
Starting next Wednesday with Game 1, the Rangers will face the winner of the Western Conference final between the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup final.
After nearly 40 minutes of nervy hockey, during which the Rangers had a handful of scoring chances, the only goal finally came. It was scored by New York forward Dominic Moore, who has forged an inspirational story since the passing of his wife Katie in January 2013, at 18:07 of the second.
“I owe a lot to my teammates for helping me get through all this, especially at the beginning of the year, so I just feel a real sense of pride being part of this team,” Moore said as he wore the Rangers’ Broadway Hat, given to the team’s player of the game.
“We’ve had some obstacles individually and as a team we have shared together. Marty (St. Louis’) mother passing away was something we rallied around, and Marty showed his leadership and his courage.
“We all take turns wearing (the hat). Tonight was a perfect example of a team effort. A one-goal game like that, every bit counts, and everybody makes a difference.”
In one of their best defensive performances of the 2014 playoffs, the Rangers still needed a stunning save by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was pulled in Game 5 in Montreal. Before Moore’s goal, Lundqvist went acrobatic on Canadiens forward Thomas Vanek, bringing to mind the elasticity of former NHL goalie Dominik Hasek. Lundqvist lost his stick but managed to get his blocked on Vanek’s shot, after the puck was deflected by Rangers defenceman Dan Girardi.
“I don’t think I’ve been more determined to win a hockey game, you know?” Lundqvist said. “To put ourselves in a spot where we can play for the Cup is extremely special. I’ve been here for nine years and this is my first year in the final. I’m proud of how we did it, to be in this spot.”
What did defenceman Marc Staal think of Lundqvist’s save on Vanek?
“It changes the whole complexion of the game,” Staal said. “I owe him a beer.”
Lundqvist had to make just 18 saves for his first shutout of this post-season and ninth in his career in the playoffs. His counterpart, the unheralded but terrific Dustin Tokarski, made 31 saves in the Canadiens net.
Few figured the Canadiens would be one of the NHL’s final four clubs when the season began, but that they got this far was of little consolation.
“There are not many opportunities to get back here,” defenceman P.K. Subban said. “What do you learn? How hard it is to get here. A lot of blocked shots, a lot of ice tubs and ice bags, but there are many positives coming out of this. We have a good core group here, a bright future.”
While the Canadiens will look ahead to 2014-15, the Rangers will concern themselves with preparing properly for the final. The pressure is on; as the team celebrated on the ice, the fans took up a chant of “We want the Cup! We want the Cup!”
“It’s a great night, but you have to keep in the back of your mind that this isn’t the ultimate goal,” said Rangers forward Brad Richards, who won the Cup 10 years ago with St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s an amazing achievement to be able to play for the Cup, but we have to better in Game 1 than we were tonight.”
TOKARSKI ‘PROUD’ OF EFFORT
Dustin Tokarski didn’t want to be just another good story.
The Montreal Canadiens goaltender, thrown into the Eastern Conference final fire after Carey Price was hurt in Game 1, wanted to win.
“I’m proud,” the 24-year-old said on Thursday night after the Canadiens were eliminated by the New York Rangers. “(But) it’s pretty tough to have this opportunity to be a couple of wins away from the Stanley Cup final.
“You are thinking of what could have been. Hopefully I can get back here again one day. (But) it’s still bitter and it sucks right now.”
Tokarski was solid for the Canadiens in the deciding Game 6, stopping 31 Rangers shots in a 1-0 loss at Madison Square Garden. The Canadiens might not have realized as much a few weeks ago, but they should understand now that Price won’t be the lone option next season and beyond.
Price suffered a right knee injury when Rangers forward Chris Kreider crashed into him in the series opener.
“I thought the kid did a fabulous job,” Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said of Tokarski, who started the final five games of the series.
“He gave us a chance to win every night he was there. Yes, we lost our best player early in the series in Carey Price, but we had confidence in the young man.
“(Price) was doing good (in his recovery). He was making some progress. We were hoping Carey was going to be ready for the first game of the next round.”
Said Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban in reference to Tokarski: “I don’t know what else you would want him to do. The goaltending is not the reason we came up on the short end.”