NEW YORK -- Of course Martin St. Louis was tough enough to bet on his own instincts, to ignore the doubts that would have consumed a lesser man. He had tried Dustin Tokarski's glove side on a second-period breakaway Sunday night, only to have the kid goalie make a you-gotta-be-kidding-me stop, the force of the shot knocking him on his rump and knocking the air out of an electric Garden crowd.
It wasn’t the first time St. Louis had picked that side in this Eastern Conference final against Montreal, and he would make damn sure it wouldn’t be the last.
“Sometimes you just have to keep trusting what you see,” St. Louis said.
No athlete had more right to trust his eyes, and his voice within, than the 5-foot-8 winger who’s been the tallest Ranger of all. St. Louis came back from his mother’s death in the Pittsburgh series to help the Rangers win three elimination games they wouldn’t have won without him, and to even score a goal on Mother’s Day night along the way. So he was the right guy to have the puck on his stick in overtime of Game 4, a game the Rangers needed as much as the Canadiens did.
Brad Richards suggested that a second consecutive overtime loss to Montreal at the Garden would’ve put his team on the brink of an unmitigated disaster, admitting that “it would have been devastating to go back [to Montreal] without getting one at home.”
Richards was the one who fought to keep the puck in the Montreal zone, the one who allowed Carl Hagelin to survey the Canadiens’ defense and find St. Louis “chilling there on the right side.” At 38, St. Louis felt like a little boy as he measured this breathless opportunity from the right face-off circle.
“These are the times that you play as a kid in the street, and you picture this,” St. Louis said. “Everybody wants to be the guy. There’s no bad shot on net at that stage of the game. ... It was a quick play to me, and it bought me time to go in and get my head up and get the shot that I wanted.”
The shot that rose above Tokarski’s left shoulder and into the net. The shot that gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead and a near-certain ticket back to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994.
The Canadiens aren’t recovering from St. Louis’ goal, not after turning this Original Six smackdown into a professional wrestling show in an attempt to unnerve the superior team. If the desperate act was unbecoming such a storied franchise, hey, it almost worked.
Vince McMahon couldn’t have scripted the leadup to this Game 4 any better, as the Canadiens and Rangers did everything but attack each other with folding chairs and splatter themselves with fake blood. It all started in Game 1, of course, after Chris Kreider knocked Carey Price into the net and out of the series, starting a debate on intent that created a tense and angry vibe.
Soon enough Brandon Prust was taking this series to Defcon 1 by breaking Derek Stepan's jaw with an absurdly late hit in Game 3, and one that earned him an equally absurd two-game ban (Prust deserved half the 10 games Daniel Carcillo got for getting ugly with a linesman).
In the days before Game 4, Michel Therrien ordered some Rangers assistants to get out of his Garden practice, citing some gentleman’s agreement unknown to the home team, and also sounded like a mob boss when discussing the return of Derick Brassard, who had been out with an unspecified “upper body” issue.
“We expect Derick Brassard to play, and we know exactly where he’s injured,” Therrien said cryptically. “Hockey is a small world.”
Alain Vigneault was angry that his assistants were booted from their Garden seats during the Canadiens’ practice, and angry that Montreal’s coach had seemingly slapped a bull’s eye on one of his players. In the event something happened to Brassard, Vigneault said, “Michel could be in trouble.”
The Canadiens kept poking their sticks into the Rangers’ ribs, even doubting the severity of Stepan’s injury. If they stayed around New York long enough, they surely would’ve called into question the authenticity of Mark Messier’s guarantee on its 20th birthday.
But Brassard secured his own form of payback. He took a breakaway pass at the Montreal blue line late in the second period, and as he skated alone toward Tokarski, he wound up his stick as if ready to unleash all of his frustration over being targeted by Therrien, and over being knocked out of this series on that big Game 1 hit by Mike Weaver.
He ripped the slapshot over Tokarski’s right shoulder to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead, and then let loose a primal scream. It felt like a series-defining moment, at least until P.K. Subban beat Henrik Lundqvist for the power-play equalizer two minutes into the third, forcing the Rangers to search for a hero in overtime.
“He’s a special player,” Brassard said.
A special player on a special Sunday night. Three rows back of the action, his hair as white as the Garden ice, Phil Jackson towered over the event as he undoubtedly wondered how long it will take him to build his Knicks into a team worthy of an Eastern Conference final to call its own.
The Rangers now stand five victories away from a championship because St. Louis saved their season against Pittsburgh, and then believed in himself on the final shot of Game 4 against Montreal.
“I trusted what I saw,” St. Louis said.
After it was over his boss, Garden chairman Jim Dolan, said of St. Louis, “He’s got so much heart. That guy is amazing.”
That 5-8 guy who keeps measuring out as the tallest star in the Stanley Cup playoffs.