MONTREAL -- There will be plenty to mull for the New York Rangers in the next 48 hours before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. A wild, wide-open 7-4 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 left plenty of questions to be answered.
How did the team’s notoriously stingy structure simply disappear? How does this loss change the complexion of the series? Can the Rangers still close out the Habs?
But one question that will be turned over and scrutinized and nitpicked by many in the wake of the team’s disheartening defeat will be the one coach Alain Vigneault made with his team trailing by a goal, 5-4, heading into the third period.
Vigneault pulled Henrik Lundqvist midway through the second period, a move no one will second-guess after the Rangers goaltender surrendered four goals on the first 18 shots he faced. But with replacement Cam Talbot in net, the Rangers rallied back from a 4-1 deficit, tying the game before Rene Bourque scored his second goal of the night to give Montreal a 5-4 edge heading into intermission.
Many wondered: With the game now within reach, will he go back to his star?
He did not.
After the game, he said he never even considered the possibility.
All he offered on the decision was a simple “no.”
In his defense, Lundqvist never quite appeared dialed in Tuesday night. With the Rangers becoming unhinged in the second period, Vigneault yanked the usually steady Swede at 8:58 of the frame in an effort to spark a change with his struggling club.
And it worked, temporarily.
“I pulled him because I thought we needed a little momentum shift and I thought it might catch everybody’s attention,” Vigneault said after the game. “It did, for a while. Obviously, it didn’t work out.”
In relief, Talbot surrendered two goals on eight shots, both to Bourque, who led the Habs to victory with a hat trick. It wasn’t Talbot’s fault, nor Lundqvist’s really. Nothing could truly explain to the way the Rangers essentially abandoned their stingy playing style and instead opted to go run-and-gun with skilled, speedy Habs.
“The game just got out of whack, both ways,” veteran Brad Richards said.
But, people will wonder. Oh yes, people will scrutinize that decision and say, "What if Lundqvist had played? Would the outcome have been different?"
From the sounds of it, however, Lundqvist did not fight Vigneault’s decision and angle his way back into action for the third period. He seemed to welcome the mental relief.
“It was better to keep Talbot in there -- for me to get a little break there and start thinking about the next one,” said Lundqvist. “Of course, I was hoping for us to get back in the game and get close. But now we’re going home for a Game 6 at home, and it’s going to be exciting and a great challenge for us.”
Lundqvist will have a full two days to shake the nagging memory of that long skate of shame across the Bell Centre ice, a surface that, until this series, has not been historically kind to the former Vezina Trophy winner.
Maybe there are some lingering doubts still about the demons that exist in this building. Bourque even suggested that Lundqvist has been the inferior of the two goaltenders.
“Everybody talks about how he’s a great goalie,” Bourque said, fanning the flames of a series that has already grown quite nasty. “Has he been better than Ticker [Dustin Tokarski] this series? I don’t think so.”
But don’t forget the last time he got pulled in the playoffs, either. He got the hook back in the team’s first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 and responded just fine. He came back in Game 7 to make 26 saves on 27 shots, leading the Rangers on to the next round.
There will be no doubt that Lundqvist will be back between the pipes when the Rangers return to New York to host the Habs in Game 6, with a chance to close out the series again, this time at home. Vigneault confirmed Lundqvist is not injured.
Though Talbot has proven himself to be a more-than-capable backup, Lundqvist has played like a world-beater this spring. He gives this Rangers team the best chance to win.
Maybe Vigneault didn’t think so Tuesday night, but with a stinging loss to decipher, that will remain a topic up for debate.