Rangers squander series stranglehold

NEW YORK -- New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather walked past his team’s locker room following their 3-2 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens and shook his head.

Then he muttered to no one in particular: “Not supposed to be easy.”

After Thursday night’s defeat, it won’t be.

With a 2-0 series leading heading into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers had the chance to put a stranglehold on the series. And while the volatility this spring has proven that no lead is ever quite safe, no matter how commanding, the Rangers could’ve used some breathing room.

They won’t have that now, not with the Habs reinvigorated after climbing back into the series with a rookie goaltender who just stole a game from "The King” himself. Now, a significant amount of pressure shifts back on the Blueshirts when they host Game 4 on Sunday back at MSG.

“We’re up 2-1 in the series, and we’re playing in a home game on Sunday. We still have the opportunity to do something great,” veteran forward Martin St. Louis said.

The Rangers required seven games in each of their first two playoff rounds, first to knock off Philadelphia Flyers and then to rally from behind and upset the Pittsburgh Penguins. So it must have been enticing for the Rangers to entertain the possibility of finishing a team off quickly.

That’s what New York did in their first visit to Montreal, silencing a raucous crowd at Bell Centre and securing a pair of road wins, the latter of which came following a yeoman’s effort from star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

But Lundqvist was outdone Thursday evening, by a 24-year-old newbie no less, and now the Rangers are right back in the thick of it with Montreal, as tensions and emotions continue to rise in their third-round series.

“In the playoffs especially, it’s about winning and finding a way to win,” said Lundqvist, who was saddled with his first loss in six games. “As much as you can take the good parts, you don’t want to pat yourself on the back too much because we lost a game and we have to be better.”

Nastiness erupted in the first period, when ex-Ranger Brandon Prust drilled Derek Stepan with a questionable hit that will likely earn him a call with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Daniel Carcillo was kicked out of the game for elbowing an official. He might miss some time, too.

But it wasn’t until late in the third, with the two teams tied 1-1, that the drama truly escalated.

Veteran center Daniel Briere, playing on the fourth line with the slumping Thomas Vanek, snapped a 1-1 draw with 3:02 remaining in regulation, giving Habs youngster Dustin Tokarski a nice little cushion for his fantastic performance.

The Habs seemed to have it wrapped up, but then resident series villain Chris Kreider posted up in front of Tokarski's net. He tipped a puck that banked off Alexei Emelin's skate, scoring a game-tying goal that had the MSG crowd rocking with less than 29 seconds left on the clock.

The Rangers were one bounce from a totally different series. They might have even been able to think the S-word (sweep) to themselves. But there is no chance of that now, as Montreal will have another chance to win on home ice next Tuesday.

But first, the Rangers will host Game 4 Sunday at MSG with the chance to send the fans into a frenzy, just like Kreider did Thursday.

“We’ll be shocked here tonight, but obviously we won’t have any letdown for the next game,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “It’s a new series. We feel like we want to get back to playing the strength of our game.”