MONTREAL -- The New York Rangers did not shrink away from the spotlight when it came to test their mettle in the NHL’s most daunting, raucous road venue Saturday afternoon. No, the Rangers finally put to bed the notion that the Bell Centre was their own personal house of horrors as they stifled a boisterous crowd and sent fans scrambling for the exits in a commanding 7-2 rout of the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Despite having recorded just one win in their last 10 games in the arena, revered for its rabid crowd and ample acoustics, the Rangers dispatched the Habs with ease, jumping out to an early 2-0 lead and chasing goaltender Carey Price from net after the second period in their fourth consecutive playoff win.
That stunned silence that settled over the crowd must have felt like music to their ears.
“I wish we could play every game here,” said veteran center Brad Richards, whose goal with less than 12 seconds remaining in the second period served as the dagger for both Price and the Habs. “It’s a great building.”
The Rangers had a little bit of everything in their series-opening victory in Montreal, including yet another huge moment for second-round series hero Martin St. Louis.
St. Louis, who inspired his entire Rangers team when he returned to play in Game 5 last week just one day following the death of his mother, scored the game’s first goal just 4:35 into play, converting a beautiful feed from fourth-line center Dominic Moore.
It’s an emotional homecoming for St. Louis, considering the last time he was here was last Thursday, when he flew home from Pittsburgh to grieve with his family. The St. Louis family will host the entire Rangers team as they attend the funeral for France St. Louis, who died of a heart attack at age 63, on Sunday.
About 10 to 12 of the Rangers went to her wake Friday night in what continues to be an emotional week for St. Louis and his family. Coach Alain Vigneault even texted the 38-year-old veteran afterward, just to make sure he was doing OK.
“It’s been very emotional for our whole group, and he’s handled it in an incredible way that has probably helped our team come closer together,” Vigneault said.
St. Louis appeared elated after the goal, and after the game, he discussed how grateful he is to have the support he has received over the last nine days.
“The guys are behind me and supporting me, and their effort was unbelievable,” he said. “We feel really close right now and we're trying to keep feeding off that.”
St. Louis was named the game’s first star -- and a huge stick tap to the Bell Centre crowd here, for even a disgruntled Habs fan base cheered him heartily after their team lost -- but there were so many for the Rangers who chipped in for the type of resounding win that is sure to keep the team’s confidence chugging along.
Moore, who is no stranger to heartbreak himself after losing wife, Katie, to a rare form of liver cancer last year, was absolutely sensational in the opening frame. He made two jaw-dropping feeds to set up the Rangers’ first two goals, helping build a critical 2-0 lead that put the hapless Habs on their heels.
The Blueshirts were 3-for-7 on power plays in Game 1.
Lundqvist, who has posted a 1.25 GAA and .961 save percentage in the last four games, may even get a respite now from those persisting questions about his struggles at Bell Centre, where, before Saturday, he had not played in more than two years. He had not won a game in the building since 2009.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen him play the past few weeks," Brian Boyle said, “but he’s been on another planet.”
The entire Rangers team played pretty otherworldly Saturday, outskating the Habs from start to finish. It just may be that Montreal has not faced an opponent yet this postseason that boasts the same sort of threatening speed element as the Habs. On Saturday, they did not handle that well.
“We got our asses kicked all over the ice,” Habs forward Rene Bourque told reporters after the game, also calling it Montreal’s “worst playoff game by far.”
The Rangers were expecting to carry over the type of inspired, purposeful play that allowed them to overcome a 3-1 series deficit and upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2, but it would have been hard to imagine such a drubbing, especially against one of the best goaltenders thus far this postseason.
Price, who did not speak after the game, was pulled after surrendering four goals on 20 shots. He was replaced by backup goaltender Peter Budaj, though Budaj couldn’t do too much to stop the onslaught, either.
"Yeah, I'd say surprised,” defenseman Marc Staal said about the Rangers’ seven goals against Montreal. “Not surprised in the way we played and the way we wanted to play.
"We had a great start to the game, set that tempo right from the beginning, and were able to convert on a couple, which is big in a road rink, especially here," Staal said. "We were able to carry that through."