NEW YORK -- To see Martin St. Louis' exultant smile and boisterous celebration following his first-period goal was to see a player, and a man, so overcome with emotion the past 72 hours he couldn’t help but unleash his excitement. To see the way the New York Rangers reacted, and responded, to that special moment is to see a team for which hope is still very much alive.
Rest and recovery is one thing -- the Rangers needed that, too -- but it is becoming more and more apparent that the alternate phases of tragedy and triumph over the past three days has galvanized a club that looked absolutely dispirited and defeated after Game 4. With Sunday night’s 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers have now avoided elimination twice and forced a winner-takes-all Game 7 Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
Of course it was St. Louis who scored the game’s first goal, an achievement that was truly fitting as a tribute considering Game 6 fell on Mother’s Day. St. Louis lost his mother, France St. Louis, to a heart attack on Thursday and returned just one day later to play in Game 6. It was a feat that baffled many players and touched them all.
Sunday, St. Louis brought his father, Normand, and sister, Isabelle, to the game -- a decision that he anticipated would help “the grieving process.” After he scored his third goal of the playoffs, he scooped up the puck. He said he planned to deliver it to his father.
“It’s a puck that has a significance for everyone that has been supportive of me and my family,” St. Louis said.
The fact that it was St. Louis that scored the game’s all-important first goal was critical. When the crowd started chanting his name during his first shift of the game, the support was palpable. When the puck went past Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury at 3:34, the fans went berserk. It provided the type of boost that no one else probably could have. With St. Louis’ teammates witnessing the type of turmoil and anguish he has endured, they could not have been happier to see him experience some temporary reprieve.
“We set the tone right away and when Marty scores that goal, it was such a beautiful moment,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was sensational in making a playoff-high 36 saves. “It got really emotional to watch that and see him and what he’s been through, and I think the entire team was feeding on that moment. The entire building, it was such a great energy in here.”
The Rangers appeared energized and aggressive. Trailing 3-2 in the series, their desperation level was higher than the type of urgency Pittsburgh displayed. Even when the Penguins surged or threatened, including a key power play in the second period, the Blueshirts snuffed it out.
Despondent after a dreadful Game 4, their second straight loss at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers have since rattled off two decisive victories. The team went from reeling to re-energized, and the jolt has translated to a tied series.
“That’s the worst I’ve seen the team feel,” Brian Boyle said of the team’s morale after Game 4. “Ultimately, I think it was a good thing.”
St. Louis’ heroic show of heart may have been the impetus, but others are doing their share as well. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was terrific in preserving a lead for more than 56 minutes, recording his seventh straight victory with the Rangers facing elimination while playing at home.
Derick Brassard has also been a game-changer of late. After a quiet first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, in which he was held without a goal, the 26-year-old center has scored three in the past two games and four total against the Penguins, including the overtime winner in Game 1.
“That line has gotten big goals for us,” Alain Vigneault said. “Like I have said many times, since Christmas I thought they have been our most consistent line and tonight that goal was obviously a big goal for us.”
And to see how Sidney Crosby unraveled in the second period is to see a star becoming unhinged and overwhelmed with frustration. With two straight losses after building a 3-1 series lead, the Penguins are now facing a good deal of pressure.
My, how this series has changed.
It was less than a week ago that the Rangers were essentially written off, victims of a disadvantageous schedule and ravaged by the physical tolls of a skilled, superior Penguins squad.
Ultimately it was a horrible tragedy that has changed this Rangers team. St. Louis was there for his teammates when they needed him most, and they have returned the favor.
The Rangers are simply not the same as they were before, becoming closer, more determined, armed with purpose.
“You feel for the guy. I have no idea what he’s gone through the last few days,” defenseman Marc Staal said of St. Louis. "He shows up at the rink in Pittsburgh and he was ready to go. That was inspirational for everyone in the room. He goes out and plays a great game. Today he scores a huge goal. The crowd’s chanting his name. It doesn’t get much better than that. It’s pretty remarkable.”