Claude Julien claimed the pressure was all on the Rangers coming into Game 6. But it was his Canadiens who wilted, particularly at the high-talent end of the roster.
Carey Price was named a Vezina Trophy finalist earlier on Saturday but he was simply good this series, which was not good enough when opposed by the superb Henrik Lundqvist.
Mats Zuccarello’s two second-period goals were definitely not good enough for Price, the 2013-14 Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP, who was beaten short side, under his glove for the tying goal and then had Zuccarello’s swipe from in front bank off his pads and in for the eventual winner.
And what to make of Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, coming into the postseason off his fourth consecutive 30-goal season? His contribution to Game 6 was a cross-check to the face of Rangers rookie Jimmy Vesey, followed by an unlikely fight between the two skill players.
Pacioretty had 28 shots on goal in the series to lead the entire NHL in the postseason and had 12 attempts on net Saturday but exits the playoffs with no goals and one assist. His breakaway in the third period of Game 5 that Lundqvist turned aside was Pacioretty’s best chance in the six games.
Julien took some time to try and win the war of words on Friday, with his Canadiens heading to the Garden needing to force Game 7.
“The toughest thing to do is close,” Julien said. “The pressure is on them. They need to close, OK. We need to create a Game 7 by playing well in Game 6. That’s how you have to look at it. We’ve got a pretty good road record (23-14-4 in the regular season), I don’t think their home record (21-16-4) is the best so I would have to say the pressure is on them.”
The Canadiens did apply that pressure in the opening period, Pacioretty’s seven-minute stay in the penalty box aside. Alexei Emelin, who had 15 career goals in 380 games and no goals in 28 prior playoff games, wired a shot past Lundqvist to get the Habs on the board first.
The visitors played like a team needing to stay alive — as they did in Game 3, they disrupted the Rangers with a strong forecheck and the Canadiens’ defensemen stood up well in the neutral zone to keep the Rangers speed at bay.
But the Rangers got to work cycling the puck in the second and it earned them a power play for Zuccarello to convert and then a strong cycle got Zuccarello another goal.
The Canadiens’ defensemen were not going to be a strength in this series. Julien used eight of them in the six games, unable to secure a strong enough third pair and it was the Brandon Davidson-Jordie Benn pairing that was unable to win a battle on Zuccarello’s second goal.
Shea Weber, the Canadiens’ top defenseman, missed on a couple of opportunities in Game 6, including one of his patented, heavy slap shots that Lundqvist stretched to grab in the closing minutes of the second. Weber had a goal and two assists, but it will likely be the post he dented in the closing 90 seconds of Game 4 that will be remembered.
“Everyone has just got to step it up a little more, give a little bit more,” Weber said on Friday.
This was no lopsided series, of course. Canadiens rookie Artturi Lehkonen made a name for himself with two goals and two assists and Alex Radulov, back from a decade in KHL exile, was perhaps the best skater on either team all series long.
But an unproductive Pacioretty and a simply good, not great, Price meant that the Canadiens were not going to overcome Lundqvist’s heroics and a more balanced Rangers attack.