MONTREAL — In three regular-season games against the Canadiens, Henrik Lundqvist had allowed 11 goals in 163 minutes, for a 4.04 GAA and .871 save percentage.
Not pretty at all. Not encouraging for a playoff series that would start at Bell Centre, which had been a House of Horrors for the Blueshirts.
But Wednesday night Lundqvist was outstanding and exactly what the Rangers needed. He blanked the Canadiens with 31 saves as the Blueshirts drew first blood with a 2-0 victory before a raucous crowd in Game 1 of the best-of-seven, first-round series. Game 2 is here Friday night and the series moves to the Garden on Sunday.
In racking up his 10th playoff shutout, Lundqvist was brilliant, especially when the defense sprung leaks, and the outcome was clearly in doubt until Michael Grabner’s empty-netter, with Carey Price pulled, with 70 seconds left.
“It’s about the right mindset,” Lundqvist said. “Sometimes when the pressure goes up, it’s easier to block out the things that don’t really matter. It’s just one game; we have to prove ourselves, I have to prove myself, every game, but it’s definitely the start we were looking for.”
After weathering a steady Canadiens attack in the first nine minutes, Tanner Glass’ unassisted, top-shelf backhander at 9:50 of the first provided a 1-0 Rangers lead in a feisty period that featured 40 hits — 20 by each club. It was the fourth-line veteran’s second goal in 61 playoff games.
“I actually wanted to go back to the point, but I saw it was taken away, so I decided to go high, and it found a way under the bar,” said Glass, who had four hits. “It was a playoff game, physical, tight-checking; that’s the kind of hockey we have to play if we want to move on.”
In the end, the Rangers were credited with 45 hits, the Canadiens with 53.
With Lundqvist stopping 15 shots and the Blueshirts getting only five on Price and killing two consecutive late penalties, an interference by Ryan McDonagh at 15:39 and a questionable high-sticking on Brendan Smith at 17:35, the Rangers emerged after 20 minutes with some confidence.
“We did a lot better job of getting our cycle going in the offensive zone, and Tanner’s goal helped us reassure ourselves that it was still a hockey game,” McDonagh said. “We made a few passes coming out of our zone and got in on the forecheck. They have a talented group of forwards. It’s the start of a long and challenging series.”
In the first half of the second, the Rangers dominated, controlling the puck for long stretches in the Canadiens zone, forcing Price into 13 saves and limiting shots on Lundqvist. There were loose pucks galore in front of Price, but the Blueshirts couldn’t extend their 1-0 lead.
Price was fortunate that Brady Skjei’s wrister bounced off the right post, then he made a glove save on Mats Zuccarello’s one-timer about six minutes in. Zuccarello’s backhander slid later behind Price but completely through the crease and Nick Holden’s blast caromed off Price’s shoulder.
Lundqvist had to be sharp, with no margin for error.
On a Canadiens power play in the second, he made a diving, post-to-post save to deny an open Shea Weber with 4:26 left and a minute into the third, he denied Max Pacioretty’s open 10-foot shot on the left side.
“I thought structurally, that was one of the better games we’ve played in a while,” J.T. Miller said. “There were times we did have a breakdown, like on the PK, and Hank came up big.”