MONTREAL — The Rangers were about 18 seconds away from escaping Bell Centre with a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven playoff series.
Instead, the tide turned, their grip loosened and the critical match ended with a bitter 4-3 overtime loss to the Canadiens in Game 2 Friday night.
A career-high 54-save performance by Henrik Lundqvist went by the boards.
With goalie Carey Price pulled for an extra attacker, the Canadiens tied the score with 17.3 seconds left in regulation on Tomas Plekanec’s deflection in front. Rangers defenseman Nick Holden broke his stick while attempting to cover Plekanac.
Then, with 1:26 left in overtime, Alexander Radulov jammed a rebound under Lundqvist to cap the rally.
Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber had hit the post earlier in overtime.
Radulov’s winner turned the series into a best-of-five, with the next two at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers won an NHL-best 28 road games this season but went 20-16-4 at home.
“There’s no doubt [Lundqvist] played a great game. He gave us what you want, a chance to win the game,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “We’re going to take a couple hours to feel sorry for ourselves and get back at it.”
Asked about any lingering effects of losing the lead with so little time left, Vigneault said, “When the puck drops on Sunday, we won’t even remember that.”
But the Canadiens surely will ride the high of the two goals. According to Elias Sports Bureau, teams that led 2-0 in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series had a 305-48 series record, winning the series 86.4 percent of the time. The Canadiens avoided a deep hole.
“They did a good job of keeping pucks in and creating second and third chances,” said Lundqvist, who lamented that a broken stick left him somewhat helpless on the Canadiens’ first goal, by Jeff Petry at 4:05 of the first period.
But the Rangers rallied twice from one-goal deficits, first on Michael Grabner’s breakaway. Nikita Nesterov lost the puck near the red line and it was scooped up by Grabner. Price came out to challenge, and as he was backing up, Grabner went right and flipped in a high backhand at 13:48 of the first period. It was his second goal of the series.
After the Rangers fell behind 2-1 on a defensive lapse — three Blueshirts chased the puck behind the net, leaving Paul Byron open — Rick Nash tied the score at 2. Rookie Jimmy Vesey set him up coming down the left side, and Nash wired a top-corner shot past Price at 9:58 of the second. Mats Zuccarello’s deflection at 14:47 put the Rangers ahead 3-2.
All that was left was to hang on, and without a stick yet again and scrambling back after wandering to his right, Lundqvist denied Alex Galchenyuk point- blank with 3:15 left in the third period. But he couldn’t stop them all.
“Of course it stings. It stings a lot,” Ryan McDonagh said. “We were 17 seconds away from a two-nothing series lead, but that’s playoff hockey. We have to learn from it. We have to trust the group. We’re going back to our building. We tried to make the best plays we could. It’s the first to four.”
It was another physical match with a combined 129 hits (74 by the Rangers, including a game-high 10 by Tanner Glass), and the series could be determined by who can maintain the stamina and the muscle.
“You have to have a short-term memory here,” Dan Girardi said. “They just kept throwing pucks in front, they had a couple rebounds and the last one goes in, which is tough. But we talked about it before. This was going to be won and lost in front of the net.”