When other parts of their game are sputtering, the New York Rangers have two solid-gold assets to fall back on.
Penalty killing and goaltending.
It's a combo that has helped the Blueshirts to within one victory of their first Stanley Cup final in 20 years. And it has frustrated the Montreal Canadiens, who must win Game 5 Tuesday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET) at the Bell Centre to stave off playoff extinction.
With a 17.1 per cent strike rate — good for 19th during the regular season — the Montreal power play was hardly a well-oiled machine. But against the Rangers, the Canadiens are 1-for-17 with the man-advantage.
Montreal's lone power-play breakthrough came Sunday night in a 3-2 overtime loss at Madison Square Garden. And that P.K. Subban blast from the point was tempered by a short-handed goal by Carl Hagelin that opened the scoring.
The Canadiens power play went 1-for-8 on a night where the Rangers spent 14.33 minutes or almost 22 per cent of the game a man short.
"Give credit to our [penalty] killers and our goaltender," said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. "They did a real good job."
That is nothing new. Prior to Subban's goal, the Rangers had killed off 27 straight penalties. New York is 37-for-39 (94.9 per cent) on the penalty kill in its last 12 games
The penalty count was three to one against the Rangers by the 10-minute mark Sunday, the perfect scenario for a Montreal team looking for a decisive start to silence the Rangers crowd.
"We had the opportunity on the power play but we didn't take advantage of it tonight," lamented Montreal coach Michel Therrien. "Yes, we scored a goal. It was a tying goal, but we gave up one, and that was the story of the game. I thought our power play had to be better."
Hagelin, Boyle make good pair
The Rangers' go-to forward pairing on the power play is Hagelin and Brian Boyle. Hagelin is a speed merchant while the Boyle resume reads "big body, blocks shots, good on faceoffs," according to Vigneault.
Boyle can also pass a bit, finding Hagelin all alone on a stretch pass deep from the New York end. Hagelin broke in alone, faked a shot and tucked a backhand between the legs of Dustin Tokarski at 7:18 for his sixth of the playoffs.
It was the Rangers' first short-handed goal in 70 playoff games, dating back to April 9, 2008.
The New York penalty kill is smart and sleek. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist has worked hard on his puck-handling and his defenders are well-positioned. If a Ranger gets to the puck first behind the net, for example, there is usually a teammate standing just feet away ready to dump it down the rink.
"I think our guys do a good job whether it be on the forecheck coming back in the right positions and trying to create those battles where you've a chance to make a couple plays and get it out," said Vigneault. "When we don't, (our) goaltender stops the puck."
In four games, Montreal has seven goals on 107 shots.
While Tokarski has won kudos for his play in stepping in for the injured Carey Price, Lundqvist's playoffs numbers are sparkling — a .931 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. The Rangers have allowed two goals or less in 13 of their 18 playoff games., including six of the last seven games.
New York ranks first in the NHL in goals against per game in the playoffs at 2.11.
Sunday's win was the 41st post-season win of Lundqvist's career, tying him with Mike Richter for the most playoff victories in Rangers history. The 32-year-old Lundqvist ranks first in Rangers history in regulation wins with 309, eight more than Richter's 301.
In contrast, the 24-year-old Tokarski has 13 NHL games —10 in the regular season and three in the playoffs.
Lundqvist picked up an assist on Derick Brassard's second-period goal, his first in 85 post-season games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first Rangers goaltender to record a playoff assist since Mike Richter on May 11, 1997.
Stepan game-time decision
With Game 5 coming up fast, the main Ranger talking point will be whether Derek Stepan can return from a broken jaw suffered in Game 3. On the weekend, he managed to drop by the arena to see his teammates before returning home to recuperate from surgery.
Vigneault said Tuesday that Stepan is a game-time decision, and would have to be medically cleared to play.
Brassard, meanwhile, returned to the lineup Sunday after being knocked out of Game 1 early with an upper body injury and made his presence felt. In addition to his goal, he led all skaters with 18 faceoffs wins, winning 75 per cent of his 24 draws.
New York is winning the faceoff battle. On Sunday, the Rangers took 48 of 79 draws for a 61 per cent success rate.
Martin St. Louis' hot hand is also of note. His OT winner Sunday Louis extended his point streak to six games (4-3—7), tying a playoff career high in the post-season. He leads the Ranges with 13 points in these playoffs.