Henrik Lundqvist waited nine years for a night like this. For the New York Rangers franchise it was 20 years in the making.
When the final buzzer sounded Thursday night (local time), the Broadway Blueshirts were in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since captain Mark Messier was in charge.
Lundqvist and the Rangers shook off a rough loss in Montreal two nights earlier and shut down the Canadiens 1-0 to win Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals and move on to their first championship round appearance since taking the title in 1994.
"Enjoy the moment right now, but we are not done," forward Martin St Louis said. "It's going to be fun. Take it all in, but leave it out there, as well."
The Rangers had a 3-1 series lead before falling 7-4 in Game 5 when Lundqvist was pulled after allowing four goals in less than two periods.
Although New York knew it had two chances to eliminate the Canadiens, the team's focus was on Game 6. Another trip back to Montreal was a dreaded experience the Rangers fought to avoid.
"It's unbelievable right now," defenceman Ryan McDonagh said. "It's a great feeling knowing that you get the opportunity. We'll enjoy what we accomplished here, but we know what we are trying to get done.
"Our group isn't finished yet. We don't want this to end. We want to continue the journey."
Lundqvist wasn't overly busy in stopping all 18 shots he faced, but there was no margin for error as Dominic Moore's second-period goal was the only offense in the clincher.
"We played so well the entire game," Lundqvist said. "For me it was more about just being focused on the shots they had."
Lundqvist quickly grew tired of the questions about his poor night on Tuesday. Now he is in the finals for the first time in his nine-year career.
"It's been tough," Lundqvist said. "You have so many highs. You have a few lows where you're questioning a lot of things, but then you just have to make up your mind, you can't have any excuses. I don't think I've been more determined to win a hockey game. To put ourselves in a spot where we can play for the Cup is extremely special."
Lundqvist leaped several times in his crease with his hands raised as streamers were fired off from the rafters at the end.
"It was just such a great feeling to see how we responded from the last game," Lundqvist said. "The third period, I think we played our best period of the playoffs. When it mattered the most, the guys really stepped up."
Lundqvist tied the team record for playoff shutouts with nine.
The Rangers are the first team to advance to the finals after being stretched to seven games in the first two rounds.
They don't have a captain now, so assistants Brad Richards, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal were called to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy, but didn't touch it. The whole team joined them and posed for a photo while Madison Square Garden rocked with yells of "We Want The Cup!"
The Stanley Cup finals will begin Wednesday (local time) at either Chicago or Los Angeles, which leads the Western finals 3-2.
"It's something you feel good (about), but you have to keep in the back of your mind that this isn't the ultimate goal," Richards said.
Montreal's Dustin Tokarski, who replaced injured No 1 goalie Carey Price after Game 1, was solid in making 31 saves.
"It's pretty tough to have this opportunity to be a couple wins away from the Stanley Cup finals," Tokarski said. "I know it's going to be hard to come by again, but it was a heck of a series."
Montreal made one final push after Tokarski was pulled for an extra skater with 1:53 left. Lundqvist held off the Canadiens as fans chanted "Hen-rik! Hen-rik!"
The Rangers broke the deadlock late in the second after some good grinding work in the left corner by rugged forward Derek Dorsett. The puck came free to McDonagh, who sent it behind the net to Brian Boyle in the right corner. Boyle spotted Moore alone in the crease and fed a crisp pass for a hard shot that got through Tokarski with 1:53 left.
Moore punctuated his third goal of the playoffs with an emphatic fist pump and yell.
"Like any player on the team, you want to do your job," said Moore, who had six goals in the regular season. "In big games like this, every little bit counts."
Montreal then drew its second power play of the night when Richards was forced to hook Thomas Vanek as the struggling forward was making a strong drive in front from behind the net with 12.9 seconds remaining in the period.
The Canadiens failed on their two power plays and finished 2 for 23 in the series. Montreal had only five shots in both the first and third periods.
"It's not what we wanted," Canadiens defenseman PK Subban said about the series. "Today they were opportunists. They scored a big goal and they really committed themselves to shutting it down after that."
Vanek nearly gave the Canadiens the lead with 4:45 to go in the second when he put a shot on net while Montreal had a mini 2-on-0 in front. Lundqvist made a desperate rolling move onto his back and got a piece of the puck with a swipe of his blocker, deflecting it away from the top of the net.
Montreal got back forward Brandon Prust after he served a two-game suspension for a late hit in Game 3 that broke Derek Stepan's jaw. Montreal's Dale Weise sat out two nights after he was wobbled by a hit to the head from John Moore that cost the Rangers' defenseman a two-game suspension that will carry into the Cup finals opener.
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