MONTREAL — The notion that Henrik Lundqvist can’t play at the Bell Centre has been officially dispelled.
The goalie called King Henrik made 40 saves as the New York Rangers took control of the Eastern Conference final with a 3-1 victory over the desperate Montreal Canadiens on Monday night.
The Rangers lead the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final 2-0 heading back to New York for Game 3 on Thursday and Game 4 on Sunday.
The Canadiens, missing star goalie Carey Price to injury, came out blazing in a bid to avenge a listless 7-2 thumping in the series opener only to run into the Lundqvist wall.
“I thought we played well, and the only reason we lost was Lundqvist,” said Montreal coach Michel Therrien. “He stole that game.”
There was concern that Lundqvist may have a mental block about playing in Montreal as a string of weak outings at the Bell Centre had moved successive coaches John Tortorella and the current Alain Vigneault to not even play him there. He hadn’t started a game in Montreal in more than two years.
But the goalie who was bested by Price at the Sochi Olympics as Canada beat Sweden in the final has allowed only three goals on 63 shots in the series.
The Canadiens got the opening goal 6:14 in from Max Pacioretty, but Ryan McDonagh tied it only 17 seconds later on a shot that went in off defenceman Josh Gorges and a goalpost.
“We knew they were going to come hard, but we put ourselves in a tough spot there by not getting pucks out,” said Lundqvist. “They were all over us.
“But to tie it up quickly like that, I think that was important to kind of even out the momentum a little bit.”
Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis also scored on Dustin Tokarski, the surprise starter for Montreal ahead of regular backup Peter Budaj. Tokarski looked shaky at times, but had no chance on two of the three Rangers goals.
The Canadiens had announced Monday morning that Price, the Olympic gold medallist who hurt his right knee in the series opener when he was crashed into by Chris Kreider, would miss the rest of the series.
They hope to have him back if they reach the Stanley Cup final, but their situation looks bleak heading to New York.
“It was a lot of fun,” Tokarski said after his first NHL playoff start. “There was a lot of adrenaline. You grow up as a kid wanting to play in the playoffs, and I got the opportunity and just came up a bit short.”
Coach Michel Therrien said he opted for Tokarski over Budaj because of the youngster’s record of winning championships at other levels. The 24-year-old from Humboldt, Sask., has a Memorial Cup, a world junior championship and an AHL title on his resume.
“He’s a winner,” said Therrien. “I thought he played well. We talked to Peter and he reacted as a pro. He’s a good teammate.”
A grinning New York coach Alain Vigneault said Montreal’s goalie choice was no surprise.
“`Somehow, we had an inkling (Sunday) night that it was probably going to be that gentleman (Tokarski),” Vigneault said with a grin. “Hockey’s a small world.”
But in the end, he agreed that Lundqvist was the difference in the game.
“He’s the only reason we were still in the game,” he said. ”They had total control of the pressure.
“A lucky bounce changed the dynamics of the game.”
Montreal outshot New York 41-30.
The high-paced action from the start between two of the league’s best skating teams had the 21,273 roaring in their seats for most of the game.
Montreal’s worst fears were realized in the first period, which they dominated while still falling behind 2-1.
A long period of sustained pressure produced the first goal as Lundqvist’s clearing attempt went off Pacioretty and into the net at 6:14.
But only 17 seconds later, the hockey gods gave it back to New York as McDonagh swiped a puck toward the net from the point and saw it go in off Gorges’ leg and a goalpost. McDonagh had a goal and an assist to give the defenceman six points in the opening two games of the series.
“The Canadiens were coming wave after wave in the first period,” said St. Louis. “If it wasn’t for Lundqvist, there might have been a different result after the first.
“He gave us time to find our legs. The goal by Mac was a big one. It calmed everyone down and allowed us to regroup.”
The crowd was booing Kreider when he sent a pass across to the right side and Nash’s one-time went in off the midsection of Tokarski, who was late getting across. It was the second in as many games and second of the playoffs for Nash.
Tokarski had no chance as St. Louis wired a shot from the slot on a power play inside the post at 8:03 of the middle frame.
The Rangers played a thorough defensive game in the third to prevent a comeback.
St. Louis scored a day after he and his teammates attended the funeral of his mother, who died suddenly just before Mother’s Day. The Rangers have rallied around the grieving veteran and have won five in a row since her death.
“It’s been an emotional weekend,” said St. Louis. “I’ll definitely never forget this weekend for many reasons, but I think the grieving process will still take a while.
“But that stuff is behind me. Tonight, we wanted to make sure we’d have the emotion we’d need to win this game because we knew they would come out hard, especially rallying, losing their best player, so I thought we answered.”