MONTREAL — Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist thought about how he would prepare for his team’s next challenge — a chance to eliminate the Montreal Canadiens in Saturday’s Game 6 at Madison Square Garden.
Lundqvist had another vintage playoff performance, making 34 saves in a 3-2 overtime victory on Thursday. Lundqvist said a short mental break would help as he readies himself for another pressure-packed evening.
“I put in so much energy for every game, it’s hard not to think about it,” he said. “But I don’t want to waste energy. I try to get away from the game a little bit.”
The Rangers have essentially turned the tables on the Canadiens, who had a 2-1 series lead after smothering the Rangers, 3-1, at the Garden in Game 3. Now the Rangers have the Atlantic Division champions on the ropes and have no desire to make another trip to Montreal for Game 7.
“We don’t want to come back here, anything can happen in Game 7s,” said defenseman Brendan Smith, a physical force for the Rangers this series. “I’ve played in a couple. It’s tough — can go either way. We really have to play a smart game back home and use our fans as a motivator.”
The Rangers responded to their previous home challenge with a strong effort in Game 4 to tie the series. They had lost their previous six home playoff games and eight of their last 10 home games in the regular season.
Their Game 5 overtime victory was punctuated by the winning goal from Mika Zibanejad with 5 minutes 38 seconds left in overtime. He was still beaming when he spoke Friday morning in Montreal before the team left for New York.
“Still amazing, one of the biggest goals I’ve scored,” said Zibanejad, 24, whose winner came with an assist from Chris Kreider after the puck deflected off Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin. “But now it’s done. The focus goes on to the next game.”
Once again, the Rangers will have the chance to eliminate Montreal in six games, as they did three years ago in the Eastern Conference finals, as well as in 1996, 1974 and 1972. No series between the teams has ever gone to seven games.
Zibanejad said a strong start in Game 6 would be imperative.
“We have to come out strong and really match their desperation,” he said.
The Rangers are likely heartened by the play of Zibanejad and his recent linemates, Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. They had several dominating shifts in the overtime. Kreider nearly scored himself at the midway point of overtime, fanning on the puck with a mostly open net behind Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.
“We have some good chemistry right now,” Zibanejad said. “All four lines we have right now are a threat. It’s a good feeling for us.”
Coach Alain Vigneault said the line has played in a sturdy way since Buchnevich, a 21-year-old rookie, was inserted into the lineup for Tanner Glass after Game 3.
“I thought that line — Mika, Kreids and Buchy — they were real strong,” Vigneault said. “They were backchecking real hard, and they had a real strong finish to this game.”
Defenseman Marc Staal, a veteran of 97 playoff games over nine postseasons for the Rangers, knows the desperation the Canadiens will play with since “we’ve been in that situation a lot.”
He also knows how the Garden crowd can provide a major boost.
“We’re excited to get back in front of our home crowd,” Staal said. “We have to take advantage of playing well. We will give our best effort.”
Staal provided drama during the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, scoring an overtime goal at the Garden.
The Rangers also have recent history on their side, winning 11 of their last 15 playoff games against Montreal dating to Game 3 of their first-round series against the Canadiens in 1996.
But Vigneault said that momentum could only go so far, especially in a closely contested series.
“They are going to put a game plan together, we’re going to put a game plan together,” he said, “and both teams are going to do what they’ve been doing for five games, compete real hard. That’s what I expect from them, and that’s what I expect from us.”
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