MONTREAL – With all the sadness around the New York Rangers these days, winning a laugher may have been just what they needed.
Martin St. Louis, who is to attend his mother’s funeral with his teammates on Sunday, got the opening goal as seven different Rangers scored and Henrik Lundqvist broke his Bell Centre jinx in a 7-2 rout of the Montreal Canadiens to open the NHL Eastern Conference final on Saturday afternoon.
Game 2 is set for Monday night in Montreal.
“It was an emotional time for everyone, but the guys have been behind me and supported me,” said St. Louis, who got a long ovation from Montreal fans when he was named the game’s first star. “My teammates are behind me and supporting me and their effort was unbelievable.
“We feel really close right now and we’re trying to keep feeding off that.”
Coach Alain Vigneault said his team is trying to support St. Louis and stay focused on playing a sound team game at the same time.
“Emotionally, for us, that is something really strong right now,” said Vigneault. “I know quite a few of our guys went to the wake (on Friday), and I texted with Marty last night to make sure that everything was good.
“It’s been very emotional for our whole group, and he’s handled it in an incredible way that probably has helped our team come closer together. (Sunday) is going to be a tough day for our group. We need to be there to support him, and we’ll do that and get ready for Monday.”
The quick-footed Rangers, coming off a comeback, seven-game win over Pittsburgh in the conference semifinals, jumped on a Montreal side that was flat and mentally absent after its nasty, emotional seven-game win over first-place overall Boston.
Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Brad Richards, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, with his first of the playoffs, also scored for the Rangers, a team that had scored only four goals in its last nine regular-season visits to the Bell Centre.
“You don’t look at the score,” said Richards. “That’s not indicative of how anything’s going to happen in this series.
“We got fortunate. We got some bounces. We got some momentum and pucks went in the net. It was a win, that’s all it was, and we’re very aware that it’s going to be a lot different.”
New York’s turnaround against Pittsburgh started when St. Louis returned to the team a day after mother France died suddenly last week. They went on to win three games in a row to erase a 3-1 series deficit.
The 38-year-old has played inspired hockey since then, and his teammates have rallied behind him.
Playing in his home town, only 4:35 into Game 1 St. Louis found an unguarded spot near the Montreal net and put Dominic Moore’s pass into an open side behind Carey Price, who had a night to forget.
The Montreal goaltender looked to have hurt his right leg early in the second period when Kreider slid into him after shooting wide on a breakaway. He stayed in the game, but was pulled after giving up two goals late in the second frame.
Coach Michel Therrien said Price was not injured, but was replaced by Peter Budaj simply because the team was playing so poorly there was no point in leaving him in.
“We got our (backsides) kicked all over the ice,” said Montreal left-winger Rene Bourque, who had a goal but took three minor penalties. “There’s really no other way to explain it.
“Good thing it’s a seven-game series and we have a chance to get back in it on Monday. I think we had a little bit of an emotional letdown after the Boston series. We talked about that to going into the game. Obviously it didn’t click. We have to just forget about this game.”
Lars Eller also scored for Montreal.
The Rangers poured on goals even though one of their best forwards in the playoffs, Derick Brassard, left after only his second shift early in the game after a hit by Mike Weaver. He appeared to be favouring a shoulder, but Vigneault would only say that his condition is day-to-day.
Otherwise, everything went right for New York, including the play of Moore, a fourth-liner who moved into Brassard’s spot.
For one, Nash finally got a goal in New York’s 15th game of the post-season, which must have been a relief for a top-line player who had been booed at home for his lack of production.
“We’re all happy to see Nasher score because he’s taken a lot of heat,” said Richards. “That’s a little weight off his back, but really, it doesn’t matter.
“We won the game. When you’re in the playoffs, when it’s 7-1, no one’s jumping up and down about who scored goals. We won as a team, we’ve got a good start and we’re going to move on to Game 2.”
The struggling power play went 3 for 7, matching its goal total from its previous 29 chances in these playoffs.
And Lundqvist finally won in Montreal.
The goalie known as King Henrik had not played a game at the Bell Centre since allowing four goals on Jan. 15, 2012. His last win there was March 17, 2009.
He didn’t appear to be in top form, but he didn’t need to be as Montreal managed only 22 shots.
“I felt good coming into the game,” said Lundqvist. “We haven’t won too many games in this building so it’s a great start.”
The Canadiens will try to regroup after their worst playoff defeat since losing 8-2 to Carolina in 2002.
“You don’t need to make many adjustments (for Game 2) when you are not ready mentally,” said Therrien. “You have no chance to win in that situation.
“There were a lot of mental errors.”
Budaj was beaten on his first shot, a bullet from the slot by McDonagh on a power play at 1:28. The frustrated Canadiens then took a succession of penalties, including two minors and a misconduct to former Ranger Brandon Prust. Stepan scored and then Nash put one in from the slot.
Montreal got one back while shorthanded with 4:38 left in the game when Eller beat Lundqvist with a quick, high shot from the slot.
“We talked about getting pucks behind them and work the puck and we did a good job of that,” said McDonagh, who also had three assists.
The boost the Canadiens got from their rousing pre-game ceremonies in the first two series wasn’t there as the Rangers showed all the speed and intensity in the opening frame, outshooting Montreal 12-6 and taking a 2-0 lead.
Moore jumped on a loose puck after Michael Bournival partially blocked a point shot and slipped a pass to a wide open St. Louis at the doorstep to open the scoring at 4:35.
Moore was the playmaker again as he slid a pass in front of the net and the trailing Zuccarrello was able to poke it into an open side as New York beat Price twice on their first five shots.
Bourque took consecutive hooking calls late in the first period, but made up for it in the second as he went hard to the net, whacked at Brian Gionta’s pass and saw it go in off McDonagh’s stick at 12:38.
Montreal’s push-back brought the 21,273 at the Bell Centre back to life, but they went quiet again as Stepan broke in alone on the left side and beat Price with a low shot at 18:59.
With 11.6 seconds left in the period, Zuccarello made a sweet reverse pass that had Price out of position for Richards to score into an open side.
“They were really coming at us there,” said McDonagh. “You get some fortunate clears and good finishing plays by the guys up front. It was a big change of momentum for sure, because they were really flying.”