All the pieces click for Rangers

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NEW YORK -- We know of at least one fan who got into Madison Square Garden without a ticket Thursday night.

France St. Louis was there, all right, there was no mistaking it.

"I was talking to her the whole third period," Martin St. Louis said after the  New York Rangers advanced to their first Stanley Cup finals in 20 years after a series-clinching 1-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

A season that has included a trade request out of Tampa Bay, followed by the unexpected death of his mother, France, on May 8, now also includes a Stanley Cup finals appearance for St. Louis.

"It's unbelievable," said the 38-year-old native of Laval, Quebec. "Obviously, a tough year for me. ... If I would have thought that on May 8, to have a chance to go a Stanley Cup finals ..."

He stopped for a moment, collecting his thoughts.

"Everything that we've gone through as a team, these guys have been unbelievable, the support I got, going through some tough times," he said. "Just so much adversity for everyone. We found ways. Great bounce-back game tonight. That was New York Rangers hockey tonight."

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault felt it was his team's best game of the playoffs, and we don't disagree.

Just two days after embarrassing themselves defensively in a 7-4 loss at Montreal, the Blueshirts delivered a defensive gem, suffocating the Habs and limiting them to only 18 shots on goal and very few scoring chances.

Not surprisingly whatsoever, Rangers stud netminder Henrik Lundqvist bounced back from being pulled in the previous game. It's what he does.

His best save on this night came when Thomas Vanek's rebound attempt looked headed for the back of the net in the second period before Lundqvist went all Dominik Hasek and, with a windmill motion, batted the puck away with his blocker.

"Yeah, that was ridiculous," said Rangers blueliner Marc Staal. "That was a huge save. It changes the whole complexion of the game, a huge save like that."

But it wasn't just about Lundqvist. Do not for a moment underestimate the amount of credit that Vigneault's coaching staff deserves here in preparing the Rangers for a night-and-day performance from Game 5, finding a way to communicate what was needed to happen for their trip to the Cup finals to become a reality.

Vigneault said it himself Thursday night: No one on his team wanted to head back to Montreal for a seventh game on a Saturday night in the NHL's most passionate market.

"At that point, it's going to feel like you're playing against 4 million people," a Western Conference coach said earlier in the day.

In other words, Game 6 was really Game 7 for the Rangers. They had to wrap this up now.

And did they ever. They wrapped it up by completely shutting down the Habs and riding Dominic Moore's second-period tally to victory -- booking their finals ticket exactly one year to the day after they fired coach John Tortorella.

Pretty unbelievable, really.

Step back for a moment and remember that this club began the season dropping seven of their first 10 games under their new coach. Imagine Vigneault's reaction, we asked him Thursday night, had somebody phoned him up after that start and told him he'd be in the Stanley Cup finals this season.

"Probably would have said: 'What are you smoking?'" Vigneault said with a laugh.

Indeed.

The Rangers meandered their way through the first half of the season before finally beginning to understand what Vigneault was selling them.

Through it all, the coach they call "AV" was patient, he believed in the process and never lost faith it would begin to sink in.

Now Vigneault is headed to his second Cup finals in four years, and it's no coincidence.

Down the hall in the visitors room Thursday night, there was the usual sense of emptiness when one's season is over, especially so close to a Cup finals appearance.

Let's be honest here: The Habs began the season as a playoff bubble team. To have reached the Eastern Conference finals is a major achievement. There is zero shame in losing out at this stage of the tournament.

It does make you wonder had Olympic stud goalie Carey Price not been injured in the opening game if this series would have played out differently.

Interestingly, Montreal coach Michel Therrien said afterward that Price was working hard to try to return for Game 1 of the Cup finals.

It almost happened, thanks to rookie Dustin Tokarski. The kid from Watson, Saskatchewan, was simply terrific; with barely a lick of NHL experience under his belt, Tokarski stepped in to play five very good games under incredible pressure.

He stopped 31 of 32 shots Thursday night to keep the Habs within striking distance when they really didn't deserve to be.

"That game could have easily been 4-0 or 5-0," said Habs winger Max Pacioretty. "He kept us in that game; 1-0 was a very misleading score for that game."

Tokarski made a name for himself. He'll be able to look back and see the positive in that.

"I hope so," said the 24-year-old. "It might take a little while. Right now it's tough; you're just thinking about what could have been. It was a fun series, it was great to be a part of, and hopefully I can get back here again one day."

St. Louis and Brad Richards were beginning to wonder just that: Would they ever get back to the promised land after lifting Lord Stanley's mug 10 years ago in Tampa?

"Yeah, I'll be honest, it's hard to believe. Ten years goes by so quick," said Richards. "We were just talking about how we definitely thought we'd be back after winning in Tampa and the lockout and all that stuff happened, and the salary cap and the team just didn't stay together too long. Never would have thought we'd be here today in New York doing it. Even to start the season, I never imagined Marty being here.

"So the fact that all of that has come [together], it's great. We've created so many friendships this year. Our group has come together so much, but obviously Marty and I go back a long way. And we don't want it to be about us. But it's still a pretty cool feeling."

St. Louis turns 39 on June 18, which just happens to be the day Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals is scheduled.

You wouldn't want to bet against the veteran winger and the Rangers that day. Because you know somebody will be there with him in spirit, talking him through every shift.

There will be time this summer for St. Louis to grieve more appropriately. But right now, he's got one more series to win for Mom.

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