by Drew Sarver
The two teams in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference finals got there in different ways, but the pair have a lot in common. The Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers are two of the “Original Six” NHL squads and both have been chasing the Stanley Cup for decades. The resumes of two of the oldest franchises, however, are quite a bit different. With the best players coming from Canada and a territorial draft in place for years, the Canadiens fielded teams chock full of future Hall of Fame members. Those teams rang up a league record 24 Cups, though the Habs have not won one since 1993.
The team they will oppose, the New York Rangers, haven’t won the Cup or reached the league finals since 1994. The Rangers have won just four championships in their 88 seasons and had a 40-year gap between Cups three and four. Whichever team emerges as the conference winner, they won’t have an easy time in the league finals. Either the Los Angeles Kings, the 2012 Cup winners, or the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending NHL champs and the champions in 2010 as well, will meet them in the last best- of-seven series.
Both the Canadiens and Rangers made it to the conference finals with big performances on the road and after some of the media and their own fans had written them off. Montreal was down 3 games to 2 to Boston, went home and shut out the Bruins out in Game 6, 4-0. The seventh and decisive game was back in Massachusetts at the TD Bank Garden. Montreal quickly took the crowd out of play with a goal by Dale Weise just 2:18 into the game. The Canadiens clung to a 2-1 lead late in the third period when forward Daniel Briere’s pass hit the skate of Bruins’ captain Zdeno Chara and deflected past goalie Tuukka Rask for the clincher with just under three minutes to play.
The Canadiens had advanced to the conference semi-finals with a first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The outcome was made possible with wins on the road in Games 1 and 2. The Rangers had to go the distance to knock off the Philadelphia Flyers in their first-round match up. Then they had to do it again against the Pittsburgh Penguins to set up a series of NHL “oldies”.
The Rangers played their worst game of the playoffs, on home ice, in Game 4 to go down 3 games to 1 to the Penguins. The Madison Square Garden throng booed their team right off the ice. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, or now, the Belle Centre. Something tragic happened as well.
The mother of Rangers forward Martin St. Louis died of a heart attack the night prior to Game 5. A shocked team rallied around their teammate and St. Louis played with a renewed passion and fire. The Rangers also got a boost from the return of injured youngster, Chris Kreider. It was Kreider’s power play goal that ignited a 5-1 win and sent the series back to New York. With his father and sister in attendance, St. Louis scored 3:34 into the first period of Game 6 to give the Rangers the lead for good. An already raucous Garden crowd amped up the volume from there. The Rangers went on to a 3-1 win with Henrik Lundqvist stopping 36 shots.
The finale in Pittsburgh was a fight to the finish. Brad Richards’ power play goal snapped a 1-1 tie in the second period and then it was all Lundqvist. The 2014 Olympic silver medalist stopped a full-out assault in the waning minutes of regulation play and stopped 35 shots overall.
So now, the two teams will lace up the skates and “put on the foil” for a 1 p.m. Saturday face-off. The Rangers need to put aside their past, which in this case is an incredible number of losses (65-200-40-3) in Montreal, be it the old Montreal Forum or the Belle Centre. The Canadiens need to continue to play with a chip on their shoulder. Defenseman P.K. Subban has been chief among the Canadien players in saying the team hasn’t been shown any respect. Who he is referring to specifically is anyone’s guess.
Keys to the Series
The Goalies – Price beat Lundqvist in the Olympic finals this year, and was a major factor in the Canadiens’ defeat of the Bruins. Price doesn’t get the publicity that New York media darling Lundqvist does, but he’s a star goaltender.
Lundqvist was red hot for the final three games of the Penguins series and needs to remain that way. He was the Vezina Trophy winner two years ago and a finalist last season.
Slump Busters – Rick Nash was booed by his own fans, especially in the Game 4 fiasco. “Nashty” has 289 career goals, but the soon-to-be 30-year old has failed to light the lamp in 14 playoff games this year. In fact, he only has two career goals and 11 points in 30 post-season games between the Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets. While he has still been a physical presence on the ice, the Rangers need him to put pucks in the back of the net to have a chance to advance.
Briere is not the player he used to be. He has just two goals in 11 playoff games this year and one of those was the aforementioned deflected pass. Two years ago, as a member of the Flyers, Briere had eight goals and 13 points in 11 games. At 36, perhaps his skills have diminished around the net. He’ll have to prove otherwise.
The Defense – Subban has been superb on both ends of the ice. Last season’s Norris Trophy winner, for the best blueliner, put up 53 points in the regular season. He also leads the Canadiens in postseason scoring this year with 12 points. Subban’s the quarterback of the Habs’ power play and makes an easy transition with the puck from defense to offense. He’s also a physical player (81 penalty minutes this year) and a vocal leader. He’s the one publicly spurring the team on as the under-appreciated underdog.
The Rangers’ best two-way defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, looked horrible for the first four games of the Penguins’ series. Perhaps he was still hurting from a late-season shoulder injury. Whatever the case, the “old” McDonagh seemed to be back for the final three games of the series. By his own admission, he’s played a more defensive role this postseason than he did during the regular season. But the Rangers will need him to pinch into the offensive zone more often to add some scoring punch.
Daniel Girardi, who was awarded a six-year, $33MM contract earlier this year, needs to find his game. He’s been terrible in the defensive zone and it’s cost the Rangers on the scoreboard. He and Marc Stahl are the number one defensive pairing for the Rangers, but Girardi needs to step up his game for that to truly be the case.
Who emerges victorious?
Despite their lack of success in Montreal – including a Stanley Cup finals loss in 1979 – the Rangers should come out on top in the series, though it will take another seven games. The Rangers’ power play must be as successful as it was at the end of the Penguins series and not as poor as it was at the start. Price is great, but Lundqvist’s play at the moment trumps him.
Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at email@example.com.