Montreal Canadiens

Spirit of St. Louis Propels New York Rangers

Martin St. Louis celebrates his OT winner (Courtesy of Getty Images)

by Drew Sarver

Sunday night, Alex Galchenyuk came within a millimeter of evening up the NHL Eastern Conference Finals at two games apiece. He had already been credited with the game winner, after the puck pin-balled off of of him and past goalie Henrik Lundqvist, in Game 3. This time, however, the puck rang off the crossbar and deflected harmlessly away. The game went to overtime, where the Rangers’ Martin St. Louis snipered a shot over the left shoulder of rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski for a 3-2 win and a three games to one lead for the Rangers in the best of seven series

It’s been well documented by now that St. Louis’ mother passed away prior to Game 5 of the conference semifinals with he Pittsburgh Penguins. From that moment on, St. Louis seemingly elevated his game as his teammates embraced him and his family as if France St. Louis was related to all of them.

After a Game 5 victory in Pittsburgh, the Rangers returned home to try to even the series with the Penguins. St. Louis was accompanied by his grieving father and sister. The Rangers’ diminutive winger with a big heart scored the game’s first goal and in doing so, ignited the Madison Square Garden crowd. The Rangers won 3-1 and St. Louis was named first star of the game.

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Alex Galchenyuk scores Game 3 winner (Courtesy of USA today)

The Rangers edged the Pens 2-1 in the finale, with St. Louis assisting on good friend Brad Richard’s go ahead goal. Acquired at the trade deadline for popular captain, Ryan Callahan, St. Louis has had six points (three goals and three assists) in the last five playoff games. His six goals this postseason  is the sixth best among all players.

Sunday night’s Game 4 was crucial for both teams in the series. The game was rough, rugged, and chippy after the thrown elbows and shoved linesman of Game 3. Montreal’s P.K. Subban scored a third period power play goal that erased a 2-1 Rangers’ lead. Then Galchenyuk found himself alone at the side of the left circle and came that close to erasing the series lead with the shot heard ’round the Garden.

Six minutes into overtime, Richards dug the puck out of the boards and flipped it Carl Hagelin. The Swedish-born winger found St. Louis all alone in the right circle. The shot  made by St. Louis could only be made by a player with his type of elite offensive skills. He got the puck on the tape of his stick blade, skated through the right circle and put the puck between the narrow opening above Tokarski’s left shoulder and the crossbar.

Game over.

Most of us have gone through what St. Louis and his family are in the midst of weathering. From personal experience, I know how difficult it is to balance the loss of a parent and going to work every day – ; trying to keep your life as balanced and normal as possible. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that in front a packed, frenzied arena. It makes St. Louis’ play all the more remarkable.

Notes

Montreal goalie Carey Price skated for the second day in a row on Tuesday and was in full uniform. But coach Michel Therrien insisted Price would not be available in the conference finals.

Rangers center Derek Stepan skated with his squad and could return Tuesday for Game 5. Former teammate Brandon Prust caught Stepan with an elbow in Game 4, breaking the Rangers’ jaw. Prust received a two game suspension for the hit.

 

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 dsarver@d4assignment.com.

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Canadiens and Rangers to Tangle in Original 6 Conference Final

Original 6

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 dsarver@d4assignment.com.

NHL Playoffs: Montreal and Boston Get Ready to Renew Old Rivalry

habruinsA pair of Original Six teams are ready to go toe-to-toe again.

by Drew Sarver

For years, the Montreal Canadiens were the kings of the National Hockey League. Between 1953 and 1979 they captured the Stanley Cup 16 times, including five straight years from 1956-1960 and four times in a row from 1976-1979.  During that stretch, Montreal also made it to the finals three other three times, with losses to Detroit (twice) and Toronto. In all, the Canadiens have hoisted the Cup 24 times.

Their fellow “Original Six” rivals, the Boston Bruins, won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost in the finals to Chicago, another of the Original Six, last year. The Cup win was the first for the Bruins since the 1971-1972 season and the sixth for the franchise.

The two team have played in the same division for many years, but when the teams meet in the playoffs, emotions are amped up a notch or 200.

It was no wonder that the Canadiens captured so many titles during the Original Six period that ran from 1942 until the NHL expansion in 1967, which doubled the size of the league. There weren’t too many American-born players in the NHL during that 25-year stretch, and Montreal grabbed one future Hall-of-Fame player after another with their territorial picks. Many of the Canadiens’ championships have included a playoff series win against Boston.

As a matter of fact, after the Bruins won a five-game series in 1943, they lost to the Canadiens the next 18 times they met in the playoffs. The streak, which began in 1946, ended in 1988. Since then, things have actually shifted in the Bruins’ favor with seven wins in 11 series.

Both teams have won just one Stanley Cup since the Bruins ended their skid in 1988, with Montreal entering this season with a 20-year drought since their last championship. This will be the 34th post-season meeting between the two teams and their first in three years.

Both teams got to this point by being road warriors in round one. Though he may never have been known as “Mad Max”, Canadiens’ forward Max Pacioretty eliminated the Tampa Bay Lightning with a goal with 17 seconds left in regulation time in Game 4. The four-game sweep would not have been possible had it not been for the Canadiens’ two wins in Tampa Bay to open the series. It’s just too bad the Lightning no longer play in the “Thunderdome”.

The Bolts had to play without their number-one goalie and Vezina Trophy finalist, Ben Bishop, for the entire series. Bishop underwent wrist surgery at the conclusion of the first-round series, in which Montreal dominated at both ends of the ice. Lightning goalie Anders Lindback was the only thing that kept Game 1 in Tampa from being a blowout, as the Canadiens out-shot the Lightning by a wide margin (44-25), in a 5-4 Montreal victory. Unlikely hero Dale Weise scored the game winner for Montreal in overtime.

Canadiens’ goalie, and Olympic Gold Medalist, Carey Price outplayed Lindback and third-string goalie Kristers Gudlevskis in the entire series. The Canadiens never let up, and the Lightning were burnt to a crisp when Pacioretty got his game winner. Twenty-one year-old Brendan Gallagher led the Habs in both goals (3) and points (5).

Boston took the President’s Trophy for most points (117) recorded in the NHL this season, but lost Game 1 on home ice. The Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk scored the game’s only goal with 3:01 left in regulation. Jimmy Howard stole the game from another Vezina Trophy finalist, Tuukka Rask, with 25 saves.

But Boston didn’t get to be the number-one seed in the entire NHL for no reason. They dominated the next four games, winning at home in Game 2, before going to the Motor City to finish off the Red Wings. Rask and company held Detroit to six goals for the entire series and got a shutout of their own, 3-0, in Game 2. Milan Lucic led a balanced Boston attack with three goals, while center Patrice Bergeron and defenseman Torey Krug led the squad with five points apiece. Finland’s Rask stopped 96.1% of the shots he faced to go along with a 1.16 goals-against-average (GAG).

Montreal has won 24 of the previous 33 playoff series with Boston,  and most recently has won six of the last seven meetings between the two in the regular season. But when the puck drops in round two, it will be difficult to imagine the Bruins not skating away with the series. Probably in six games.

Listed below is the record for the first 33 times the Canadiens and Bruins clashed in the playoffs.

Pre-Orginal Six Period

1929 – Bruins 3-0 Semi-Finals
1930 – Canadiens 2-0 Finals
1931 – Canadiens 3-2 Semi-Finals

Original Six Period

1943 – Bruins 4-1 Semi-Finals
1946 – Canadiens 4-1 Finals
1947 – Canadiens 4-1 Semi-Finals
1952 – Canadiens 4-3 Semi-Finals
1953 – Canadiens 4-1 Finals
1954 – Canadiens 4-0 Semi-Finals
1955 – Canadiens 4-1 Semi-Finals
1957 – Canadiens 4-1 Finals
1958 – Canadiens 4-2 Finals

Post Original Six Period

1968 – Canadiens 4-0 Quarter-Finals
1969 – Canadiens 4-2 Semi-Finals
1971 – Canadiens 4-3 Quarter-Finals
1977 – Canadiens 4-0 Finals
1978 – Canadiens 4-2 Finals
1979 – Canadiens 4-3 Semi-Finals
1984 – Canadiens 3-0 Division Semi-Finals
1985 – Canadiens 3-2 Division Semi-Finals
1986 – Canadiens 3-0 Division Semi-Finals
1987 – Canadiens 4-0 Division Semi-Finals
1988 – Bruins 4-1 Canadiens Division Finals
1989 – Canadiens 4-1 Division Finals
1990 – Bruins 4-1 Division Finals
1991 – Bruins 4-3 Division Finals
1992 – Bruins 4-2 Division Finals
1994 – Bruins 4-3 Conference Quarter-Finals
2002 – Canadiens 4-2 Conference Quarter-Finals
2004 – Canadiens 4-3 Conference Quarter-Finals
2008 – Canadiens 4-3 Conference Quarter-Finals
2009 – Bruins 4-0 Conference Quarter-Finals
2011 – Bruins 4-3 Conference Quarter-Finals


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 dsarver@d4assignment.com.

Canadiens Are A Hard Hab To Break

Weise

Dale Weise scored just six goals in the regular season, but he saved his biggest goal for the playoffs.

by Drew Sarver

NHL Playoffs are one of the most exciting times in all of sports. NHL playoff games that go to overtime ramp up the excitement by an immeasurable amount. Of course, if you are a fan of one of the two teams, sudden death hockey can be extremely nerve wracking. Just ask the fans who watched the seventh game of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.

The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning did battle four times during the regular season with three games ending in overtime or a shootout. With no shootout, thankfully, in the playoffs, the two teams went to OT in Game 1 o their opening round series Wednesday night.

Montreal outshot Tampa Bay 44-25, but Anders Lindback, filling in for injured starter Ben Bishop, kept his team in the game. The Lightning blew 1-0 and 2-1 leads and the Canadiens couldn’t maintain 3-2 and 4-3 advantages. The tying goal came when the Lightning’s Alex Killorn fought his way out of his own zone, which resulted in two-on-one advantage. Habs’ goalie Carey Price committed to Killorn, who then deftly slid a pass to sniper Steven Stamkos, who merely tapped the puck into the open net.

Shots on goal were nine apiece in overtime, but it was the Canadiens final shot with just 1:52 left in the first overtime that ended the night. Montreal’s Daniel Briere backhanded a pass from behind the Lightning yet to Dale Weise, who was alone in the slot. Weise fired home the game winner for a 1-0 advantage in the series for Montreal.

 

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 dsarver@d4assignment.com.

2014 NHL PLAYOFFS: LIGHTNING VS. CANADIENS

Thomas Vanek Habs 2014 playoff preview

With 11 wins in their final 15 games, Tomas Vanek and the Canadiens look to upset the Lightning.

by Christopher Wenrich

At first glance, many would think that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 46-27-9 regular season record, the presence of their now-healthy superstar Steven Stamkos, and the play of goalie Ben Bishop would make them a heavy favorite over the Montreal Canadiens.  Bishop, in particular, was outstanding.  He posted a 37-14-7  record  with a 2.23 goals against average (GAA), a .924 save percentage (SV%) and five shutouts.  As pretty as these statistics may look to the casual observer, they don’t tell the whole story.  The following stats and league ranking are a truer indicator of the Lightning’s season and their playoff hopes.

Tampa Bay
232 goals for (9th)
209 goals against (11th)
18.5 PP% (13th)
80.7 PK% (23rd)

The team ranked ninth in the National Hockey League in goals this season, despite the leg injury which limited Stamkos to 37 games.  When healthy, Stamkos was a goal-scoring machine.  He scored 25 goals and added 15 assists for 40 points in 37 games.  Youngsters Ondrej Palat(59 points in 81 games) and Tyler Johnson (50 points in 82 games) were productive for the Lightning, as well.  Veteran forward Valtteri Filppula added 58 points in 75 games.  The offense took a big hit, however, when their leading scorer was dealt at the trade deadline.

Martin St. Louis topped the Lightning score sheet with 29 goals and 61 points in 62 games before being traded on March 5 to the New York Rangers in exchange for Ryan Callahan.  Although Callahan is an excellent all-around player who can contribute to the Lightning’s penalty kill (PK), the absence of St. Louis may potentially hinder the offense of the team and the effectiveness of Stamkos.  There is no question that Stamkos is a bona fide  superstar, but the loss of St. Louis puts more pressure on him to fill the net with vulcanized rubber.

Questions about the offense aside, trading for Callahan made sense for the Lightning, as their PK ranked 23rd in the NHL this season.  It’s an alarming statistic, particularly when you consider how fantastic Bishop has been in goal.  The goalie’s numbers may be misleading though, as his play declined sharply after the Olympics.  Prior to the international games, Bishop was 28-8-4 with a 1.98 GAA, a .933 SV% and four shutouts.  After the break, Bishop went 9-6-3 with a 2.79 GAA, a .904 SV% and one shutout.  While a goalie can never be solely blamed for a decline in performance, the drastic changes in the numbers are still startling.

At the moment, the bigger question about Bishop is his health.  He is already scratched from Game 1 due to the upper-body injury he suffered last week.  Backup goalie Anders Lindbackgets the start in his place.  Lindback heated up at the right time, with a 3-0-0 record, 0.67 GAA, .975 SV% and a shutout in his three games in the month of April.  The Lightning will need Lindback to carry that momentum into the playoffs.

Montreal Canadiens
209 goals for (21st)
201 goals against (8th)
17.2 PP% (19th)
85.1 PK% (4th)

Having ranked 21st in the NHL in goals, the Canadiens will not be mistaken for an offensive juggernauts.  However, their trade deadline acquisition of forward Thomas Vanek may have been the move of the year.  The Canadiens lost their first three games after they acquired Vanek, but finished the season 11-3-1.  Vanek was a big contributor to the Habs’ hot streak with 14 points in the last 15 games.

A player of Vanek’s caliber was sorely needed in the lineup, as the closest thing the Canadiens had to an all-star forward was the one-dimensional Max Pacioretty.  The 25-year old scored 39 goals and notched 21 assists for 60 points in 73 games.

Vanek’s presence also takes the pressure off of youngsters David Desharnais and Alex Galchenyuk.  Although they are past their primes, veterans Tomas PlekanecDaniel Briereand Brian Gionta provide valuable experience which may come in handy during the playoffs.  Having a good mix of veterans reduces the pressures and expectations on younger players and allows them to find their game and grow.  If Galchenyuk shows flashes of his potential in the playoffs, the Canadiens can be a very dangerous team.

Defensemen P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov jump-start the Canadiens attack and get the puck to the finishers.  Subban was among the NHL’s highest-scoring and most reliable defensemen this season, with 53 points while playing in all 82 regular season games.  Markov recorded 43 points this season, including 36 assists.

Should the Canadiens defense be beaten, Carey Price awaits in net to stymie any attack.  While having an elite goaltender like Price does not absolve players of their defensive responsibilities, it does give them more offensive freedom to take chances, thus enabling defensemen like Subban and Markov to shine.  Price was superb this season with a 34-20-5 record, 2.32 GAA, .927 SV% (3rd in NHL) and six shutouts (2nd in NHL).  He also was the goalie for the Gold Medal winning Canadian hockey team in this year’s winter Olympics.

The Lightning/Canadiens series is indeed an interesting match of misleading statistics.  The Lightning’s offense and goaltending might not be as good as the regular season numbers indicate.  Likewise, the Canadiens’ offense might not be as bad as the regular season numbers indicate.  Do not be surprised if you see the Canadiens eliminate the Lightning in this opening round series.  They have a proven goaltender, a good defense and an underrated offense that continues to improve.  If Galchenyuk takes his game to another level in the playoffs while the others continue to contribute, the Canadiens could conceivably make a deep run and win the Stanley Cup.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment.  Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).