Eastern Conference Finals: It’s red (rouge) white (blanc) and (et) blue (bleu) all over
I had some excellent jokes about the Mats Zuccarello at 5’7” and 179lbs, going up against the giant that is Zdeno Chara at 6’9” and 255lbs that will alas never see the light of day as the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Boston Bruins last night to move on to the Eastern Conference finals and the New York Rangers. The Rangers and Canadiens haven’t faced each other in the playoffs in roughly twenty years; it promises to be an amazing series as both teams look to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since their respective cup wins in 1993 and 1994.
Who would have thought going into the playoffs that the New York Rangers would be playing the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals? Show of hands….no one? Really? That’s what I thought. Sure all Rangers and Canadiens fans hoped to see our respective teams make it this far, what kind of fans would we be if we didn’t? But even I, the eternal optimist who goes into every single season hoping this will be our year no matter what it says on paper, was a little doubtful.
Then as the playoffs progressed, and the Rangers ended the Flyers season in early May, and then inexplicably came back from a three games to one deficit to send the Penguins off to start their summer vacations, it suddenly became a reality, the Rangers have won the requisite eight games to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. As for the Canadiens, they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in four games. I’d like the shake the hand of anyone who predicted that happening. Then they inexplicably beat the defending Eastern Conference Champion and President’s Trophy winning Bruins in seven. I feel as though it’s a spring of miracles here in the Eastern Conference, at least if you’re a fan of the Rangers or Canadiens.
During the regular season, the Rangers and Canadiens played each other three times with the two teams each chalking up a win and then Montreal beating the Rangers in overtime in the last game of the season. That seems to indicate the teams are fairly evenly matched, but as we all learn every year, playoffs are like a whole season where the regular season often gives little to no indication of which way the pendulum of good fortune is going to swing.
The Canadiens and the Rangers both have great goaltenders who have been outstanding in the last two rounds, as well as the speed and the ability to score from the forwards, and defence who love to get involved in the play. I think the difference between winning and losing this series is going to come from the team who makes the least amount of mistakes and is able to capitalize the most on any mistakes made by the other team. (And I’m aware of how stupid that sounds. Really? The team that plays the best and doesn’t screw up will win? You don’t say.)
The Rangers have good steady defense that has been doing a great job as of late backing up Henrik Lundqvist who has been playing at the very top of his game. Power plays are where the Rangers have been the weakest all season long and throughout the playoffs, but in the past three games, they’ve managed to turn that around. The biggest weakness I see for the Rangers right now is fatigue as they not only went to a game seven in both of the previous two rounds, and their schedule had them playing nine games in fifteen days. There is a reason that no team has ever won the conference finals after going seven games in both of the first two rounds.
Thankfully they have three days off between round two and the Eastern Conference Finals for some much needed rest. They will also face a Habs team coming off their own grueling seven-game series. However, the entire Rangers team has been contributing this post-season, to the point where I struggle to point a finger at just one or two players whose play has really stood out in making the difference other than Lundqvist. They’ve had fifteen different players score goals in these playoffs, even though Rick Nash has yet to score any goals.
As for the Canadiens, they can be dangerous offensively and Carey Price is almost as good a goaltender as Lundqvist, and he out-duelled Lundqvist in the Gold Medal game at the Sochi Olympics. No one should be watching this series expecting to see a lot of goals scored by either team. The Bruins were a real physical challenge for the Canadiens and exacted a physical toll from them. The two teams are quite similar in a lot of ways which is why I think it comes down to what I said earlier about mistakes and the capitalization on them making the difference in this series.
I really like this quote by P.K. Subban from before game seven against Boston, “I can’t wait for the crowd, the noise, the energy in that building. I can’t wait to take that all away from them.” I absolutely love that quote as it’s exactly what each player on the Rangers should be feeling right now heading into games one and two at the Bell Centre. Emotions will be running high to the Rangers at Martin St. Louis returns to the city he calls his hometown and Alain Vigneault coaches against the team where his NHL coaching career began, Benoit Pouliot and Raphael Diaz playing against former teammates and former Ranger Brandon Prust doing the same.
Aside from three former Stanley Cup champions on the Rangers, Dan Carcillo, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, there are ten current players on the New York Rangers who made it to the Eastern Conference finals two years ago only to see their Stanley Cup dreams dashed by the New Jersey Devils. Marc Staal had this to say after the Rangers game seven win in Pittsburgh, “I think for us, once this settles in, there’s going to be a commitment to seize the opportunity that maybe wasn’t there two years ago. I don’t want to say that we were satisfied just getting to the conference finals, but even with how tough it was to get there, in a way we took it for granted. We never played our best in that series, and I think we figured we’d get another shot. Well, I think as a group we appreciate it more now and have a better understanding of how tough it was to get back here. We’re not going to take this opportunity for granted.”
And Brad Richards had this to say, “Before the playoffs even started, we had a long talk as a team, and the older guys were saying that if you think there’s an unlimited amount of chances in this game, then think again.”
“Now for us to be here two out of three years, it might seem routine, but it really isn’t. We have to seize this chance.”
“We’re going to have some more talks in the next few days, and the message will be reinforced.” Without a team captain, Brad Richards has really stepped up as the team’s public voice and conscience since the trade that sent their captain, Ryan Callahan, to the Tampa Bay Lighting.
If the Rangers continue to play the way they did in the last three games against the Penguins, then this could indeed be their year to win it all.
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