NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers take a 2-0 series lead into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. After winning a pair of games in the Bell Centre, the Blueshirts now take their turn to defend home ice, with coach Alain Vigneault even making a plea Wednesday for fans to show the team their “unconditional love.”
Meanwhile, the Habs are without star goaltender Carey Price for the remainder of the series as they ride their postseason hopes with rookie netminder Dustin Tokarski. He doesn’t have much NHL experience, but he is, as coach Michel Therrien says, “a winner.” Will he be good enough for the Habs to get back into this series?
Slumping start: Two-time 40-goal scorer Thomas Vanek is mired in a slump at precisely the worst possible time, unable to find the back of the net as Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been an absolute wall. Though Vanek has five goals this spring, he has not scored in the first two games of the series and has only one shot on goal during that span. His scoring woes were highlighted Monday night, when he passed up a wide-open shot on a breakaway during Game 2 -- an inexplicable move that had to have Habs fans pulling their hair out. Though his teammates and coach have stood behind him and voiced support for the impending unrestricted free agent in recent days, Vanek may find himself in a different role when the puck drops Thursday night. The 30-year-old winger practiced with the fourth line earlier this week and may play on it in Game 3.
Brassard’s status: Another thing to watch in pregame warm-ups? Whether Derick Brassard takes the ice. The 26-year-old pivot, who centers the Rangers' most consistently productive forward line with Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello, missed Game 2 with an undisclosed injury. Brassard was forced from Game 1 after a huge, open-ice hit from Montreal defenseman Mike Weaver and has not played since. In his absence, veteran center Dominic Moore has stepped up to play in his place on that line. Though Vigneault, in English, said Brassard was day-to-day, he was a tad more revealing in his native French, saying he was probably not going to play. Pouliot, who missed practice Wednesday for a maintenance day, will play, Vigneault said.
Extra motivation: The Habs felt they outplayed the Rangers on Monday night, a game that was simply stolen by the superb play of Lundqvist. So even though they are trailing two games in the series, they remain a confident bunch. According to Montreal’s Josh Gorges, the team is using the fact that it is being counted out as extra incentive to prove otherwise. “You use that as motivation. It’s kind of been like that all year long,” he said. “Now we’re in this situation again, and that’s great. We’ll do everything we can do to defy the odds.”
Home sweet home: New Canaan, Connecticut, native Max Pacioretty, who grew up a die-hard Rangers fans, has fond memories of Madison Square Garden and is eagerly anticipating a playoff game in the building. The 25-year-old Canadiens forward said he still remembers vividly the last time the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, after which he said his passion for hockey really took off. Pacioretty was a big fan of Mark Messier as a youngster, though he admitted that his favorite player changed from year to year depending on who was having the best season. He also loved the “Fly line” of Theo Fleury, Eric Lindros and Mike York, which inspired him to wear York’s No. 16 as a kid.