MONTREAL -- Heading into Saturday’s matinee against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals opener, the Canadiens were concerned about the potential for letdown following an epic Game 7 win in Boston three days before.
It took less than seven minutes for those fears to be realized. And by the time it was over, the hosts had dropped a humbling 7-2 decision on home ice.
“It was something we talked about before the game,” Habs defenseman P.K. Subban said afterward. “We know we can be a lot better than that, obviously.”
Habs coach Michel Therrien quickly called a timeout in an effort rally his shell-shocked troops -- a maneuver that seemed to work initially. Still, only a fluky second period tally by Rene Bourque allowed the hosts to pull within one before New York scored two more in the final 1:01, effectively putting the game out of reach.
“We were not ready mentally or physically,” a stone-faced Therrien said in his postgame press conference. “To compete for a game like that.”
Bourque’s take was even more blunt.
“We got our a---- kicked all over the ice, plain and simple,” he said.
Believe it or not, things could have been even worse for the Canadiens.
Midway through the second period, star goaltender Carey Price was run into, skates first, by hulking Blueshirts forward Chris Kreider. Price, who appeared to be favoring his right leg, stayed in the game. But with the score 4-1 heading into the third, Therrien went to backup Peter Budaj for the final 20 minutes -- leading to speculation that the 2014 Olympic gold medalist was injured.
But Therrien insisted he pulled Price, who surrendered four goals on 20 shots, only because the outcome was beyond doubt.
“It wasn’t because of an injury,” the coach said of the decision. “The fact that he didn’t play in the third period was more to protect him than anything, because we were not sharp.”
Therrien, Subban and blueliner Mike Weaver all said they didn’t believe Kreider, who was not penalized on the play, ran into Price intentionally. That didn’t stop Brandon Prust from roughing up his former Ranger teammate early in the third, taking a double minor plus a 10-minute misconduct penalty in the process.
It could have been out of frustration as much as anything else.
“Anytime you get a goal scored in the last minute it deflates you, and we got two,” captain Brian Gionta said. “Going from a 2-1 game going into the third to 4-1, that’s a big difference.”
Still, a loss is a loss, whether it’s 3-2 or 7-2. And with Game 2 scheduled for Monday night, the Habs don’t have much time to lick their wounds.
“We have to find a way to regroup,” Gionta said. “There’s plenty of hockey left to be played in this series. We have another game Monday at home here --we need to use that to our advantage.”
They’ll also need a much better start.
“You never want to lose a game, but it’s going to bring us back [to] earth,” Therrien said. “As a group we have to be ready to compete and play every night in order to have a chance to win. We put that game behind us and move forward. But it’s a good lesson.”
After being outshot 12-6 in the first, Montreal was strong early in the second -- even if many of its attempts never reached Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Before Bourque’s goal, the visitors blocked nine shots, finishing the game with 23 in all.
Max Pacioretty had a golden opportunity to tie the game late in the second period but was robbed by Lundqvist’s glove. Moments later, Kreider made it 3-1, and Brad Richards added the Rangers' backbreaking fourth 49 seconds after that. The Habs were also unable to generate any shots on their lone power play of the middle frame. “For a small part of that second period we had a little bit of a pushback and we were able to get ourselves back into the game and got some momentum,” Gionta said. “And then again we let it get away from us.”
Subban said he texted St. Louis, his teammate with Canada’s Olympic squad earlier this year, shortly after learning that St. Louis’ mother passed away unexpectedly on May 8. “I know he’s going through a tough time,” Subban said. “He’s a character guy in the way that he still competed and comes to work and does his job. Credit to him -- he played a great game today and I’m sure he’s going to be even better as the series goes on. We have to be ready for it.”