|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
Hands up those of you who had the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers meeting in the Eastern Conference finals? Sorry, your hands don't count, Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price. While many -- including us here at ESPN.com -- believed the playoff grid in the Eastern Conference heavily favored the deep, experienced Boston Bruins, the Canadiens had other ideas, winning two elimination games in a row, including Game 7 in a raucous TD Garden on Wednesday night by a 3-1 count to eliminate the Presidents' Trophy winners. The Rangers, meanwhile, had their own road magic going on in Game 7 in the second round, edging the favored Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 at Consol Energy Center to set up this Original Six matchup. The two have not met in the postseason since 1996, although this is Rangers' second trip to the Eastern Conference finals in the past three years (they lost to New Jersey in 2012); the Habs made a surprise run to the final four in 2010 before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers. Both teams boast lineups with lots of moxie, terrific goaltending and speed, which should bode well for fans who like lots of up-and-down to their hockey.
Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist
They don't call him The King because he likes "Jailhouse Rock" or "Love Me Tender." No, they call Henrik Lundqvist The King because where he goes, the Rangers follow. In the past when his playoff performances have been up and down, the Rangers floundered. This year, and especially in the team's just-completed comeback win over the Penguins, Lundqvist was sensational. He was given early leads in the final three games of the series and he made them hold up, allowing just three goals on 105 shots. His victory in Game 7 on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh marked his fifth straight Game 7 victory and his second of this playoff year; the Rangers held off the Flyers in a Game 7 in the first round. The articulate Rangers netminder has never advanced beyond the conference finals. Two years ago, he was outdueled by longtime nemesis Martin Brodeur in the conference finals. He'll have another tough matchup on his hands in Carey Price, and he has admitted that he hasn't enjoyed playing in Montreal. In fact, he has played there sparingly in recent years. But right now, The King is indeed that.
Canadiens: P.K. Subban
They don't actually call him The King, he just is. This spring has been the spring of Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, both on and off the ice. The defending Norris Trophy winner has been a dynamic force and was the Habs' most important player outside Carey Price in their topsy-turvy series against the favored Bruins. He leads the Canadiens with 12 points and is the top-scoring defenseman in the postseason. And if he isn't already loathed by Rangers fans, he soon will be, just as he got under the skin of the Bruins and their supporters. His puck-moving skills and his ability and willingness to jump into the play were instrumental in the Canadiens' successful power play this season. The power play was a key factor in helping the Canadiens staying close with the Bruins; they were 8-for-25 in the series with the man advantage. The Rangers will have to pay close attention to Subban both 5-on-5 and on the power play, although they were rock-solid killing penalties against the Penguins. They allowed just one goal on 20 opportunities in their seven games with Pittsburgh. More than that, the Rangers will have to guard against letting the free-talking Subban divert their focus, which happened to the Bruins.
Rangers: Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis
We're going to cheat a bit and go with heroes in waiting. It hasn't always been easy for Brad Richards in New York and it's been downright humbling at times, as it was in the playoffs a year ago when he was a healthy scratch under then-head coach John Tortorella. And it hasn't been an easy season for Richards' former and current teammate and longtime pal Martin St. Louis, what with the Canadian Olympic controversy and his subsequent request for the Tampa Bay Lightning to trade him. But there's something karmic about the fact that the two friends, largely responsible for the seminal Stanley Cup win by the Lightning in 2004, aren't just playing on the same team but are playing again on the same line. And it was a nice feed from St. Louis to Richards that netted the Rangers' winning goal in Game 7 in Pittsburgh. Richards, after a season full of rumors that he will be the subject of a compliance buyout at the end of the season, leads the Rangers with nine points and two game winners. St. Louis is right behind with eight points and one game winner -- which came on Mother's Day shortly after his own mother died suddenly in Montreal.
Canadiens: Carey Price
He's not really a hero in waiting, but Price is definitely the heroic sort. After last year's playoff meltdown in the first round against the 7-seed Ottawa Senators, you wondered whether Price had the mental toughness to be "the man" when it mattered most. Well, after standing tall for Canada in Sochi en route to an Olympic gold, and now after having kept the Canadiens on track even when it looked as though they were headed for a second-round derailment against Boston, those questions are more than moot. Price outplayed Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask and will now face off against a former Vezina Trophy winner in Lundqvist, who yearns for his first berth in the Stanley Cup finals. Price's teammate Max Pacioretty said after Wednesday's series clincher that Price's play leaves him "speechless." That about sums it up for a goalie who is 8-3 this spring with a .926 save percentage.
After falling behind the Penguins 3-1 in the second round, head coach Alain Vigneault noted that the Rangers' schedule, which had them playing five games in seven nights, was a factor. The conference final schedule won't be so onerous, and the Eastern Conference finals don't start until Saturday afternoon. But the fact remains: The Rangers have already played 14 games, three more than their opponents from Montreal. Will it matter? At some point, the playoffs always become a war of attrition, and the Rangers expended considerable emotion in coming back from the 3-1 deficit against the Penguins. There was also the emotional challenge of helping a teammate, St. Louis, deal with the sudden death of his mother. The Rangers are fortunate because they've received valuable contributions from across their lineup, with 15 different players scoring at least one goal. That kind of production will be invaluable in keeping the upstart Rangers' Stanley Cup dreams alive. Along those lines, we wondered before the last series whether the Rangers could keep winning without meaningful offensive contributions from Rick Nash. He has yet to score this spring, and while he has upped his physical/defensive game, he will have to make himself known offensively at some point. That will mean coming in from the perimeter, where he has spent much of the playoffs. If his goose egg continues, it drives up the chances that the Rangers' run will end in this round.
While the Canadiens had a different emotional expenditure against the Bruins, they did have to win two straight elimination games, including one in Boston, and it's fair to say the Bruins exacted a far more physical toll on the Habs than the Penguins did against the Rangers. It will be a significant challenge for the Canadiens to put behind them the satisfaction of having dispatched a longtime foe in an often bitter, angry series. This series might be decided in the first couple of games by the team that can find that emotional Zen more quickly than its opponent and establish a tone.
These two teams are similar in so many ways, it's difficult to separate what might be the difference. The Rangers' line of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello has been dynamic but Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, united midway through the Bruins' series, has helped take pressure off the Canadiens' top line. For us, we'll go with the team with home-ice advantage. Canadiens in 6