Friday, 16 May 2014

Game One - EC Final: Rangers vs. Habs


- Budaj starts the 3rd, which isn't a surprise. But it's going fuel plenty of panic in Montreal about Price's injury status. No Price, Habs may as well just start thinking about October.

- Four Habs penalty killers all in the same corner, loose puck comes in front and McDonagh blasts it home. Best the Habs forget about the score, and look at the game tape.

- Habs coming completely undone now. Prust with a frustration penalty. Game will be 6-1 very soon.

- There it is. Rangers better be careful running up the score.

- 7-1. What else is there to say? Montreal will have to find their motivation for Game 2 via humiliation.

- Lars mutes the humiliation. Just a little bit.

- So Galchenyuk draws in, who comes out. CW says Bourque, but it could very well be Prust.

- Game two adjustments ought not be overreactive or radical. If Galchenyuk is game able, draw him in for Prust, who had a pretty awful game one. Maybe consider drawing Emelin, who was a disaster, out. I doubt, however, that Therrien would be willing to go that far.

- Must be philosophical about this. Habs were taken to the cleaners by an evenly matched team. So if you're going to lose, might as well do it with style and get it all out. The big question mark is a Price. Is he okay? If so, then the Habs can go to the board and recalibrare and figure this out. If not, the Habs are toast.


- Rangers beating Habs at their own defensive game. Shot blocking anything remotely dangerous.

- Price. Hurt?  Oh god. 

- Little urgency in Habs game right now, finally starting to test Lundqvist.

- Habs really stringing together some impressive shifts strong on the forecheck, now generating high quality scoring chances, but Lundqvist coming up very big. Still, Habs have lots of 2nd period momentum here.

- Now we know what it felt like to be in Tampa Bay and Boston. Rangers brilliant shot blocking and goaltending. Transition ain't bad either. Don't know if there are any answers to this puzzle. Just keep crashing the net and hope for something resembling a rebound.

- In case you blinked, yeah Vanek is playing today. Sort of.

- Bourque gets Habs on the board, going to the net. Rangers protesting Habs had too many men. Still, the momentum factor pays dividends. We've got ourselves a game.

- Physical meter rising here. Lots of hits being dished out. Game taking another tone.

- Man, that's a good looking Rangers PK.

- Emelin's disasterous day continues. Blown coverage on his wing allowing Carter to walk in unmolested. 

- Disaster. Subban with neutral zone turnover, and soft retreat. Zuccarello makes it 4-1. It's a death chamber in the Bell Centre.

- Price doesn't look 100%. Pure speculation but he doesn't look right. Officially worried.

- Habs played an excellent 2nd period - for about 15 minutes. Then they flubbed a powerplay and the Rangers stuffed the game away leveraging their speed and skill. A horrible conclusion to what is now becoming yet another deadful afternoon of hockey in Montreal. 0-5 this season. 0-6 in 20 more minutes.


- Habs going with the same lineup today as Games 6 and 7 against the Bruins.

- Therrien will try to match Subban against Richards line all day long.

- Speedy start both ends, McDonagh and Bourque especially so.  

- With all that speed out there, this series might be not as low scoring as everybody might think.

- St. Louis, with Bournival without his stick, open in front. Markov and Emelin with some soft slot coverage. 1-0. The emotional factor perhaps another dimension in the Rangers' favour. We'll see.

- Yikes. More soft slot coverage, again it's Moore as the setup man, this time it's Zuccarello. Therrien calls for time. Disasterous start for the sluggish and listless Habs.

- Good news, if there's any to be found for the Habs, is the time on the clock. There's a lot left.

- Markov and Emelin having real problems handling the Richards' line speed. Getting caught off the wing way too many times.

- Habs seemingly finding some footing here following the timeout. Shame they'd have to burn it just to gain some focus. How could you not have had any starting game one of a final four series?

- Crazy how much net there is with Lindqvist setting up so deep. The corners are just begging to be shot at.

- Wondering if it was a late Friday night for this lineup. Defense looks drowsy, faceoff percentage (30%) is abysmal. Team looks more zombie-like than inspired. 

- Therrien appears to be shaking up the lines, Bournival hasn't had a shift in some time.

- Bourque gets out of the box. Within 15 seconds gets nailed for another hook. Alex Galchenyuk now thinking about a game 2 start.

- Beaulieu with just 1:32 of time in the first period. Two shifts. That's perplexing given that he wasn't on for either Rangers goal.

- A total mess of a first period. Habs looked slow, unfocused, even disinterested? These are not the Bruins. The Rangers play the Habs style of hockey, which means the Canadians ought know their opponent inside out. Right now the Habs are playing catchup, the Rangers totally setting tone and pace. 


Well, here we are.  The Eastern Conference Final. Gotta say, it feels pretty good to write that.

Funny thing about rising to such rarefied heights. This year it feels different than in 2010. A lot different. Four years ago, the Habs were riding a tide of good fortune, backed by the unforeseen stellar performance of Jaroslav Halak, who led his team to two straight 3-games-to-1 series comebacks - first to the overwhelming favorites, the Washington Capitals (who'd finished first in the Conference), and then to the defending Stanley Cup champions from Pittsburgh.

But that was a crazy spring, the Habs lived each night on a prayer, getting destroyed on puck possession, which in turn led to some crazy final shot totals, often 2-to-1 in favour of the opposition. Still, the Habs managed somehow to find a way to the third round. The puck luck seemed endless.

Of course, everything came crashing back to earth once the Habs took on the Flyers, who easily brushed aside the undermanned Habs in five games. Our dreams were dashed, but the reality was, it was all a mirage.

But that was 2010. The Habs were undermanned. They didn't have four rolling lines. They had, at best, two functioning lines and a collection of make-do forwards who simply couldn't contribute as the playoffs went deeper.

But oh, how things have changed in four years.

This time around, it's different. Way different. The Habs, unlike 2010, are a functional four line team that's been blessed this spring no so much by bounces, but by health. As we type, there is literally no starting player on an injury list. Alex Galchenyuk, who missed the first two rounds with a knee injury, has been cleared for contact. So now the Habs are left with a problem most coaching staffs would kill for halfway through the Stanley Cup playoffs - they have too many players, and not enough slots.

This is not to say the Habs can waltz their way to their first appearance in a Stanley Cup Final in 21 years. Far from it. Their opposition, the New York Rangers, have a few things going their way as well.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the Rangers play a very good possession game, which as we all know (or should know) is a critical post-season component. During the regular season, New York ranked near the top of the League in this area, posting a League 6th best Corsi (53.2%) and Fenwick (53.6%). Both of these numbers have come back a bit in the post-season, but they're still indicative of a team that plays a pretty disciplined system.

So what to look out for? Well, aside from their top two lines which feature Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis, the Rangers have a pretty good bottom six core comprised of strong puck grinders like Mats Zuccarello (who I think could have a big series impact) and Derek Dorsett. It also features two ex-Habs in Benoit Poulliot, who could never find a footing in Montreal, and Dominic Moore, who was regrettably let go by the Habs after their miracle 2010 run (a move that was, in this writer's opinion, the worst decision made during the Pierre Gauthier era). These are all good core players, not elite guys, but battlers.

What the Rangers bring to the table, however, the Habs match. Aside from their two top scoring lines, which showed signs of heating up as the series against the Bruins drew to a close, the Habs have a nice thing going with their third line centred by Lars Eller, and featuring Habs captain Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque. While this line hasn't been producing some of the crazy good scoring results seen during the Tampa series, they were effective against Boston in a forechecking role, which helped stem some of the dangerous Bruins momentum swings.

The real Habs story of these playoffs, perhaps surprisingly so, has been the stellar performance of the Habs 4th line, with Dale Weise and a tandem of others like Travis Moen, Brandon Purst and Daniel Brière playing prominent roles not only driving the Bruins crazy with tenacious speed and checking, but contributing to scoring at the most critical times. I don't think this line has been given nearly enough credit for the Habs post-season success. It stands to reason at anytime, when your fourth line is producing, you're going to be an incredibly hard team to beat. On any night. Against any opposition.

The Habs have so much going their way. Four well balanced, productive and producing lines, (especially that 4th), a defense that's really found their footing since rookie Nathan Beaulieu was brought into the lineup, and of course, elite goaltending by the name of Carey Price. This is a team that as a collective, represents the Canadiens' best hopes for a championship in 21 years.

But first, the Rangers. While the Habs are favorites, and while most of the city of Montreal are banking on a quick an easy series win, I don't think it'll be as straightforward as anticipated. The Rangers bring four lines to the table, they have a solid defensive core, and while I don't think he's quite as good as Price, Henrik Lundqvist is having an excellent 2014 post-season.

That said, matching up one against the other, the Habs are the better team on offense, defense and goaltending. They're also putting up impressive specialty team numbers, currently holding a decisive post-season edge over New York with the powerplay (26.3-10.3%). Shorthanded, the teams are very even (82-80% in favour of the Rangers), but that man advantage differential could play a significant role in closely contested games.

It's really hard to argue with the paper on this. The Habs, who dominated the Rangers during regular season play, have no reason not to win this series in 6 games, and advance to the Championship Final.

Whatever happens, let's remember how rare these great playoff runs are, and borrow a phrase from Mr. Carey Price: Enjoy the moment.


Hey, Friday. Extra happy Friday. Those feet still floating a bit above ground today? Yeah, me too.

We've got the EC Final Preview coming up later today, but in the meantime, some news and notes:

- Alex Galchenyuk has been cleared for contact practice. This means he's just about ready for game action. His status for game one is questionable, but unless something drastic happens during practice time, he'll be game ready for this series. The big question though - who'll have to step aside to make way?

- Habs practice lines this morning. Identical to Games 6/7:

1: Pacioretty/Desharnais/Gallagher
2: Bournival/Plekanec/Vanek
3: Bourque/Eller/Gionta
4: Prust/Brière/Weise

- Milan Lucic. Man, this guy. Got a lifeline chance for some redemtion in an interview with ESPN. So what did Lucic say? "“I can’t take back what I said, so I’m not apologizing for what was said in the handshake."

Have a great summer, Milan.

More in a bit.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome, even anonymously. All I ask is that you behave, and in support of good taste, avoid the use of course language, or express opinions that are just plain silly (racist, sexist, etc.)