In the last 40 years, the Rangers have played four playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens, each memorable in its own way.
The Rangers have won the last two, in 1996 and 2014 and, believe it or not, eight of 15 playoff meetings in their history.
The 1978-79 season was my first on the Rangers beat, so I thought I’d take a look back on the last four Rangers-Habs series:
1979 STANLEY CUP FINAL
The heavy underdog Rangers, who made a shocking run to the Final, wound up facing the Canadiens, who were gunning for a fourth straight Cup.
The Rangers’ road peaked in the Cup semifinals, in a stunning upset of the Islanders in six games.
I don’t believe the current Garden has ever been that loud, including the Stanley Cup year of 1994 – and their accomplishment grew larger in hindsight when the Islanders then went on to win 19 straight playoff series, winning four Cups in a row and reaching five consecutive Cup Finals.
Yet the Rangers won Game 1, 4-1 in Montreal, and actually led in Game 2, 2-0.
But prior to Game 2, legendary Habs coach Scotty Bowman decided to sit Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, who played just seven full NHL seasons, winning a Conn Smythe and five Vezina trophies (258-57-74 career record, including a season in which he lost six of 56 starts). Dryden was on the verge of retiring, and after the Game 1 loss, Bowman turned to backup goalie Michel “Bunny” Larocque.
Rangers captain Dave Maloney, not yet 23 years old, scored a short-handed goal at the end of Game 1.
During warmups before Game 2, it appeared Dryden was done for the series. “I remember thinking,” Maloney said, “‘Gosh, I might end up being the last guy to ever score on this guy.’”
Montreal’s Doug Risebrough (a former junior teammate of Maloney’s, and now a Rangers executive), hit Larocque in the head with a shot during warmups, the Habs were forced to go back to Dryden, and the rest was history. Montreal won the next four games 6-2, 4-1, 4-3 and 4-1.
Years later, when Maloney was a regular on MSG Networks’ Hockey Night Live, Dryden was a guest.
Maloney recalled, when they got around to the ’79 series, Dryden called it “the worst series of my life; the worst I’ve ever played.”
“And here I am thinking,” Maloney laughed, “That might have been the highlight of my life.”
Though he really didn’t look at is as a lost opportunity so much as a great run squashed by a great dynasty.
“I tend to remind myself that they had nine Hall of Famers on that team,” Maloney said. “So they were pretty good.
“I remember Game 5, and Vad (Carol Vadnais) and I were partners, God rest his soul. And there was (Guy) Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, (Steve) Shutt and Larry Robinson and whomever – it could have been Serge Savard or Guy Lapointe. But I swear, we never touched the puck. Those shifts could go on for five minutes. And they finally scored and I remember Vad said, ‘At least we can get to center ice now.’”
“But all in all, we were so young and Freddie (Shero, the coach) was kind of a distant factor, and everything went by as though this was what was supposed to happen.
“My most distinct memory was flying home after we lost and you’re thinking, ‘That’s it?’
“Maybe our Cup was when we beat the Islanders.”
1986 CONFERENCE FINAL
Another playoff run by another unlikely Rangers team ended in Montreal, where a couple of rookies named Patrick Roy and Claude Lemieux helped the Habs interrupt Edmonton’s dynasty with a Stanley Cup.
Roy outdueled Vezina winner John Vanbiesbrouck 2-1 in Game 1 at the Forum, and the Canadiens squashed the Rangers 6-2 in Game 2, during which Habs goon John Kordic pummeled a much smaller, but willing, George McPhee.
Still, the Rangers had a chance to get right back into the series in Game 3 at The Garden and were in charge of the overtime with chances to make it a 2-1 series.
A simple 2-on-2 Canadiens break turned quickly into a disaster when Rangers defenseman James Patrick was tripped by linesman Ray Scapinello. That turned it into a 2-on-1, a perfect pass, and a perfect shot by Lemieux gave the Habs a three-games-to-one series lead.
“Not good memories, obviously,” Patrick recalled last week.
“I just remember in overtime we just dominated in shots and Patrick Roy was outstanding and they came down and scored on that play.
Scapinello, who surely felt terrible, never said a word to Patrick.
“I remember skating backwards, pivoting, crossing over to turn and running into him almost at center ice, on the dot,” Patrick said. “So, still, to this day I don’t know why a linesman was in the middle of the ice. And he never said anything.”
The Rangers won Game 4, 2-0, but the Habs closed the series with a 3-1 win in Game 5, then beat Calgary in the Cup Final. Roy won the Conn Smythe Trophy.
“They had a really big, really defensive team that bottled us up and it was Claude Lemieux’s rookie year and Patrick Roy’s rookie year and they were real big factors,” Patrick said. “(Bob) Gainey was still playing, Larry Robinson was still playing, I think Mats Naslund and guys like Guy Carbonneau and Chris Chelios.
“I remember for us, it was a year we weren’t expected to go that far, and we made the playoffs and upset the Flyers and Capitals the first round. I remember we lost Ron Greschner early in one of those series and that we missed him.”
It was a memorable year because Ted Sator came in as coach and immediately banished some veteran players to the minors, and kept virtually all the players who had participated in a wild preseason brawl-fest against Philadelphia, which would have set a league record for penalty minutes if it had happened in the regular season.
“It was a funny year with a changing of the guard. Ted came in and got rid of some popular veterans,” Patrick recalled. “Beezer had a great year and he played great in the playoffs, and that was probably the biggest reason for our success. Some other unsung heroes. The last half of the year Gresch moved up to forward and played center and was unbelievable. I remember just how strong he was on the puck and strong down low. Gresch wasn’t the fastest guy, but there was no one stronger on the puck, at that time, maybe in the game.
“Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller and Pierre Larouche were outstanding – Pierre, who spent the first half of the year in the minors – shows just how stupid hockey can be. He’s the best goal scorer on the team and he scored 49 two years before. It was a real fragmented year.
“But Pierre came back and made him eat crow probably because he was great for us when he came back up and throughout the playoffs. I also remember Willie Huber playing real big on defense, another maligned player at times, but maybe played his best hockey as a Ranger down the stretch and in the playoffs that year because he was huge for us in winning in Philly and Washington.”
Patrick, who is close friends with Rangers current associate coach Scott Arniel, said he still watches and roots for the Rangers, even as he has worked in Buffalo and Dallas as an assistant to Lindy Ruff, who was fired this week.
1996 FIRST ROUND
The sum of this series was more memorable than its parts. The Rangers, two springs removed from their Stanley Cup, were favored over a smallish, quick, young Canadiens team, three springs removed from what remains their last Stanley Cup, in 1993.
Coming into the series, the Rangers weren’t sure if Mark Messier could play effectively, coming back from a ribcage injury that he said bothered him just walking from one room to another in his apartment.
Brian Leetch convinced coach Colin Campbell to let him play, instead of resting, in the final game of the regular season in Miami, and hurt his foot blocking a shot. He also needed oral surgery early in the series.
Then there was the Montreal curse. The Rangers were 1-20-3 in their last 24 visits to Montreal, the one victory in Messier’s first game as a Ranger in 1991. But 23 of those games were in the fabled and hallowed Forum. On March 16 of that year, the Rangers were the visitors for the pomp and ceremony for the Habs’ opening of their new building, then known as the Molson Centre. The Rangers lost there, too, 4-1.
“I always remember having a tough time up there, regardless whether it was the old Forum or the new arena,” Leetch said last week. “It was usually a Hockey Night in Canada game or a nationally televised game, and they always played well there, and the energy. That was one of the rinks I always remember having trouble in, and it turned into the same thing later on with New Jersey and (Martin) Brodeur. I remember those two places being difficult places to go in. Whenever we played well, they played better.”
The Canadiens walked into the Garden and won Games 1 (3-2 in OT) and 2 (5-3) as Vincent Damphousse had four goals, both game-winners, and two assists in the first two games.
So the Rangers, who had beefed up (Ulf Samuelsson, Marty McSorley, Jari Kurri, Shane Churla) after being swept by muscular Philadelphia the season before, now trailed this speedy team two games to none … losing both at home.
“(Goalie) Jocelyn Thibault played really well,” Leetch said. “I do remember us getting shots and having chances. But they had Mark Recchi and Saku Koivu and Damphousse, and those guys got some big goals when they needed them. They were playing with a lot of confidence in those first two games.
“I remember Damphousse playing well early, certainly in New York. I don’t remember us playing bad. I thought we played well and had chances, but I remember the crowd was down on us when we were leaving after Game 2.”
As he did so often, Messier focused the Rangers for Game 3 in Montreal.
“Talking with Mark,” Leetch said, “that was the game he was pointing to, saying, ‘Win this one and the pressure flips back. There’s a lot of pressure on these guys to be successful and to win at home, too, so this is a game we have to win.’
“Like he usually is, Mark is confident and he knows that that’s the big game to try and turn things around.”
I’m pretty sure, though not certain if it was this particular series, that before the flight to Montreal, Kevin Lowe sang the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” as he showered at the practice facility at Playland in Rye. He sang it loud enough for the media to hear. Lowe always had some nugget of foreboding, gleaned from the experiences of six Stanley Cups.
Mike Richter stole Game 3, in Montreal, 2-1, outdueling Jocelyn Thibeault, then the Rangers won Game 4, 4-3. They returned home and won Game 5, 3-2, and went back to Montreal to win Game 6, 5-3.
Four consecutive victories, three of them in Montreal.
“Mike took one of those games for us,” Leetch said. “He had a big game when we weren’t at our best and we were able to continue moving on through and get it done.
“It was surprising to me that we were able to win four in a row. I remember thinking when it was over, ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming.’ After losing the first two, I thought we could come back. But I didn’t see us taking the next four.”
Leetch and Richter returned to Montreal that summer, where two of the three games of the World Cup of Hockey final were played. Richter was the MVP of the tournament, and Leetch was the captain for Team USA, which twice beat Canada in that same building.
2014 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
I asked Henrik Lundqvist, a few days ago, what he remembered about this series. Obviously trying to focus on the immediate future, and not the past, he stammered for a moment and said, “Just that we won.”
I then asked him bout the “helicopter save” he made on Thomas Vanek, his legs twirling about his spinning body, to preserve a 1-0 win in Game 6.
This time Lundqvist just turned, looked into his locker and chuckled. He wasn’t getting pulled into that conversation.
Though there was some remarkable hockey in that series, which propelled the Rangers into the Stanley Cup Final, their first since 1994, this series was more about controversy, storylines, gamesmanship, whining, cheap shots (or alleged cheap shots) and accusations.
“I remember that one better than my own,” Leetch laughed.
“It was a wild series for sure, but things like that always go down in a series, whether it’s hard play, nice goals, bad goals,” said Rick Nash. “It’s just the way a series goes. It was a huge series for us.”
For starters, it was the first time the Rangers triumphed in fewer than seven games in their last six series wins. It featured the Rangers’ first-year coach Alain Vigneault, and his offseason buddy Michel Therrien, the Habs’ coach, who put on a show.
Of course, it started out with Chris Kreider, on a breakaway, being tripped by Alexei Emelin – who chased him all series long – and sliding into the Habs’ most important player, Carey Price, knocking the goalie out of the series with a knee injury. Peter Budaj played the rest of Game 1, a 7-2 Rangers win, and rookie Dustin Tokarski played the rest of the series, losing Game 2, 3-1.
Between the first two games, the Rangers attended the funeral of Martin St. Louis’s mother, who had passed away during the previous series, a comeback from three-games-to-one down against Pittsburgh, inspired by St. Louis’ personal loss.
The loss of Price was a huge blow, but Tokarski was hardly the reason the Canadiens lost the series.
Instantly, the Canadiens began accusing Kreider of “accidentally on purpose” running over Price (Kreider has avoided the topic, as he should, full knowing he had been tripped and couldn’t have stopped before the collision).
In Game 1, the Rangers lost Derick Brassard to a big hit by Mike Weaver, and Therrien suggested he knew what Brassard’s injury was – hinting the Habs would target it later in the series.
In Game 3 at The Garden, ex-Ranger Brandon Prust skated across the ice and decked Derek Stepan with a head shot. While the Habs were accusing Stepan of faking an injury, Stepan was having his broken jaw wired shut. Montreal won the game 3-2 in OT.
“We have to move on from the 2014 series, but personally, obviously, the series sticks out for me a little bit with the broken jaw,” Stepan said.
The Rangers’ Derek Dorsett and Daniel Carcillo chased after Prust, who would be suspended, but Carcillo’s wrestling with a linesman earned him a 10-game suspension, ending his Ranger career.
More silliness ensued on the off day, when Therrien insisted the Rangers’ assistant coaches vacate their seats in the stands during a Canadiens practice at The Garden. Rangers GM Glen Sather didn’t budge, though, cigar stub in hand. Therrien later said the teams’ GMs had an agreement to not watch each other’s practices. The Rangers insisted there was no such agreement.
St. Louis, who was acquired at the trade deadline but finished the regular season in a massive goal drought, beat Tokarski with a signature one-timer in overtime of Game 4, a 3-2 Rangers victory.
“I was actually watching it from my living room,” Stepan said. “I was jumping up and down when it happened.”
“First thing that comes to mind is probably Marty’s goal,” Nash said.
Stepan returned (and scored twice) in a 7-4 Habs win in Montreal in Game 5, which featured another suspension – to the Rangers’ John Moore for a headshot against former Ranger Dale Weise.
But in Game 6, another storyline broke out. Dominic Moore, who started his career as a Ranger, played for several teams including the Canadiens, then re-signed with New York, scored the only goal of the game – after sitting out the previous year to care for his wife, Katie, who died of cancer.
Lundqvist preserved the shutout with his cartwheeling stop on Vanek in the third period.
The Rangers were off to the Stanley Cup Final – where they would lose three overtime games in Los Angeles, two of those in double-OT, and the series in five games.
One of the biggest goals of that series was scored with LA’s Dwight King parked on top of Lundqvist, but somehow was not called for goalie interference.
King was traded to Montreal late this season.