I absolutely had my doubts about the Rangers coming into their first-round series against Montreal.
There were all the “Ifs” as I wrote in my preview … if Henrik Lundqvist can reach his elite level again, if the Rangers can defend better around their own net, if they can take care of the puck and thus unleash their speed and depth, if they could simply get enough pucks past Carey Price, and if their special teams didn’t kill them. I picked the Rangers in 7, figuring it would be a tossup.
Well, all the questions were answered in the affirmative and so the Rangers won in six games, and in a series in which they were 17 seconds away from winning five of the six. They move on, to play either Boston or Ottawa, starting on the road again.
1. First things first. I thought the Canadiens did the Rangers a huge favor by fattening up their lineup with big, slow guys. As my buddy Pierre McGuire of NBC called them, “the Rottweilers” adding that they would try to “pile-drive” the Rangers out of the game. Well, two things about that. In 2017, speed beats brawn. And these Rangers, since about 2011, have always seemed to play better, play harder, play more together when the opponent tries stuff like this, tries to intimidate or run them out of the building. Even during the season, look at the Rangers’ record against the bigger teams in the NHL. Been that way for years.
2. More on that: So Montreal got all juiced up because, after the deadline deals that brought in Steve Ott and Dwight King and Andreas Martinsen, they roughed up the Rangers, who were playing horribly at the time, and won. Those three guys, by the way, had one single goal among them since the deadline. So some of this falls on GM Marc Bergevin, and on Claude Julien, a great coach who once won a Cup in Boston by beating up Alain Vigneault’s Vancouver team in the Stanley Cup Final.
3. Maybe they needed all those big guys to stop big, bad Mats Zuccarello. It didn’t work. The smallest guy in the series was one of the toughest and scored two Rangers goals in the deciding game.
4. It was a great game for Zuccarello and his new linemates, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, who each got their first point of the series. Hayes did everything in this game. Miller – J.T Miller – was out there protecting a lead in the last minutes, 6-on-5. And again, that Vigneault put that threesome together, and that it took its turn in being one of the productive lines in the biggest game, shows A) the kind of coach Vigneault is and B) the kind of depth in skill the Rangers have.
5. Speaking of which: Jimmy Vesey = Monster Jr. once again. He had to fight the Canadiens’ captain, frustrated Max Pacioretty (zero goals, after 35 during the season) when Pacioretty crosschecked him in the face. Vesey doesn’t mind the rough stuff. He had two fighting majors during the season. He stood in there against the bigger, more battle-tested man. Good for him. It was absurd that the Rangers didn’t get a power play out of that tilt. Vesey did succeed in taking the Habs captain off the ice for seven minutes, though.
6. Which reminds me of a once-upon-a-time Rangers playoff series against Atlanta. Sean Avery hounded superstar Ilya Kovalchuk all series, and finally, Kovalchuk fought him. In the locker room later, Avery was asked if he was happy to take Kovalchuk off the ice for five minutes. “Why should I be,” Avery said (I paraphrase), “I’ve had a much better series than him.”
7. One of the Habs’ big slow guys, Alexei Emelin, gave Montreal a 1-0 lead, his screened shot beating Lundqvist as the Canadiens dictated play early.
8. Their first-period difficulties, in my opinion, had little to do with what Montreal was doing, and everything to do with the Rangers weren’t doing. And I thought before the series and at every turn during the series, it was all about what the Rangers did or didn’t do, from game to game, period to period. When they played their game, they were the better team. When they didn’t, they got handled by a team that was almost, but not quite, as good. The Rangers, except maybe in Game 4, didn’t dominate an entire game in the series, but they did dominate important stretches of five of them.
9. The Rangers’ early inability to create much offense had little to do with the Habs coming at them hard – and they did – but with some poor puck management, and not much forecheck. And Game 4 was the exception, but we’ve seen that movie a lot at The Garden this season.
10. Bizarro world: The Rangers’ penalty kill came up with three big stops late in Game 5, now in Game 6 they got off the 0-for-14 power-play drought. Rookie Pavel Buchnevich drew a penalty on Jordie Benn and the Rangers showed some urgency against the Habs’ aggressive PK, which was best in the league after Julien took over as coach. Chris Kreider quickly moved it to Zuccarello, who got it to Game 5 OT hero Mika Zibanejad. He made a quick hard pass back to Zuccarello in the right circle. It looked as if Price might have been expecting another pass, but this time Zuccarello fired and beat him short side under the arm. Bad goal. 1-1.
11. Anyway, the Rangers found their legs before, and even more, after the goal, and it started to look like the third period and overtime of Game 5 in Montreal. The Rottweilers were chasing, but they were chasing a car. Still, Lundqvist had to keep it 1-1 with a short-side save on Jeff Petry in a 2-on-1. At about that moment you started to think Lundqvist wasn’t giving up another one.
12. How about that guy, by the way. If not for Derek Stepan’s empty-net goal, it would have been the ninth 2-1 win in the last 11 Rangers home playoff wins, and their 11th straight one-goal playoff win at home. Lundqvist is 35 and we all had a level of concern about whether he could regain his form after a difficult season, whether it would be one of those rare times where he was the second-best goalie in a series, whether he could win games in his regular-season House of Horrors in Montreal. Questions all answered. He was the MVP of the series. Even in the game in which he allowed four goals (a loss in Game 2), he stopped 54 shots.
13. Buchnevich continued to haunt Benn, nearly scoring on a breakaway behind Benn. He’s really given the Rangers what was their strength early in the season – a balanced, speedy attack. He took a big-time hit (and then limped off) to make a great pass in the third.
14. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but when the Rangers decide they want to get in on the forecheck and play in the opponent’s end they’ve been a really dangerous team this season. It opens up everything for them when they don’t have to live in the defensive zone. So off to work they went with the Habs now chasing them, like Game 5’s third period and OT. Hayes and Miller each won a battle, then they each made a good pass, Hayes to Zuccarello in behind Benn to make it 2-1. Zuccarello’s first career multi-goal playoff game. And this, folks, is why I don’t understand when guys like Zuccarello don’t want to shoot the puck. Oh, and the Rottweilers were on the ice for the goal. Woof.
15. Mid-third, Kreider took a needless, careless but accidental penalty. The Rangers killed that one too, Lundqvist stopping a Tomas Plekanec deflection to keep it a 2-1 game. Lundqvist then gloved a Shea Weber blast, shortly after Jesper Fast courageously went down to block one from the league’s hardest shooter.
16. Speaking of penalties, I would love to hear why Miller wasn’t given a four-minute penalty even though Petry was clearly bleeding and spitting blood. I mean, it’s an automatic call. Unless the official thought Miller’s stick caught helmet or visor and the bloody mouth occurred at another time.
17. So the second period ended with Dan Girardi planting pest Brendan Gallagher’s face into the crossbar. The guy was a pain in the neck all series – and really, he is every game he plays – but the Rangers, especially Marc Staal and at times Miller and others, gave him a rough ride in all six games. I think Lundqvist may have squirted him with the water bottle, a la Sidney Crosby, at the end of the second. If he gets fined again, he’ll gladly pay it. I’m hearing that no water came out of the bottle, though, so Hank can save his money for a pocket square (I kid, I kid).
18. Girardi and Staal looked like they discovered Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine in this series (Google it, kids). Old-school tough, strong. Loved the Pacioretty remark that he’d never been hit harder than the one Girardi put on him earlier in the series. Those two guys are more maligned than Willie Huber, Tom Poti, Marek Malik or Michal Rozsival, and all they do is compete like beasts in playoff series year after year. Staal epitomizes what I discussed up above, that when the going gets rough, his game gets better. What the complainers don’t want to hear is that Staal would be a top-four defenseman on just about any team in the league, certainly any team in the Eastern playoffs, and probably top-two on Montreal. But whatever.
19. The Rangers played a great third period, textbook lead protection, and even as the Canadiens surged late Lundqvist made two stops on Plekanec, the second one with about 1:40 left and Price headed to the bench. Holy shish kebab.
20. FWIW, Brady Skjei did not play the final 9:00 of the third period tonight. Played 3:31 in the 2nd period, 2:23 in the 3rd.
22. Hey, do you guys remember when the Rangers traded Scott Gomez to Montreal for Ryan McDonagh (then used Gomez’s cap space to sign Marian Gaborik)? I’d say the captain had a pretty great series, oui?