samedi 17 mai 2014

Canadiens vs Rangers : Spotlight will shine on goalies Price, Lundqvist

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he Eastern Conference final pitting the Canadiens against the New York Rangers is likely to come down, as it usually does in playoff hockey, to which team has the hotter goaltender.

Montreal’s Carey Price and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist come into Saturday’s matinee opener at the top of their games, both having brilliantly anchored come-from-behind, seven-game semifinal victories that flew in the face of logic.

The Bruins, sent packing by the Canadiens, were the best team in the NHL’s regular season. In backstopping the Rangers’ ouster of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who in turn Friday ousted general manager Ray Shero, Lundqvist became the first netminder in NHL history to win five consecutive Game 7s.

Common sense suggests this Original Six matchup will be another long series, the Habs and Rangers evenly matched from the net out to centre ice, from coaching to special teams. Even their playoff history is a pick ’em, their 14 series to date tied 7-7.

Price has been in a different zone for most of this season, having worked with goaltending coach Stéphane Waite to focus not on the small picture, but the tiny one.

It’s all about game preparation for Price — nutrition, sleep, routine, warm-up, game, then shelving the performance good or bad to focus on the game ahead, reviewing on video the fine points of the night before.

Lundqvist’s lifetime record of 4-5-2 at the Bell Centre, with a screen-door 3.87 goals-against average and beer-league .876 save percentage, does not reflect how the King is playing now.

That he hasn’t won in Montreal since a March 17, 2009, shootout concerns neither Lundqvist nor his team.

“It’s so long since I’ve played there that I don’t really remember,” the goaltender told reporters after practice in New York on Thursday.

Indeed, the last time Lundqvist started at the Bell Centre was Jan. 15, 2012, taking his lumps in a 4-1 loss.

“I look forward to going there,” he said. “It’s a conference final in Montreal. You don’t overthink it.
There’s been some different types of games up there, but there’s been some solid ones, as well.”
One key in this series will be the first 20 minutes. Price, with a 1.59 goals-against average and .943 save percentage at home this playoff season, has been beaten just once in five first periods at the Bell Centre, just three times in his team’s 11 games.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have hit the back of the opponent’s net 14 times in the opening frame, going 7-2 in the games in which they were first on the scoreboard.

So expect New York to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at Price in the early going in a series that promises to be much more smoothly paved hockey than the demolition dust Montreal faced against Boston to get here.

With the sides so close, you’d be wise to stock the pantry for a little overtime, despite the fact only eight Canadiens-Rangers playoff games of the 61 they’ve skated to date have gone beyond 60 minutes.

Their most recent series, in 1996, featured a 3-2 Montreal OT win in Game 1. The Habs won Game 2 two nights later then lost the next four to be bounced from the quarter-final series.

Imagine the fans’ enjoyment — a cocktail of anxiety and fear and tell-me-when-it’s-over — should Saturday’s Game 1, or any tilt in the series, go into overtime.

They weren’t exactly overjoyed 84 years ago when the Canadiens and Rangers played a doubleheader and change in their first-ever post-season meeting.

Gus Rivers scored the winner in the Habs’ 2-1 win on March 28, 1930, beating Rangers goaler John Ross Roach 6:52 into the fourth overtime, then the longest game in the history of the 13-year-old

It was not popular with many that it took the teams the equivalent of two-plus games to settle the
score at the 4-year-old Montreal Forum, the match ending at 12:45 a.m.

“Crowd Disgusted With System Of Play To A Finish,” The Gazette headlined a sidebar story the next morning, C.H. Peters’s text appearing under the subhead, “Two Gruelling Struggles in Three Days Hard on Montrealers”.

Typed Peters, who probably was murdered by his deadline: “All pleasure is spoiled and the spectators become as tired and fed up as the players themselves.”

The Canadiens and Chicago Black Hawks (then two words) had gone 51:43 of overtime two nights earlier in Game 2 of their two-game quarter-final series, Howie Morenz scoring to produce a 2-2 tie in the match and a 3-2 total-goals victory for the Canadiens, setting up the semis vs. New York.

“Strenuous complaints were heard on all hands against playing through to a finish,” Peters wrote of the Chicago game, “and local followers were particularly upset, for they felt that the gruelling struggle would prove a distinct handicap to Canadiens in their next series.”

As fans filed from the Forum nearing 1 a.m., Peters wrote, “the opinion was about unanimous that unlimited overtime struggles have been tried enough and that the system is obnoxious and unsatisfactory to both players and spectators alike.”

The Canadiens — “the tired and battered Flying Frenchmen,” Peters called them — would beat the Rangers 2-0 at Madison Square Garden two nights later, then sweep the Boston Bruins in a two-game final to win their third Stanley Cup.

Montreal and New York would next meet two seasons later in a semifinal with the Rangers winning a best-of-five series 3-1, the Blueshirts’ 4-3 win in Game 2 needing 59 minutes of overtime.

Unlimited overtime still exists, despite The Gazette’s long-ago poke at the NHL to do away with it:
“The public demands sixty minutes of fast, clean hockey with perhaps a few extra minutes in a particularly close contest,” Peters wrote in 1930, “and that is sufficient for the requirements of any and every supporter of the great Canadian sport.”

Through the decades, the Canadiens have twice blanked the Rangers in the post-season — George Hainsworth in 1930 and Jacques Plante in 1956 — while the Rangers have shut out Montreal three times: Roach in 1932, Chuck Rayner in 1950 and John Vanbiesbrouck in 1986.

With their strong defensive games and two stellar netminders primed for this conference final, it’s quite possible that Price and/or Lundqvist will add their names to the list.

And should forever-overtime come to pass in Montreal, the streetcars yet again won’t be running when fans shuffle from the arena into the dark streets to find their way home.