The NHL playoffs are like a schizophrenic lover. One day, you’re welcomed home with wine and home-cooked meals, the next, the door locks have been changed.
Montreal was on a 21-year high after upsetting the Presidents’-Trophy winning Boston Bruins in the second round. Five days later, they are staring at the very real possibility of a quick exit from the Eastern Conference final.
In that span, the Canadiens have sleep-walked through a Game 1 blowout, lost goalie Carey Price to a series-ending injury, run into the Vezina version of Henrik Lundqvist and witnessed the awakening of long dormant Rangers forward Rick Nash.
The 2014 postseason has proven that two-game series leads are no safer than two-goal leads, with Los Angeles, New York, Minnesota and Chicago all having rallied from those holes to win series. But none of those teams faced life without their best player (Price) as they tackled the seemingly difficult task. And with the exception of the San Jose Sharks, none of their opponents looked as dominant through two games as New York, which is playing its best hockey of the season.
PLAY OF THE DAY
St. Louis’ snipe: The Rangers’ third goal was a passing fancy. Four players touched the puck but none of them held it for more than a split second on a crisp power play. Center Brad Richards started the play with a pass back to defenseman Ryan McDonagh from the far boards. McDonagh faked a slapshot then slid the puck to forward Derek Stepan at the near faceoff dot. Stepan’s one-touch pass found wing Martin St. Louis in the high slot and St. Louis’ one-timer beat goalie Dustin Tokarski to give New York a 3-1 lead with 11:57 to play in the second period — and all the insurance it needed.
McDonagh’s response: The echo of the cheers for Max Pacioretty’s game-opening goal hadn’t subsided in Bell Centre when McDonagh banked a shot off Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges and past Tokarski to tie the score at 1-1. Officially, the goal was scored 17 seconds after Pacioretty’s goal. That was all Lundqvist needed to close the door.
1. Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York: Lundqvist made 40 saves and about 10 of them were vying for the nightly highlights-reel package.
2. Ryan McDonagh, D, New York: A goal, an assist, six shots, two hits, 25:24 of ice time. Yep, that’s what a No. 1 defenseman looks like.
3. Derek Stepan, C, New York: Two assists, four shots and 19:10 of ice time — tops among Rangers forwards — in a strong two-way effort.
New York Rangers 3, Montreal 1
Series: New York leads, 2-0.
Key stat: New York has matched its season high with five straight wins.
Key player: Rick Nash, LW, New York. Ruh-roh, opponents, Nash is scoring again. The Rangers’ highest-paid skater has two goals in his last two games. If he can get things rolling, the Rangers become an interesting combination of lines with especially good depth coming from the center position.
What we learned: Two days off may be just what Montreal needs. The Canadiens looked flat in Game 1 and disheartened in Game 2 without their starting goalie. They can’t do anything about either of those losses, but they will have some time to regroup as the series shifts to New York for Games 3 and 4. The Canadiens need a win on Thursday or this series is over (these are not the L.A. Kings). To do that, they’re going to have to solve Lundqvist, who made 40 saves and had Montreal trying to make the perfect pass or perfect shot because he was always in position and always composed. Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban hasn’t been bad, but he doesn’t have a point in Games 1 or 2 after posting 12 in the first two series. He’s not alone, though. Montreal scored just three goals in two home games while surrendering 10. Montreal rookie goalie Tokarski didn’t allow a bad goal, so it’s hard to pin any of this on him. But New York’s ability to score 17 seconds after the Canadiens took a 1-0 lead surely took the wind out of the home team’s sails. It’s hard to tell if New York’s confidence has grown this much since rallying against Pittsburgh, but the Rangers suddenly look like a Cup-worthy team.
Next game: Game 3, Thursday at New York, 8 p.m. ET
Final thought: Price’s series-ending injury has taken the luster out of the Eastern Conference final. The easy reaction is to say the Canadiens must soldier on and find a way to rise above Rangers forward Chris Kreider’s catastrophic collision with their world-class goalie, but that statement is a mindless platitude.
You can lose a forward or a defenseman in the NHL and compensate, but teams are not built in the salary-cap age to withstand the loss of a true No. 1 goalie. Are some teams fortunate enough to have a No. 2 who can rise to the challenge? Sure, but in most cases, the drop-off — in salary and ability — is significant when you go to your backup.
So should the NHL start placing goalies in the same protective bubble the NFL places quarterbacks? There’s an argument to be made for it and it will surely be on the agenda again when the GMs convene for more meetings. While injuries and contact are part of the game, losing a starting QB or starting goalie pretty much robs a team of a realistic chance to win consistently.
The question is: How to protect goalies? Every coach in the league wants players to go hard to the net and create traffic in front of goalies to increase the likelihood of something that is already very difficult — scoring goals. If you take that away, we could go back to the dull period of dead hockey.
Some believe Kreider has a habit of running goalies, but if you look at the recent examples most often cited, you’ll notice he is taken down or pushed by a defenseman on every one of them just before he reaches the net. Did he do enough to avoid contact? Maybe not, but if he had pulled up, he would have heard about it from his coach and in the NHL, it’s much harder to pull up than it is in the NFL because players are moving much faster.
Maybe this is an area the league can focus on to take that decision out of a coach’s or player’s hands. Maybe the NHL should make it clear that players must pull up within a certain distance of the crease. Maybe they can create an arc outside the crease for such purposes.
But maybe nothing more can be done in a game that simply moves too fast. Regardless, it’s a shame that Montreal’s incredible postseason story has crashed and burned because it’s goalie got run over trying to make a save.