The New York Rangers look to earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals Tuesday night when they visit the Bell Centre to take on the Montreal Canadiens in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Rangers will be looking to stamp its ticket to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994 (you may have heard it was kind of a big deal) and become the first team to win a playoff round after playing the maximum 14 games in its first two rounds.
The Rangers figure to be riding high after its dramatic overtime victory Sunday night. The Rangers survived a huge scare in overtime after Benoit Pouliot took his 48th (approximately) offensive zone penalty of the playoffs. The Rangers’ penalty kill was superb again and soon thereafter Martin St. Louis found the puck deep in the offensive zone before burying a shot over the glove of Canadien goalie Dustin Tokarski (no confirmation that St. Louis requested a trade after being denied “The Broadway Hat” by his teammates).
Despite the 3-1 series lead, the Rangers know closing out the Canadiens won’t be easy having just been in the same position against Pittsburgh last series. The Canadiens will be playing before a raucous Bell Centre crowd and won’t want the last image its fans see Tuesday to be a handshake line. The Rangers will have to weather the early storm from Montreal as they look to keep the home town fans in a frenzy early and force a game six.
If the Eastern Conference Finals does end Tuesday, it probably won’t be because of Tokarski. The rookie goalie has played admirably in place of Carey Price and hasn’t blinked with Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist across the ice from him. Tokarski has made a number of highlight reel saves in his stint so far and has given his squad a chance to win each night. For a rookie playing in his first playoff action, that’s all the Canadiens can really ask for even though they’ve had horrific breakdowns in front of him.
However, the Canadien fans will have their share of scapegoats if they can’t pull off the comeback. Thomas Vanek, acquired at the trade deadline to provide offensive punch, has been invisible for much of the series (and Pierre McGuire makes sure to tell you about it every chance he gets). PK Subban, while breath-taking with the puck, has had an inconsistent series and only has one point through the first four games and has quarterbacked a power play that is 1-17 in the series.
While Canadien fans may be looking for blood after the game, Ranger fans must be pleasantly surprised with a number of its role players. Carl Hagelin looked like a man possessed in game four and Brian Boyle has played the part of a fourth-line, penalty killer and faceoff specialist to perfection and should be rewarded with a fat new contract this summer. Expect both men to continue their strong play in Montreal.
In addition to the high tempo pace on the ice, the series has had its share of off-ice drama. Whether it’s the Canadiens sniping at Chris Kreider for injuring Price, or Ranger players telling Brandon Prust that he’s not invited to their Fourth of July barbeque, to coaches Michel Therrien and Alain Vigneault arguing about gentlemen’s agreements and baguettes, the fans and media have had plenty to chew on between games. As hockey fans we can only hope this Eastern Conference Finals continues just to see what media firestorm happens next.
Before the Eastern Conference Finals began, I thought the Lundqivst was playing the best hockey of his career and would lead the Rangers to a series victory in six games. I am still confident with that prediction, and think the Canadiens put on one final victorious display before the home fans Tuesday night before falling in game six.
UPDATE: Injured Ranger centerman Derek Stepan who suffered a fractured jaw in game 3 from Brandon Prust is participating in line rushes in practice and appears ready to play tonight.