Thinking out loud ahead of Thursday night’s Game 6 between the Canadiens and the Rangers (8 p.m. ET: (NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
• For Montreal, the chances of success begin, and end, with its blue line. In Game 5, the Habs finally looked like the team that steamrolled the Lightning and knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins. Their defense was aggressive-verging-on-risky with the puck, but it wasn’t just that P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov were leading the rush or making things happen in transition. It was the decision-making in the attack zone of all the club’s defensemen, which led to effective pinches that kept offensive chances alive, created turnovers or simply disrupted New York’s breakouts.
To get this series back to Montreal, the Canadiens will have to live on that razor’s edge again. They need to trust their D to take chances with the puck and positioning, and to provide the necessary support to back up their risks when they fail. That’s what got them here, and that’s their best chance to stay alive.
• That said, what I liked best about Montreal in Game 5 was its resiliency. It would have been easy for the Habs to fold up the tent when their 4-1 lead evaporated over the course of four minutes — especially given how soft two of those Rangers goals were. For a few moments there it seemed certain that goalie Dustin Tokarski would be the goat in an elimination loss and quickly shuttled back to the minors, never to be heard from again.
But Rene Bourque salvaged the game — and maybe Tokarski’s career — with a go-ahead goal 58 seconds after New York had equalized, gifting the rookie with a chance to redeem himself, and giving the Canadiens a chance to display their killer instinct.
That was a true gut-check stretch of hockey, and the Habs came out of it looking like a team with a renewed sense of confidence and purpose. That’s something they can build on tonight.
• Tokarski’s been valiant since stepping in for the injured Carey Price, but at some point the whole world-class-netminder-facing-unproven-minor-leaguer thing has to come into play, doesn’t it? The Rangers should be able to exploit this massive advantage…or have the Canadiens just figured out how to get to Henrik Lundqvist?
The King looked anything but regal in Game 5, allowing four goals on just 19 shots to extend his own miserable streak of fallibility in potential clinchers. In his last five such attempts (excluding Game 7s), he’s 0-5 with a 5.53 GAA and .808 save percentage. He couldn’t finish four of those games, including Tuesday night in Montreal, when he lasted just 28:58 before being replaced by Cam Talbot.
The funny thing is that Lundqvist is aces with his back against the wall. During the past three seasons, in games in which the Rangers faced elimination, he’s put up a 10-2 mark with a 1.32 GAA and a .957 save pct. He set an NHL mark in the last round by winning his fifth consecutive Game 7.
When he absolutely has to win, he’s money. When he has wiggle room, however, Lundqvist tends to lean down and help teams up off the mat.
A flaw in his mental approach? Maybe…but you’d think his pride would provide the motivation for a bounce-back effort after Tuesday’s humiliation. My money says it will on Thursday night.
• It might not matter how well Lundqvist plays if the Rangers can’t get their emotions under control. The team has struggled with discipline in each of the past two games and it has cost them. They’re not just taking penalties, they’re taking them at the worst possible moments: think Chris Kreider’s trip of P.K. Subban 22 seconds into Game 5, or John Moore’s hit on Dale Weise that essentially ended any hope New York had of coming back from a 6-4 deficit. The Canadiens are doing a nice job getting under New York’s skin. The Blueshirts have to deny them that power by taking one for the team and skating away. If New York continues to act selfishly, we’re going to Game 7.
• Price was on the ice again with the Habs at today’s practice, and for the third straight day he was in full equipment. We know he won’t play tonight, but there’s been some buzz that he might be ready for a possible Game 7 on Saturday. I’m not buying it. He took some shots from his teammates this morning, but if he’s not participating in full drills it’s hard to imagine that he’s ready to face the responsibilities of a decisive match. The best Montreal fans can hope for is that they’re playing on June 6. That extra week could do the trick.
• Weise is out tonight with an unspecified injury (specifically, a concussion if his reaction to being clocked in the head by Moore is any indication, although in his press conference today, Michel Therrien said it was a “body injury” and definitely not a concussion). That he was cleared to return to action shortly after taking the hit reinforces the idea that it’s time for the league to take responsibility out of the hands of team doctors and employ a neutral physician who can make a judgement call based on the best interests of the player, not the club. Facing four lawsuits (and counting), this would be the sort of pro-active step that would not only limit the NHL’s legal liability), but might secure the long-term health of players as well.
• Weise’s absence is a huge loss for the Canadiens. He’s been a physical force, making life miserable for Lundqvist and the Rangers’ defensemen. The Habs will have Brandon Prust back in the lineup now that he’s served out his two-game suspension. Look for him to do some of the heavy lifting that would have been Weise’s responsibility on a line with Lars Eller and Rene Bourque.
• Raphael Diaz is in for Moore on New York’s third pair. This will be his first game in the series and his first chance to stick it to the team that gave up on him earlier this season. He’s not a huge step down from Moore as a third-pairing D, and he might bring something different to a power play that has just one goal to show for its past 12 opportunities. But there’s a reason Moore was playing ahead of him. Look for the Habs to dump the puck into Diaz’s corner early and often to try to rattle him with some physical punishment.