Murph’s Musings: NHL Eastern Conference Finals Musings

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Montreal Canadiens New York Rangers

May 19, 2014; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens left wing Thomas Vanek (20) misses a chance to score a goal against New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) as defenseman Dan Girardi (5) defends during the third period in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bell Centre. Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Eastern Conference Finals has switched to the Big Apple and the Rangers come home with a 2-0 series lead over the Canadiens, two wins away from their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since they broke a 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994 beating the Vancouver Canucks in a classic seven-game series. I covered the first two games of this series in Montreal for XNsports.com and TSN.ca and here’s some takeaways from Games 1 and 2 and a look ahead to Games 3 and 4:

– First off, I’ll say that I am regretting going against my original Stanley Cup champions pick as the Rangers are proving to be exactly what I thought they were: a team that came together under the radar and appears to be on a mission fueled by the tragic loss of Marty St. Louis’ mother in the second round of their playoff series with the Penguins. Watching this team from afar down the stretch run of the regular season and in the first two rounds there were three elements that appealed to me in helping me decide on the Rangers as my Stanley Cup pick:

1. Henrik Lundqvist is due for a Conn Smythe run and finally has no contract issues looming. (Check so far)

2. Speed (Check)

3. Veteran leadership (big check)

Why I decided to ignore that all three were proving me right immediately before I had the chance to see them up close? I’ll never know. Maybe it was just getting caught up in the buzz of arguably the greatest hockey city in the world and seeing the Habs complete the most dominant seven-game series win I’ve seen in a while, over the President’s Trophy winners no less. But just as many around this great hockey city and around the NHL are realizing, this Rangers team is for real. They already had the speed and then definitely veteran leadership in Lundqvist, St. Louis, Brad Richards, Rick Nash and even lesser talked about players like Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and Kevin Klein. They rallied around the sudden passing of St. Louis’ Mom and (the pesky leader has been on fire since Game 6 of the second round) and erased a 3-1 series deficit to the Pens.

Then they came in and caught an emotionally and physically (and maybe satisfied?) drained Canadiens team sleeping, and whipped them 7-2 in Game 1. They also caught a huge break for themselves and a devastating break for the Habs in Game 1 when forward Chris Kreider collided with Canadiens goalie Carey Price who as a result of what sources told Murph’s Musings was a hyper-extended knee and possibly torn ligaments in the collision. That knocked Price out for the third period of that game and the series and clearly hurt the chances of the Habs continuing their surprising playoff run.

In Game 2, the Canadiens played much better and new starter and rookie Dustin Tokarski wasn’t bad but wasn’t great either and at the other end Lundqvist remained in his zone with a 40-save gem and the Rangers won 3-1. Now with the Ducks (my Western Conference pick for the finals done) out as well, I’m really regretting picking the Habs in this series. Any chance I can go back to my Rangers for the Cup pick?

–As I said above I got caught up in the Habs hype and one has to really wonder if they did as well. Many bitter Bruins fans went to Twitter claiming that the win over the President’s Trophy winners and their arch-rivals would be Montreal’s Stanley Cup win and while that may be satisfaction enough for some diehard Habs fans, I can assure you it’s not for the players. When you get this close to the finals, you’re not ready to rest on your accolades. That especially has to be true for players like P.K. Subban and captain Brian Gionta who were on the 2010 Montreal squad that made a magical run to the conference finals but then fizzled in five games to the Flyers. Gionta of course has two Stanley Cups already so a second round series win will never be enough and Subban is a born winner so nothing but the Cup will suffice. The problem is that just as they did in 2010 when they played a Flyers team that had erased a 3-0 series deficit against the Bruins in the second round, the Habs are once again facing another team riding a huge wave of momentum after coming back against the Penguins.

–It was only natural and expected there would be some letdown from Montreal in Game 1 of this series and having a 1 p.m start didn’t help. Coach Michel Therrien pointed to this over the last two days in his press conferences and I agree with him that it played a role at least in the 7-2 thumping. My question to Therrien though had I been at those pressers would’ve been, knowing that, why weren’t they extra prepared for the almost inevitable letdown? Therrien has done an amazing job getting the Habs this far and has made some gutsy moves that paid off, but if Rangers coach Alain Vigneault could prevent his team from an emotional letdown after their huge comeback against Pittsburgh then why couldn’t Therrien do the same?

– Speaking of gutsy moves, there was plenty of chatter that the struggling Thomas Vanek may be a healthy scratch in game 3 after he was skating on the fourth line at practice Wednesday with Daniel Briere and Brandon Prust. Vanek — who has five goals — has failed to register a shot on goal three times, including Game 2 and has only scored in three out of the 13 games he’s played. He has appeared to be floating in the eyes of this scribe and it would be a bold move but the right one if Therrien sat him in Game 3. One thing is for sure, unless Vanek lights it up and helps the Habs get back into this series, his free agent value has taken a major dip and that should be of no surprise to those who’ve watched him closely over the last few years. There’s just too many no-shows from this highly skilled player.

– The Habs are likely going to let Vanek walk in free agency but there’s a player who is making them regret that the Bob Gainey management regime traded him away in 2009. Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh has torched the Habs for two goals and four assists in the first two games and once again proven that the trade that sent him, Christopher Higgins, Pavel Valentenko, and Doug Janik for Scott Gomez, Tom Pyatt, and Mike Busto is one of the worst trades in recent memory. Apologies to TSN 690 host Conor McKenna that he thought that was trolling and not pointing out one of the biggest and most obvious storylines of the series before Price got hurt.

– Another defenceman who could catch fire is Subban — who was also looking like a Conn Smythe candidate in the Bruins series. Subban fired nine shots on goal in Game 2 and was better after a miserable Game 1. You can’t keep a player of his caliber down too long and if the Habs have any chance of coming back, Subban will need to return to Conn Smythe form.

–Throughout and especially after their series with Boston, the Canadiens played the underdog and disrespect role to perfection. They rallied around the fact no one gave them a chance and utilized some not so professional antics by the Bruins (not that they were completely innocent) to motivate them to victory. They opened this series as the favorites but now with Price out and trailing 2-0 in the series, they’ve definitely become the underdogs again. Therrien let the media know that Tuesday but will Subban go on a disrespect rant again after the game day skate at MSG Thursday? it worked against Boston so why not!

–By the way I won’t be in New York for Games 3 and 4 but I will hosting the Montrealhockeytalk Pregame Show for both games live 7-8 PM ET from McLean’s Pub in downtown Montreal. So if you’re in the area come by for that and stay to watch the game at the best pub to watch a hockey at in Montreal!

James Murphy is a freelance reporter who also writes for NHL.com. He covered the Boston Bruins/NHL for last 11 seasons writing for ESPNBoston.com, ESPN.com, NHL.com, NESN.com, Insidehockey.com and Le Hockey Magazine. Murphy also currently hosts “Murphy’s Hockey Law” (Saturdays 9-11 AM ET on Sirius/XM NHL Network Radio and 4-6 PM ET on Websportsmedia.com. He is also a regular guest TSN 690 in Montreal and Sirius/XM NHL Network Radio.