NHL Playoffs: While the Canadiens Were Playing the Bruins, the Rangers Were Playing Hockey
Of course it continues on Saturday night...
The lights. The cameras. The emotion. (I bet you thought I would say the action.) But this next series – the one that pits the New York Rangers, apparently all of them collectively mourning a personal tragedy for Martin St. Louis, and good on them, against the still-buzzing Montreal Canadiens, fresh off a dynasty-shattering win over the Boston Bruins in Wednesday night's Game 7 – is all about emotion, and yet it will come down to none of it at all.
Because the Canadiens carry a lot of momentum into the Eastern Conference Final. But the Rangers? They're a locomotive, a dismissed side that has somehow dodged the credit they deserve, either because the Pittsburgh Penguins' depression hogged the spotlight or because it's really, really uncomfortable to see a team led by some of the past decade's worst closers – head coach Alain Vigneault, Rick Nash, and even Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, not including this one exception – now coming up clutch. And by clutch, really we mean, "Henrik Lundqvist. Henrik Lundvqist. HENRIK LUNDQVIST."
And Benoit Pouliot, Mats Zuccarello, and Derick Brassard. And Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. The Rangers have turned themselves into a wall, a stone that's falling down a hill, just slicing through whatever's in front of it because, after all, it's just a stone.
And the Habs are the story. But that's dangerous.
They were the story in 2010, too. After beating the East's top seed – the Washington Capitals – and it's most dynamic, offensively fuelled team – there are those Penguins again! – the Habs were promptly shown the door in five by a much quieter, certainly more resolved, and infinitely sounder Philadelphia Flyers team. The Flyers weren't supposed to do anything that year, either. But after the Habs beat Washington and Pittsburgh, it seemed to all of us like Philly was just a speed bump that needed to taste tire. Instead, the Flyers had learned a thing or two of their own on their ride to that series, disposing of the New Jersey Devils and then completing an 0-3 series comeback against the pre-champion Boston Bruins.
It didn't take Philly too long to burst Canada's bubble, to be the lights that came on after last call.
And the Habs were the story in 2007, as well – winning the East's first seed with the help of MVP hopeful Alexei Kovalev, the born-older Andrei Markov, and then-rookie Carey Price, who was a story seven years ago much like he's a story now.
For Price, it's always been about destiny. Back then, he was the modern Patrick Roy, coming in as a freshman and carrying the Canadiens through the playoffs... until the Habs met their match, again to the sobering, boring Philadelphia Flyers. And now, it's about destiny for Price again. He's Canada's golden goalie, the wronged superstar who was almost pushed out of Quebec in 2010, who was handed his starting job back and only got better from there.
How incredible would it be for Price to win an Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup in the same year? The headlines are already written, I bet. The 140-character taglines are already typed, scheduled by frothing, desperate reporters from coast-to-coast for some evening in June.
But the New York Rangers don't give a damn about destiny.
While the Canadiens were playing the Bruins, the Rangers were playing hockey.
Sure, their win over Pittsburgh was wrapped in Martin St. Louis' personal story. Sure, there's some tie-in here between Lundqvist and Price – the Swedish goalie and the Canuck goalie, going head-to-head again on the game's biggest stage, for the second time in 2014. Sure, there's something pretty bland about this Rangers team... they just sort of bobbed-and-weaved their way to a mid-range Eastern seed, never really catching your attention. Even in the playoffs – as they cut down the NHL's hottest second-half team, the Philadelphia Flyers, and then its most offensively dynamic, the Penguins – the Rangers were sort of like Woody or Buzz in Toy Story. They're talking, walking, and living their lives, but as soon as you open the door they go back to sitting on the ground in some crunched position with a stupid smile on their face. When the Penguins went up 3-1, you turned the channel and tried to be into Minnesota v. Chicago. And then, a few days later, you read somewhere that the Rangers had won. Wait, what? Really? The Rangers?
(Actually, this 'Hello My Baby' frog sketch from the Looney Tunes is probably a better metaphor...)
Of course, the Rangers ride in under cautionary flags, too. They've now been through two seven-game series – one a seesaw affair against the Flyers, sort of like a game of Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, where New York won because they picked the odd games and not the evens, and the other an against-the-ropes comeback against Crosby and Co.
How rare is it for a team to go to the Stanley Cup Finals after playing this much hockey?
Well, no team – NOT ONE – has ever gone to the Stanley Cup Finals after opening the playoffs with two seven-game series. (I only had to look back to the mid-80's, back when the first round was just a best-of-five.)
That doesn't bode well for New York, or for L.A. for that matter, if they get through Anaheim.
But this is also a new NHL, a league that re-writes its own historical limitations ever year. Before 2011, no team had ever won the Stanley Cup after winning their first-round series in Game 7 overtime. Both that year's finalists – Vancouver and Boston – did. Before 2012, no eighth-seed had ever won the Stanley Cup. But Los Angeles did.
Only twice has a team made the Stanley Cup Finals after beating the first, second, and third seeds in its conference... both teams were coached by Darryl Sutter – the Calgary Flames in 2004 and the Kings in 2012.
So, as much as this is about history, it's also about what's happening right now. The Canadiens have beaten Tampa Bay and they've beaten Boston, but now they must face reality. The New York Rangers are a different animal. They're not a beast, but they shouldn't be worried about beasts. The most lethal creatures in the world are, after all, not things like sharks or dragons or bears, but Australian snakes and mosquitoes and a freaking snail.
And besides, even if Montreal gets through New York, then they've gotta face one of Chicago, Los Angeles, or Anaheim.
All due respect to the Lightning and Bruins, but the Habs' Cup march has just begun.
*Just because this is so cool, I had to embed it...