The Eastern Conference Finals got off to a shocking start Saturday as the New York Rangers invaded the Bell Centre and pummeled the Montreal Canadiens 7-2 in Game 1 to take a 1-0 series lead.
Both the Rangers and Habs entered the series coming off emotional upsets of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins respectively. Most expected this to be a hard-fought battle between Original Six rivals, but only one team came to play on Saturday.
The Rangers set the tone for the series and got plenty of production throughout the lineup, according to NHL on NBC:
Montreal appeared to be on the verge of making the game interesting on a few occasions, but it was all New York in the end.
The game got off to an inauspicious start for the Rangers as red-hot forward Derick Brassard was rocked by defenseman Mike Weaver and forced to leave the game in the opening minutes, according to Sean Hartnett of WFAN:
Rather than allowing that potentially bad omen to adversely impact their play, however, the Blueshirts went to work and put the pressure on Montreal.
It took New York less than five minutes to get on the board. Not surprisingly, it was playoff veteran and spiritual leader Martin St. Louis who beat Canadiens goalie Carey Price, according to the NHL's official Twitter account:
Although St. Louis provided the finish, unheralded forward Dominic Moore deserves a great deal of credit for the goal as he delivered a pinpoint pass, per Arpon Basu of NHL.com:
St. Louis has been playing with a heavy heart since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals after his mother unexpectedly passed away.
The diminutive star has excelled in spite of that, and it continued Saturday. His mother's funeral was originally scheduled for Saturday, but it was moved to Sunday, which will allow St. Louis and all of his teammates to attend.
St. Louis hasn't been with the Rangers very long as he was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline, but he has clearly endeared himself to the rest of the locker room. According to Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News, forward Mats Zuccarello and the rest of the team intend to be behind St. Louis in his time of need.
"We want to be there for Marty," Zuccarello said. "He's been tough. He's been here for the team through these tough times, and I think that's something everyone wants to do is be there for Marty and his family. He's our family, too. He's our teammate. It's a no-brainer, for sure."
Having that type of support has to make St. Louis feel a bit better in the midst of a terrible situation, and one can only assume that it inspires him to perform on the ice even more so than usual.
St. Louis' opening goal clearly gave the Rangers a ton of confidence, and it continued throughout the period.
Moore's surprising heroics created the first goal, but he was a key figure in the second as well. Two minutes after the Rangers opened the scoring, Moore set up another New York marker with a spectacular find from behind the net.
As pointed out by ESPN's Ryan Ruocco, Moore mystified the Habs with his distribution in close quarters:
It was Zuccarello who took advantage of Moore's pass and scored the goal on what was a special day for the Norwegian national for more reasons than one:
After watching his team get off to a nightmarish start on home ice, Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien called a timeout in hopes that his players would calm down and settle in.
Pressing the reset button seemed to work in the Canadiens' favor initially as they started to generate some pressure in the New York zone soon after. That momentum shift didn't last long, though, because Montreal started to take penalties.
Forward Rene Bourque took hooking penalties twice in the latter stages of the first period. The Rangers didn't score, but they came close on a couple of occasions and, more importantly, prevented Montreal from creating chances of their own.
The Habs came out so flat that Tom Gulitti of The Record suggested that they were still dwelling on their upset of the Boston Bruins in the previous round:
As if things weren't already going badly enough for the Canadiens, they experienced a major scare three minutes into the second period. Rangers forward Chris Kreider flew toward Price on a partial breakaway, but he ended up crashing into the Montreal goaltender.
Price smacked his knee on the post and seemed to be favoring it, but he was ultimately able to shake it off and stay in the game, according to Chris Johnston of Rogers Sportsnet:
Lost in the commotion was the fact that Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin slashed Kreider in the leg, which is what caused him to lose his balance. It wasn't detected by the officials, but Kreider deserved a penalty shot by all rights.
Montreal essentially dodged two bullets simultaneously with Price staying in the game and no infraction being called on Emelin.
After that incident, the ice appeared to tilt in the Canadiens' favor. They clearly started to carry the play and came close to cutting the deficit in half on a number of occasions. Rangers all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was up to the task, but an eventual Montreal goal was inevitable.
It look a bit of puck luck on Montreal's behalf to finally solve King Henrik as Bourque scored from pointblank range off a pass from forward Brian Gionta, per Dan Rosen of NHL.com:
The shot was partially blocked, which caused it to elevate and flutter over Lundqvist's shoulder in bizarre fashion. It wasn't a pretty goal by any means, but it most definitely energized the Montreal faithful in the Bell Centre.
Unfortunately for the Habs, that was short lived. With just one minute remaining in the period, Kreider got retribution for the previously uncalled penalty shot as he blasted past the Montreal defense as if shot out of a cannon and craftily beat Price to make it 3-1.
As pointed out by Charlie Gillis of Maclean's, Kreider managed to make one of the NHL's best skaters in Canadiens blueliner P.K. Subban look silly:
Recouping the two-goal lead would have been enough to give the Rangers a ton of momentum entering the break, but they weren't done there.
The Rangers scored again with just 11.6 seconds remaining as leading scorer Brad Richards continued his playoff renaissance. Price was out of position on the play, which allowed Richards to score from a tough angle, according to ESPN's Katie Strang:
Not only did the late two-goal outburst put the Rangers in an ideal position to close out the game in the third, but it was also evidence that they may have exorcised their Bell Centre demons.
According to Leonard, the Rangers were averaging a mere half goal per game at the venue in their previous eight road contests against the Canadiens:
The third period started with backup Peter Budaj in between the pipes for the Habs rather than Price. It was a curious move since a three-goal deficit isn't insurmountable by any means, but Gulitti speculated that it could have had something to do with the collision he was involved with earlier:
Any illusions of a potential Montreal comeback were squashed early in the third when Subban took a high sticking penalty 50 seconds in and Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh blasted a howitzer past Budaj to make it 5-1.
That goal officially put the Canadiens away and things unraveled in a significant way after that. Habs forward Max Pacioretty was whistled for roughing and Brandon Prust was then called for a double minor as well as a 10-minute misconduct 30 seconds later for various shenanigans.
It was an embarrassing display from Prust as he slashed Kreider on numerous occasions, but the officials would have none of it. New York made Prust and the Canadiens pay as they quickly lit the lamp twice more.
Forward Derek Stepan finished a nifty passing display on a 5-on-3 power play to extend the lead to 6-1, which led to a mass exodus from Bell Centre, per Steve Zipay of New York Newsday:
The ensuing goal wasn't important within the fabric of the game as it made the score 7-1, but it could prove to be huge for the Rangers moving forward.
Despite leading the playoffs in shots, winger Rick Nash hadn't scored through two rounds of the postseason. He finally was able to lift a huge burden off his shoulders by finding the back of the net, which could potentially set him up for a big series against the Habs.
Canadiens forward Lars Eller scored a meaningless goal to make it 7-2, but the rising shot beat Lundqvist top shelf and was one of the prettiest goals you'll ever see, according to Bleacher Report's Dave Lozo:
This was essentially a perfect game from the Rangers' perspective, so there isn't much that head coach Alain Vigneault has to work on ahead of Game 2. NHL coaches never rest on their laurels, but if his team continues to put forth this type of effort, it will be a very short series.
One concern could be the health of Brassard, though, as he never returned to the game after leaving early. It didn't matter for New York in Game 1, but it could be a factor moving forward.
Winning in Montreal right off the bat was huge for the Rangers as well since the Bell Centre has been a house of horrors for them recently. It was assumed that home-ice advantage would be huge for the Canadiens in this series, but New York made it clear that it means nothing.
Montreal played a terrible game overall and a lot of that stemmed from a lack of discipline. The Canadiens basically gave up when the Rangers went up 5-1, and Therrien has to make sure that they don't make a habit of taking terrible penalties.
This is the type of game a team has to forget about and move on from, so it isn't likely that Therrien will dwell on it too much.
Montreal has proven capable of rising to the occasion and playing great with its back against the wall in these playoffs, and the Habs will have to do that once again in order to prevent the Rangers from seizing a commanding 2-0 lead.
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