The 2014 Eastern Conference Finals is what hockey is all about – an Original Six matchup between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens. It is also a rematch of the 1986 Eastern Conference Finals won by the Canadiens in five games behind rookie goaltender Patrick Roy who turned a so-so regular season into a Conn Smythe Trophy for his playoff heroics.

This series also features two teams who are looking to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in over 20 years. Montreal also carries the mantle (and burden) of being the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup (1993).

The Blueshirts/Habs playoff meeting is the 15th between the two teams, with each team winning seven. Those 15 matchups push the teams past Toronto and Boston for the fifth most frequent playoff matchup.

The last time the two clubs met in the playoffs was 1996 and the Rangers prevailed in a weird six game series. The Blueshirts dropped the first two games of the series at MSG before roaring back to win the next four – including the first ever playoff game in the Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre).

It is kind of funny how times have changed for the Rangers in terms of their ability to play on the road at Montreal.

During the last few years, it has been the Rangers who have been getting their bell rung at the Bell Centre.

Pat Leonard of the Daily News detailed just how much the Bell Centre has become a house of horrors to the Rangers:

• The Rangers have only two wins in their last 12 games in Montreal dating back to February 2008.
• In their last four games in Montreal, the team has only one goal (Ryan Callahan – 11/16/13) and just two goals (John Mitchell – 1/15/12). The last time a current Ranger scored in Montreal was one exactly one year prior to Mitchell’s goal (Mats Zuccarello provided the honors).
• Things have not been much better for Henrik Lundqvist in Montreal. Rookie netminder Cam Talbot made both starts in Montreal this year because of The King’s less-than-regal 4-5-2 record. Talbot’s 1-0 win on November 16, 2013 marked the team’s first win at the Bell Centre since March 17, 2009 – which was also Lundqvist’s last win in Montreal.

As you might expect, the series will be an emotional one for Martin St. Louis as he returns home to play for the first time since losing his mother. The team pulled together when the tragedy first hit and you can expect them to support their teammate even more now.

On May 12, Pierre McGuire spoke with WFAN’s Mike Francesa about how the team has rallied around St. Louis.

“They have become a family, right before our very eyes, if there were any guys who were maybe not on board or not prepared to do the heavy lifting to get back in the series, they have all bought in now,” McGuire said. “I really think that the galvanizing moment is how the Rangers have handled the passing of Marty St. Louis’ mother and it has brought them together as a group.”

St. Louis might be able to help his teammates through their rough time in Montreal. While he did not score in Montreal, he did help Tampa Bay to Shootout and Overtime wins in the Bell Centre. St. Louis did score in the Lightning’s one home game against the Habs – a 2-1 Shootout loss.

It is also a return for Coach Alain Vigneault as he started his NHL coaching career with Montreal. In 266 games with the Habs (1997/98-2000/01), AV compiled a 109-118-35-4 record. His replacement in Montreal was current coach Michel Therrien (in his first stint as the Canadiens coach).

While you can bet Brandon Prust and Dale Weise will be amped to play against their former teammates, the Rangers win that battle as former Habs’ first round draft pick Ryan McDonagh squares off against the team that drafted him. If the Rangers manage to win the Stanley Cup they really do owe former Montreal GM Bob Gainey a ring for not only taking Scott Gomez but for giving McDonagh to the Blueshirts.

Whether the Rangers faced the Montreal Canadiens or the Boston Bruins, the road to the Stanley Cup Finals was not going to be a cakewalk. It was just going to be a matter of picking your poison.

The Bruins represented a battle-tested playoff team that has experienced what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. Led by the likes of Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic, the Rangers would have been facing an intense physical battle – kind of like what they expected from the Philadelphia Flyers.

While the Canadiens will never be mistaken for Herb Brooks’ smurfs of the 1980s, the Habs rely on their skating and finesse to win games. Montreal is a team that has been able to score goals at even strength (2nd only to the Rangers) and on the power play (4th best) in the playoffs – kind of like what they expected from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The one thing the Rangers had going for them in the first two rounds might not be such a big advantage for them in this series. For the first time in the playoffs, Lundqvist is not head-and-shoulders the better goaltender. Some might say that Montreal’s Carey Price has that advantage – and based on his play against the Blueshirts – they might be right.

In his last five games against the Rangers, Price has posted a 4-1 record and has allowed only two goals in those five games.

As we look ahead to the keys to this series, we need to remember that there are two building blocks that are essential to the Rangers foundation to building a winning playoff strategy. The fact that they are also the two most inconsistent parts of their game goes to show how reliant the Blueshirts have been on Lundqvist being the best goalie in the series – something that is not written in stone against the Habs.

The Rangers special teams must step up their play from the first two rounds. While the power play and penalty kill improved against the Penguins, the team can’t get by with the ninth best power play and the 13th best penalty kill.

Discipline is a big part of the Rangers special team improvement. The team’s discipline with the man advantage means taking the good shot and not passing the puck in an attempt for the great shot. It means being disciplined enough to remember to get traffic at the front of the net.

As far as penalty killing goes, the best strategy is just to stay out of the penalty box. If you thought you saw some strange calls in the previous two series – you ain’t seen anything yet. Whether it is fan paranoia, excuse-making or partial truth, the perception is that the Canadian teams (especially those in Montreal and Toronto) tend to get the benefit of the doubt in terms of calls. Not only should we not expect that perception to change, we should expect the cynicism to grow as our northern brethren hold their collective breaths in anticipation of Montreal bringing the Stanley Cup back home to Canada.

The second recurring key is that the Rangers best players need to be their best players. At this point, the main target of this point is Rick Nash. While he is doing all the little things you need him to do, he is not doing the main thing you need him to – score goals. With Montreal being more of a finesse team, you would expect/hope that Nash can finally break out offensively.

Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers possible path to victory coming down to these keys.

1. The Matchups – It will be interesting to see which line Therrien uses his top defense pairing of P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges against? If he doesn’t use that pairing against Nash-Derek Stepan-Chris Kreider, he might use the Andrei Markov and Alexi Emelin pairing. I would guess that AV would want to keep Nash’s line away from the top pair – which will be difficult at the Bell Centre when the Habs have the last change.

2. Break The Streaks – There are lots of streaks that the Rangers need to break if they want to get to the Stanley Cup Finals. First and foremost, Lundqvist has to be Le Roi in this series – especially in the Bell Centre. In his last four starts in Montreal, Lundqvist is 0-3-1 with a 6.99 GAA and a .862 SV%.

Lundqvist is not the only player who needs to break the Bell Centre jinx. Prior to their 1-0 win in November, the Rangers had lost their last eight games in Montreal by a combined 30-7 score.

The time has come for Nash to break out of his playoff scoring slump and show why the Rangers invested so heavily in him. The Habs are not that physical a team (as compared to the Flyers or Bruins) so he should be able to be effective driving to the net.

The most important streak that needs to come to an end is the 0-13 record when the Rangers have a lead in a playoff series. Until the Blueshirts manage to exorcise that stat they are eternally doomed to play seven game series – and no team has ever won the Stanley Cup after playing 28 playoff games.

3. Strike First – This key has a double connotation to it. As we saw throughout the Second Round, the first goal of the game was golden – and it should be no different in this series. With the Bell Centre packing in nearly 22,000 screaming rabid Canadiens fans, the Rangers would be very wise to score early (and often) and try to keep the crowd out of the game. The more the crowd is in the game, the more the Habs will feed off that, and the more the officials will feed off that as well. If you don’t think that plays a part in a game in Montreal, well, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.

The second part of striking first is getting a victory in Game 1, or at the very least in Game 2. The Rangers want to be able to take away home-ice advantage as soon as possible. Besides, if the Rangers can get Game 1 then they are set up to end the 0-13 streak early in the series, rather than later.

4. Forecheck – With the way Price and the Habs defense has stifled the Rangers offense, the Blueshirts are going to need to find ways to score. Obviously, a semi-potent power play would work wonders. Another way to generate offense is to pin Montreal in their own zone. The Rangers showed flashes of brilliant forechecking against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and they will need to step up the ante in this series.

An aggressive and successful forecheck will not only lead to turnovers, but it will help to neutralize the Canadiens speed by controlling the tempo of the game and forcing Montreal to defend rather than attack.

5. Traffic – This key another one of those two-parters. If the Rangers have learned anything from their matchups against the Flyers and Penguins it is that their offense is much better, and more effective, when they are driving to the net and screening goaltenders. Price is so zoned into his game that his Olympic Gold could be followed up with Lord Stanley’s hardware. The Rangers have to be as aggressive getting in Price’s grill as opponents are in getting bodies in front of Lundqvist.

The second part of the traffic key is that the Rangers need to be able to clamp down on the neutral zone. They can’t afford to let the Canadiens control the neutral zone because the speed they generate there will translate into scoring opportunities. When the Rangers were on their game defensively against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, neither team had any time or space in the neutral zone.

The Canadiens are a team that looks to hit the long breakout passes for breakaways. As a result, the solid forecheck and the ability to choke off the neutral zone are essential.

When all is said and done, there is one thing that I can predict for a fact: the team that wins this series and advances to the Stanley Cup Finals will wear red, white, and blue.

Okay, you all probably think I am a wise-ass because both teams wear those colors. But if you noticed, I wrote red, white and blue, not rouge, blanc, et bleu.

In the end, I see the Rangers doing what they do best – winning a seven-game playoff series. I have seen some writers say that such a series will tire out the Rangers who have played 14 games as compared to just 11 for the Canadiens. However, it is Montreal that is coming off a seven-game war against the Bruins.

The Rangers are the more battle-tested playoff team and they have actually been able to get some rest. While the NHL has not officially released the schedule, it is nowhere near as hectic as the previous series. With Game 2 set for Monday (5/19), Games 3 and 4 would take place at the Garden on Thursday (5/22) and either Saturday (5/24) or Sunday (5/25). The only problem is that you can bet MSG will be overrun with Habs fans who will be able to get tickets on the secondary market. I don’t think the Rangers will be able to block Montreal fans the way the Seattle Seahawks blocked San Francisco 49ers fans from getting tickets to the NFC Championships.

While the Canadiens did sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning and outlasted the Big Bad Bruins, Montreal is still a team that Brian Costello of The Hockey News called a “… pint-sized, icing a roster with a league-high nine forwards and four defensemen who stand 6-foot or smaller. The Habs are at the bottom of the NHL weight scale as well with just one regular (Alexei Emelin) weighing 220 pounds or more.”

In my opinion, it will be Montreal that wears down by the end of this series, not the Rangers.

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