When the Montreal Canadiens lost goaltender Carey Price for the duration of the Eastern Conference Final in Game 1 of the series, it was almost as if they received a built-in excuse to lose to the New York Rangers.
The Canadiens lost their best player, coach Michel Therrien said the day he announced his star goaltender's absence.
How could anyone reasonably expect a team to advance to the Stanley Cup Final missing its best player?
Except when looking at Montreal's loss in six games to the Rangers and looking for ways to explain it, goaltending would not appear on the list.
Unheralded Dustin Tokarski stepped in for Price and provided everything the Canadiens could have possibly hoped for and more, posting a 2.60 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in five starts in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In 12 playoff starts, Price had a 2.35 GAA and .919 save percentage, so even though there was a drop off from his standard to Tokarski, it was nowhere near large enough to explain the Canadiens defeat.
Here are five of the real reasons the Canadiens season is finished.
1. Emotional rescue
The Canadiens entered the East Final coming off a seven-game series victory against their arch rival, the Boston Bruins, a series defined by its drama, sideshows and tension.
The rivalry was almost bigger than the stage, and the Canadiens squeezed every ounce of motivation they could out of it.
Montreal's perception that they were disrespected by the Bruins is what several Canadiens players pointed to as a big reason why they were able to erase a 3-2 series deficit by outscoring Boston 7-1 in the final two games to win it in seven.
It was a huge accomplishment. Maybe too huge.
When it came time to face the Rangers, another Original Six team but hardly a rival, the Canadiens did not come out of the gate with the same sense of purpose they displayed against the Bruins.
The Rangers weren't about to help them find that purpose prior to Game 1. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault took great care not stoke any Canadiens fires, emphasizing how much respect his team had for them and how they were the favorites in the series.
Vigneault even went so far as to say that while poring through game film in the short time between the Rangers own emotional, seven-game series win against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the start of this one, he couldn't put his finger on a single weakness on the Canadiens.
In saying that, Vigneault might have been exploiting the Canadiens biggest weakness; a need for external motivation.
Montreal got spanked in Game 1 of the series, a 7-2 Rangers win which provided the Canadiens with extra emotional push they needed when Price was injured in a collision with New York forward Chris Kreider.
The Canadiens played their best game of the series in Game 2 but lost because Henrik Lundqvist had an infinitely better game, and they were forced to go to New York trailing 2-0 in the series.
That's what ultimately cost them.
"I think the first two games were key," Canadiens center Daniel Briere said. "To get beat twice in our building to start the series was kind of the mistake we made. We didn't come out with enough hatred, I guess, right off the bat in the first two games at home."
2. Scoring stars didn't score
The Canadiens top goal-scorers in the regular season were Max Pacioretty (39), Tomas Plekanec (20), Brendan Gallagher (19), Brian Gionta (18) and David Desharnais (16). Thomas Vanek scored six goals after joining the Canadiens at the NHL Trade Deadline, but he scored 27 goals between the Canadiens, New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres in the regular season.
That makes for a total of 139 regular season goals between those six players, or 118 of the 209 goals scored by the Canadiens this season.
In the six-game series against the Rangers, those same six players combined to score four goals, with one of them going into an empty net. Rene Bourque alone matched that entire group's total in the series.
In addition to those forwards, star defenseman P.K. Subban entered the series as the top offensive threat from the blue line, but he managed one goal and one assist after scoring four goals with three assists against Boston. As it turned out, it was the Rangers who had the stud offensive defenseman in the series, with Ryan McDonagh torching the team that drafted him for 10 points in six games.
If the Canadiens were going to defeat the Rangers, they needed their stars to be stars.
3. Power outage
The Canadiens entered the series with many people giving them an edge on the Rangers on the power play, but that perception was largely based on a two-week stretch against the Bruins.
Montreal went 8-for-25 against Boston, a 32 percent success rate which accounted for 40 percent of the goals the Canadiens scored in the series.
However, prior to that series the Canadiens went 2-for-13 in a four-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round after going 18-for-136 during the second half of the regular season. Combined, that gave the Canadiens power play a success rate of 13.4 percent in 45 games played in this calendar year prior to the Bruins series.
After a brief, two-week spurt against the Bruins, the Canadiens power play against the Rangers reverted back to its struggling norm.
Montreal went 2-for-23 on the power play in the series, and there were some key moments where the Canadiens needed it to come through.
In Game 4 the Canadiens had a chance to even the series 2-2 at Madison Square Garden and they received eight power-play opportunities because the Rangers continued to be called for offensive-zone penalties. One of those power plays came 30 seconds into overtime.
Montreal connected once in those eight chances in Game 4, but one more was needed in what became a 3-2 loss.
Instead of the series being tied, the Canadiens were down 3-1.
Then in Game 6, the Canadiens entered the second intermission down 1-0, but with 1:43 left on a power play due to a Brad Richards hooking penalty late in the second. They had the entire intermission to talk about it and plan it, but that Canadiens power play went absolutely nowhere.
The first three zone-entry attempts were recovered by the Rangers and cleared out of the zone. Montreal did not so much as attempt a shot during those 103 seconds, let alone have one reach the net.
It set the tone for a third period dominated defensively by the Rangers.
"When we get stationary and we set up in set positions and don't move around, then we're easy to [penalty] kill against," Pacioretty said after the game. "Obviously we want to use our strengths, but at the same time you've got to be creative out there and show them the unexpected. When a team's expecting one thing they play to defend against that. The best power plays in the League, people end up all over, filling in for different positions for each other. It seemed like our power play was a bit too stationary."
4. Depth exposed
The Canadiens lack of depth on defense was an issue all season, and it was exposed by the Rangers in the series.
Therrien juggled between Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray and Nathan Beaulieu as his sixth defenseman throughout the playoffs, but when Alexei Emelin was injured in Game 4 Therrien was suddenly forced to dress both Bouillon and Beaulieu.
The Canadiens could not afford an injury to a defenseman because it knocked the entire group off balance. Mike Weaver had excelled in a third-pairing role with heavy minutes on the penalty kill, but when he was moved up in the lineup to replace Emelin, he was out of his element, and it showed. The pairing of Bouillon and Beaulieu was an adventure every time they jumped on the ice.
Montreal has a deep pool of prospects on defense, led by Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, two former first-round picks projected to play a top-four role on the Canadiens in the near future. Neither of those players was sufficiently prepared during the regular season for the eventuality they may have been needed in the playoffs.
When they were needed they weren't ready, through no fault of their own.
5. Gas light's on
The Rangers were the team that came off playing two seven-game series, but it was the Canadiens which looked to be out of gas in Game 6.
"We weren't on the puck, our forecheck was hesitant," Briere said. "We looked like a tired team."
The Rangers deserve a lot of the credit for making things seem like the Canadiens were tired by how much energy they showed to be first on every puck and pressuring Montreal up and down the ice. But when the Canadiens season was on the line down 1-0 in the third period, they needed to come with everything they had.
And they appeared to have nothing left.
The Canadiens generated three shots on Lundqvist in the first 18 minutes of the period and only turned it on in the final two minutes when Tokarski was pulled for an extra attacker. Next thing the Canadiens knew, streamers and confetti were littering the ice from the Madison Square Garden rafters, and their season was finished.
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