Located in the outdoor concourse at the northwest corner of the Bell Centre, the Centennial Plaza is dominated by life-size bronze statues of four Habs immortals -- Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur.
More than 20,000 paving stones carpet the area, each purchased by a fan and inscribed with a personalized message of support or remembrance. Plaques for each of the team's 24 Stanley Cup conquests as well as for the 15 players who have had their numbers retired have also been installed.
Hours later, before the 593rd regular-season matchup between the Rangers and Canadiens, the Habs celebrated the shared history that began Nov. 27, 1926 with the Habs blanking the Rangers, 2-0 at the Forum.
The longest game between the teams came early in their competitive relationship, on March 28, 1930. Fans who came expecting 60 minutes of hockey got more than twice what they bargained for as the teams, tied at a goal each after the third period, battled through another 68 minutes of overtime before forward Gus Rivers scored Montreal's second goal of the night.
Richard, the Montreal legend that went on to score 544 goals, scored his first NHL goal against the Rangers on Nov. 8, 1942 at the Forum, and Andy Bathgate helped make the goalie mask an everyday piece of equipment after opening Jacques Plante's face with his powerful shot on Nov. 1, 1959.
In 1971-72 Vic Hadfield became the first Ranger to reach the 50-goal plateau, the decisive marker coming at the expense of Montreal netminder Denis Dejordy.
As recently as last season, the Canadiens recorded the biggest come-from-behind victory in almost a century of team history. Spotting the Rangers a 5-0 lead, they scored five of their own to send the game into a scoreless overtime with Saku Koivu scoring the eventual winner in the shootout that followed.
"I think a lot of people both in New York and Montreal used to like watching the Rangers and Canadiens because we were both offensive teams and there was always a lot of action." -- Harry HowellThursday night, stars from both Rangers and Canadiens rosters of the past were introduced to the capacity crowd before the national anthems were played. Bobby Rousseau, who wore both sweaters in his NHL career, was the first to walk out onto the carpet, followed by Ron Greschner and Lafleur, the second man present who played for both teams.
Harry Howell, Dickie Moore, Brad Park, Rejean Houle, Rod Gilbert, Serge Savard, Andy Bathgate and Henri Richard also filed onto the ice, all 11 men wearing the sweaters with which they were most closely identified in their long NHL careers.
The former players accounted for 11,358 regular-season games, 2,932 goals, and 5,543 assists. They hold a collective 40 Stanley Cup titles, all but one in a Habs uniform. (Bathgate won with Toronto in 1964). Six of them captained their team and all but Rousseau, Greschner and Houle have been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Admitted to the Hall of Fame in1979, Howell broke in with the 1952-53 Rangers and spent the first 17 seasons of his 21-year NHL playing career patrolling the blue line for New York. He still hasn't forgotten his first game against Montreal.
"It wasn't an easy game. I remember that. I don't remember the outcome though," he said. "They were pretty good in those days, in the early '50s."
Asked if things got any easier as he became more familiar with the Habs, the 1967 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's outstanding defenseman laughed.
"Never," he said. "Oh, no. They had a great bunch of players. They all wanted to win and they always had a crowd behind them like they did tonight."
Montreal and New York have met 14 times in the postseason with each team coming away the victor in seven series and Montreal capturing the only Stanley Cup Final between the teams in 1979.
Playing in the postseason was a tough row to hoe for the often-homeless Rangers.
"We always had to play the playoffs on the road because the circus came in every spring. In those days we'd play the first two games at home and then we'd come to Montreal for the rest of the series," said Howell, who went on to mention the similarity between the teams.
"I think a lot of people both in New York and Montreal used to like watching the Rangers and Canadiens because we were both offensive teams and there was always a lot of action."
Action came early and often in Thursday night's game with the Canadiens getting off to an early lead and extending it for a 6-2 victory, the 314th time things have worked out in Montreal's favor when playing the Rangers.