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Mishkin’s Musings: Eastern Conference Final preview and prediction

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Atlantic #3 Montreal Canadiens vs. Metropolitan #2 New York Rangers: There’s one thing we know about this series: we can’t have two “teams of destiny” in a single year.  Only one of them will advance to the Stanley Cup Final.  Still, it’s been a great ride for both of them so far.  Before the playoffs began, not too many pundits would have predicted a Montreal-New York Conferene Final – here’s a quick review of what transpired for these clubs in the second round.

I really believed the Boston Bruins would defeat the Canadiens in the second round.  How did the Habs beat the club that won the President’s Trophy?  As they showed against the Lightning in the first round, the Canadiens are playing their best hockey of the season right now.  They continued to play a very solid, structured game.  As I wrote in the preview of the Boston-Montreal series, though, I felt that wouldn’t matter.  I thought that even if the Habs were as sharp as they were in the first round, the Bruins would still win.  There were several reasons why that didn’t occur.

1. The Canadiens “won” the goalie matchup.  Boston goalie Tuukka Rask didn’t cost the Bruins the series – he even had a shutout in Game Four – but Carey Price was better.  Better both in terms of the number of saves and the quality of those saves.  He was the difference in Montreal’s Game One double overtime victory and, one can reasonably argue, he was a big factor in the Habs’ Game Seven triumph.  Price is good enough to steal a series – and while he didn’t have to single-handedly steal this one – his play was a big factor in Montreal’s upset.  The Bruins will look back with regret at the number of wonderful scoring chances that Price kept out of the net.

2. The Habs defended well.  There were stretches in games when the Bruins totally dominated puck possession and zone time.  But rarely did those sequences lead to goals.  Carey Price had quite a bit to do with it, but so did Montreal’s team defense.  The Bruins would continually win puck battles and maintain possession in the offensive zone, but the Habs often prevented pucks from getting to dangerous areas.  That helped them withstand those Boston surges.

3. Montreal used its speed and capitalized on turnovers very effectively.  The Lightning saw this part of Montreal’s game frequently in the first round.  The Habs will look to force turnovers in the neutral zone (or defensive zone) and counter quickly with speed.  On more than one occasion in the series, the Bruins would be controlling play for multiple shifts, but come up empty-handed.  Then in a flash, the Habs would steal the puck, counter with speed, and score.  Those goals were often timely – and very deflating to Boston.

4. Montreal rarely trailed.  Game Five, a 4-2 Boston win, was the only game in which the Bruins played with the lead for an extended amount of time.  They rallied late to win Game Two and captured Game Four with a 1-0 OT triumph.  As was the case in Montreal’s first round victory over the Lightning, the Habs spent much of the series either tied or playing with the lead.

5. The Hockey Gods were smiling on the Habs. I lost track of how many posts and crossbars the Bruins hit.  Was it more than 10?  On the other hand, the Habs benefitted from a couple of fluky bounces to score twice in Game Six.  The “nail in the coffin” goal in Game Seven deflected into the Boston net off Zdeno Chara.  Just about everything that could go right for Montreal did.  Just about everything that could go wrong for the Bruins did.  That’s not meant to diminish Montreal’s accomplishment.  Puck luck is a part of the game.  Teams that win the Stanley Cup usually need quite a bit of it during their postseason run.  It’s a big reason why the Habs might be thinking that this is their year.

In a number of ways, the Rangers’ victory over Pittsburgh mirrored the Montreal win over Boston.  One significant difference, though, was the story arc of the series.  While both New York and Montreal earned a split in the first two road games, the Rangers then lost Games Three and Four at home – and looked flat doing so.  Unlike Montreal, the Rangers had one signature victory that changed the dynamic of the series.  Their performance in Game Five was their best of the seven and helped springboard them to wins in Games Six and Seven.  But, as I wrote above, there were also similarities between the two series victories. 

1. Goaltending. Just as Price outplayed Rask, Henrik Lundqvist was better than Marc-Andre Fleury.  In previewing the series, in which I picked the Rangers (six games), I felt Fleury’s first round struggles would continue.  Fleury, though, played pretty well in the second round.  He allowed only 14 goals in the seven games and posted back-to-back shutouts in Games Two and Three.  Lundqvist, however, was better than good.  He was outstanding, especially in Games Six and Seven.  In those two elimination games, the New York netminder stopped 71 of 73 shots.

2. The Rangers got big plays when they needed them. Similar to Montreal, the Rangers got a big play when they needed one.  In Game One, they blew a 2-0 lead, but scored the winner in overtime.  In Game Five, again they jumped out to a 2-0 first period advantage.  Then, after yielding an early second period goal to Evgeni Malkin, the Rangers pushed back with two more goals within a minute to break the game open.  And in Game Seven, less than four minutes after the Pens had tied the score at 1 in the second, Brad Richards tallied the eventual game-winner during a New York power play.

3. They held Pittsburgh’s best players in check. Pittsburgh scored 14 goals in the series. Jussi Jokinen had four of them.  Malkin scored three.  But Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz contributed only one each.  So did James Neal and Kris Letang.  Questions were raised about the state of Crosby’s health, but regardless, the Rangers did a fine job of not letting Pittsburgh’s dangerous offensive weapons run away with the series.

4. The Rangers rallied around Marty St. Louis. As has been well-documented, Marty St. Louis lost his mom during the series.  My condolences to Marty and his family.  It’s unclear how much of an effect that had on the Rangers team.  But it certainly had some effect.   Marty received the terrible news once the team landed in Pittsburgh before Game Five.  After flying home to be with his family, he returned to Pittsburgh the next day and played in Game Five.  As I wrote, it was New York’s best game in the series.  Marty then scored the first goal in Game Six, which took place on Mother’s Day.  In rallying around Marty, the Rangers played spirited hockey in the final three contests and seemed to come together even more as a team.

So which team is more “destined”?  Both have excellent goalies performing at a high level.  Both are finding ways to win close games.  Both struggled in the first round with their power play, but turned it around in the second round.  They both posted a Game Seven win on the road.  Still, only one team is going to the Final, so I’ve got to make a choice. 

I’m picking the Canadiens and here’s why.  Simply put, Montreal has been more consistent than New York so far through the postseason.  The Rangers have endured some clunkers in both rounds so far.  The same cannot be said for the Habs.  I think that trend will continue in the Eastern Conference Final.  Prediction: Montreal in Six.

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