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Rangers, Canadiens try to win battle of mind games

by Arpon Basu

NEW YORK -- They began the moment this Eastern Conference Final between the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers was set and continue unabated leading into Game 4 of the series Sunday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

Ramsay: Teams sending messages

For additional insight into the Stanley Cup Playoff series between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, has enlisted the help of former NHL coach Craig Ramsay to break down the action. Ramsay will be checking in throughout the series.

Ramsay played in more than 1,000 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres before going on to coach the Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers. In the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he led the Flyers to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final. Ramsay most recently was an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers.

Two games in six days have afforded the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens ample time to engage in the art of mind games while they wait for the Eastern Conference Final to resume.

The Canadiens and Rangers, particularly coaches Michel Therrien and Alain Vigneault, have used the media to deliver messages to each other, the referees and the NHL about players, tactics, hits, injuries and really whatever else they felt like talking about regardless of the question they were asked.

Longtime NHL coach and player Craig Ramsay wasn't surprised to hear that the coaches were using the media as their conduit when he was informed about the background noise in the series on Saturday.

Ramsay said this type of message sending and these mind games typically have a purpose that extends beyond simply attempting to air some grievances in the press.

He said they have everything to do with the competition, and trying to gain an advantage in the next game, which for the Rangers and Canadiens is Game 4 on Sunday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

The Rangers lead the best-of-7 series 2-1.

"There's no question you'll say things that perhaps you don't really believe in, but it's a good way to send a message that you've been wronged and hope that that one call in the next game doesn't happen against you and maybe happens for you," Ramsay told "That one power play one way or another can make a difference."

The Rangers didn't get that one power play they felt they deserved in Game 3 after Montreal forward Brandon Prust connected with a late and high hit on Rangers center Derek Stepan at 2:45 of the first period.

Prust was not penalized by the on-ice officials, but on Friday he received a two-game suspension for interference from the NHL's Department of Player Safety.

Vigneault has used the media since the end of Game 3 to talk about Prust, the lateness of the hit, how he thinks all four officials missed an obvious penalty, and the fallout that features a broken jaw for Stepan and a 10-game suspension for Daniel Carcillo.

"Here is an opportunity with a coach where you can legitimate bring it up as a point in a press conference and now you're getting something out to the League and to the referees that, 'Hey, we've been good and look what they did to us, a late hit on an unsuspecting player,' " Ramsay said. "You're trying to send a message to the League to watch out for it, but also to Montreal to watch out. They want the referees to feel like maybe they owe them one."

Therrien might have had similar intentions between the first two games of the series, when his feelings on Chris Kreider falling into goalie Carey Price at 3:15 of the second period in Game 1 changed.

Therrien called Kreider's play on Price "accidental, honestly" in his press conference after Game 1. He escalated his description to "reckless" seconds after announcing Price won't play for the remainder of the series during his press conference before Game 2.

"We've grown with our media coverage and our media presence has gotten so much bigger, especially at this time of year, so these coaches are using it as a tool," Ramsay said. "They're trying to send messages to people. They're trying to show their players they're backing them up."

That was evident again Saturday, when Vigneault refused to rule Stepan out of Game 4 despite the fact that he was still in the hospital recovering from surgery to repair the fracture in his jaw.

Vigneault only said it would be "unlikely" for Stepan to play Sunday.

He also talked about how if Prust's hit resulted in a penalty on the ice then the incident that followed, with Carcillo having a physical altercation with linesman Steve Driscoll, the result of which was a game misconduct and 10-game suspension, would not have happened.

Montreal center Daniel Briere called Vigneault's comments "fishy," and then said he thought Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh is getting away with a lot of slashing.

More mind games. More message sending.

"In all honesty, I think it's kind of fun, and I always did," Ramsay said of the mind games. "I thought it was fun as a player and as a coach it's kind of interesting. This coach saying we're changing this, changing that, and you know the reality is they're probably not doing much of anything. I think it's great fun."

Therrien didn't think it was fun to see some Rangers assistant coaches in the stands as the Canadiens started their practice Sunday at the Garden.

He had to eventually tell them to leave, in front of the media no less. In his press conference after practice, he cited "an agreement between the teams and the managers that the coaches aren't allowed to watch practice between games."

Ramsay, again, didn't seem at all surprised when he was told about the incident.

More mind games. More attempts to gain an advantage.

"You've got these two good teams playing well and they're trying to find some edge," Ramsay said. "There is a lot of message sending. It's been thought out, talked over. Sometimes in the heat of passion after a game you say something you don't mean, but these coaches are smart guys, especially these two guys, and if they're saying something it's got a purpose."

-- Dan Rosen

The Rangers might lead the best-of-7 series 2-1, but the count on mind games won by either team is not quite as clear.

And it seems nearly as important.

As the Canadiens and Rangers each took to the ice for practice Saturday, what was said in the dressing rooms and on the podium was of far greater interest.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was up first, and he did not disappoint.

Vigneault refused to rule out center Derek Stepan playing in Game 4, even though Stepan underwent surgery on his broken jaw a day earlier and was still in a hospital as Vigneault was speaking.

"I would say unlikely," is as far as Vigneault would go when discussing Stepan's status.

The Canadiens took it a step farther, with several players considering it a given that Stepan will play and one even questioning whether he actually broke his jaw.

Stepan sustained the injury early in the first period of Game 3 when he was hit late by Canadiens forward and former teammate Brandon Prust, which cost Prust a two-game suspension. Stepan left the game briefly but returned, only to have Vigneault announce the next day that he had a broken jaw and was going to have surgery.

Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher was asked Saturday if he would be surprised if Stepan played in Game 4.

"No," he replied. "He got up and he was yapping and yelling. So I'm sure the jaw isn't hurting too much."

Vigneault also took advantage of an opportunity for a second day in a row to note how no penalty was called on the Prust hit and how the Rangers should have had a five-minute power play instead of a later incident where Rangers forward Dan Carcillo wound up being penalized and eventually suspended for abuse of an official, a suspension he has decided to appeal.

The validity of that point as well was questioned by the Canadiens.

"I think it seems a little fishy to me, it seems like a little bit of a game," center Danny Briere said. "All the complaints about starting the game where they should have been on a five-minute power play and it would have changed the game and all that stuff.

"The refs are trying to do their best, but [Vigneault] should look at his own team: [the Rangers] got away with a lot of stuff too. Ryan McDonagh's a great defenseman, but I haven't seen anyone slash as much as he has since Chris Pronger.

"It goes both ways, and it's part of the game and it happens. But I think it's all about trying to position himself towards the referee."

The fun did not stop there.

During Canadiens practice, coach Michel Therrien noticed that Rangers assistant Ulf Samuelsson and video coach Jerry Dineen were watching his team practice. First he sent his assistant coach Jean-Jacques Daigneault, who used to coach in the Rangers organization with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League, to ask them to leave.

When they didn't, Therrien went himself and vocally asked the men to leave, which they eventually did.

"There's an agreement between the teams and the managers that the coaches aren't allowed to watch practice between games," Therrien explained. "It's out of respect for the coaches who want to make adjustments. It's always been the case. When we saw the assistant coaches watching our practice, Jean-Jacques Daigneault went to tell them and they didn't seem to understand. The second time I went, and they didn't seem to understand. The third time around, you had to send your message.

"It's a gentleman's agreement that teams usually respect."

If indeed that "gentleman's agreement" was reached by Rangers general manager Glen Sather and Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, the Rangers' coaches were not the only ones not respecting it: Sather was in the stands watching practice as well.

"Yeah I saw it," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. "It's part of the thing when you come into a series, when teams talk, you discuss things like that."

As if that wasn't enough, Therrien took it a step further during his own session with the media when he took to the podium.

Therrien was asked if he expected to see Stepan in the lineup, and unlike his players, he had his doubts. He said he consulted with the Canadiens' doctors and that they considered it risky to play a game two days after surgery to repair a broken jaw. But Therrien then began talking about Derick Brassard, who is expected to return to the Rangers lineup for the first time since he was injured in Game 1 on a hit by Canadiens defenseman Mike Weaver.

"We expect that a guy like Brassard will be back in the lineup, an important player for them who's been good in the playoffs," Therrien said. "We know exactly where he is injured, because the hockey world is a small world. When we know where a player is injured we need to assure ourselves that we play solid."

This is the second time in these Stanley Cup Playoffs that Therrien has told reporters he knows exactly where a player is injured, the first being in reference to Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Ondrej Palat during the Canadiens' first-round series.

Therrien's reference to the hockey world being a small world may have been an underhanded dig at Vigneault, who said the same thing after Game 2 when he noted that the Rangers had an idea that the Canadiens would be playing Dustin Tokarski in goal after Carey Price was injured and lost for the series in Game 1.

The verbal jawing from either side of this series is starting to get heated, as is the hockey. After two days off, these teams will go at each other again Sunday and it could very well be the most emotional game of the series to date.

"When you play the same players game after game," Briere said, "it's normal that at a certain point you get sick of seeing them.

"I think we're there now."

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