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Rangers coach calls Canadiens 'the favorites'

by Dan Rosen and Arpon Basu

GREENBURGH, N.Y -- The question referenced preparation and nerves, if he feels any of them on the eve of the Eastern Conference Final, but New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault saw it as an opportunity to basically speak directly to the Montreal Canadiens.

"I know they went into the Boston series saying they felt Boston didn't respect them," Vigneault said. "We respect Montreal quite a bit."

So much so that Vigneault referred to the Canadiens as "the favorites," and added Montreal is "rightfully expected to win." He even said he's watched most of Montreal's 11 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs but "hasn't found anything yet that I can grasp, put my hand on as far as try and exploit against this team yet."

Whether it was an attempt to release any pressure the Rangers might be feeling heading into Game 1 of the best-of-7 series Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS), or Vigneault's way of putting all the pressure on the Canadiens, his words certainly seemed planned and calculated.

"We know that they're not only a very strong team, but they're a team that has beaten the No. 1 team in the NHL right now and a team that went to the Stanley Cup Final last year, the team that beat the New York Rangers in five games last year," Vigneault said in reference to the Canadiens' series win against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Second Round. "So we know that we've got our hands full.

"We know going into this series, and rightfully so, they are the favorites," he continued. "It's going to be the first time in this playoffs. Against Tampa [Bay] and against Boston they were the underdogs. They didn't have home ice. Now they're going into this series, and rightfully they're expected to win. Pressure does funny things to different people. I'm anxious to see how we're going to react. I'm sure they're anxious to see how they're going to react. Both teams are obviously looking forward to this series and it should be a lot of fun starting [Saturday] afternoon."

Vigneault and Canadiens coach Michel Therrien go way back. Therrien took over for Vigneault when he was fired as Montreal coach in 2000, largely because Vigneault recommended the Canadiens hire Therrien to coach their American Hockey League team.

When Therrien was told Friday in Brossard, Quebec, of what his old friend had to say about his team, he burst out laughing.

"That's why I know him so well," Therrien said.

If Vigneault was trying to get the message across that the Rangers respected the Canadiens, Therrien was doing his best to make sure it was known that feeling is mutual.

"That was a good accomplishment for our team to beat Boston," Therrien said. "But I'll tell you something, that was a great accomplishment for them to come back from a 3-1 deficit to [beat] the Pittsburgh Penguins. They're coming in really confident. I paid a lot of attention to their games, especially their last three games. They were phenomenal. This is a good hockey team. They play four lines, they have solid defensemen and they have a great goalie.

"This is a really good hockey team that we're facing right now."

So, then, are the Rangers in fact the favorites in this series? Therrien refused to go tit for tat with Vigneault on that front.

"The favorite, that's a media game," Therrien said. "If you go in the New York papers, they're the favorites, if you go in the Montreal papers we're the favorites. So that's [the media's] job. I'm not paying too much attention to those things.

"My only focus when we met with our players is it's about [Saturday] afternoon's game. This is our philosophy and this is not going to change."

As close as Therrien is to Vigneault, he assured that the relationship will have to go on hiatus over the next little while as they each attempt to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

"There's a friendship there and a mutual respect," Therrien said. "But for two weeks that friendship will be put on ice and we'll be competitors. We want to win, and the Rangers have the same challenge."

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