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Rangers excited to start conference final in Montreal

by Tal Pinchevsky

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- A matter of hours after learning they would be playing the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final, the New York Rangers were already looking forward to Game 1 on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).

Most of the Rangers did not participate in New York's optional skate Thursday, leaving plenty of free time to get excited about the next round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It's going to be an exciting series. I've been fortunate enough to play in the playoffs up there, there's really nothing like it," center Brad Richards said. "I can't wait to get up there."

Richards has some pleasant playoff memories from playing in Montreal. He and Rangers teammate Martin St. Louis were members of the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning team that swept the Canadiens in the 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals. They won the Stanley Cup six weeks later.

Richards isn't the only member of the Rangers looking forward to coming back to Montreal. New York coach and Quebec native Alain Vigneault started his NHL coaching career with the Canadiens in 1997. When Montreal fired him in 2000, they replaced him with Canadiens coach Michel Therrien.

Given the opportunity to reflect on his first NHL coaching job, Vigneault recounted a pleasant time in Montreal.

"I've got nothing but positive memories from my time there," Vigneault said. "It was my first chance to coach at the NHL level, I worked with some great people, and I'm here today because I started there."

Being replaced by Therrien didn't create any animosity between the coaches; quite the contrary. Vigneault and Therrien have remained friends as they've navigated the NHL coaching waters over the ensuing decade-plus. Facing one another in the Eastern Conference Final will add a new chapter to that relationship.

"We've always been very close," Vigneault said of Therrien. "I coached against him in junior. When I was named the Habs [coach], I recommended that he coach our farm team. So I've got a lot of respect for him."

With a ticket to the Stanley Cup Final on the line, New York's trip to Montreal won't be about reminiscing. It's strictly business, and the Rangers are taking that approach to the series against a team they believe bears more than a few passing resemblances to their own.

Each team rolls four forward lines and three defensive pairs and has benefited from world-class goaltending. In fact, Game 1 will be the first time Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Canadiens goalie Carey Price have met since playing for Sweden and Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Lundqvist is hoping for a different outcome this time after Sweden lost 3-0.

"You know you're going to have to match his play or try to be better. It can be a challenge, but I look forward to that. I always like a challenge. We have to play a game where we make it tough for him," Lundqvist said. "It's a conference final in Montreal. That's special. I'm excited about that."

As much as the Rangers are looking forward to getting started, they're well aware they will be facing a Canadiens team riding a crest of emotion after defeating the Boston Bruins 3-1 in Game 7 on Wednesday to eliminate the defending Eastern Conference champions and Presidents' Trophy winners.

"They've just beaten the best team in the NHL," Vigneault said, "so we're going to have our hands full."

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