Physicality is part of the playoffs, but few, if any, would have predicted the amount of hitting that's been produced between the Rangers and Canadiens through the first two games of their first-round series that continues tonight at Madison Square Garden.
The two clubs have combined for 227 hits through the first two contests, which is the most of any of the four first-round series in the Eastern Conference. Washington and Toronto have combined for the second-most at 204, while Columbus and Pittsburgh, which was expected to be a bruising series, has the fewest at 165 through two games.
"I think this is just playoff hockey and there are hits from both sides," coach Alain Vigneault said Sunday after the team's morning skate at The Garden. "Montreal is a quick team and we're a quick team, but in playoff hockey when get an opportunity to finish a check, you finish the check. It's just the demands of the playoffs."
Rookie Jimmy Vesey said the increased hitting and the tightness of the game has forced both teams to not pass on opportunities to send pucks on net.
"You look at the games, everyone is finishing their checks, blocking shots and even when you get a chance to shoot, it seems like there's two or three bodies in front of it," Vesey said. "Teams defend the front of the net so well, so every inch you've got to work for and I think it's been an exciting series so far."
The Rangers feel they need to do a better job of using their speed to transition from defense to offense and using their quickness on the forecheck to spend more time in Montreal's end than they did Friday night in Game 2.
"I think we've proven to ourselves that when we play to our strength we can spend some good time in the o-zone, and it's just a matter of being clean coming out of our own zone and getting out of our zone fast," Ryan McDonagh said. "We have some energy to play in the o-zone and try to make it hard on their defensemen. Make them spend some time there to wear them down."
Vesey said the speed element is crucial in some areas of the ice, but in others - namely near both nets - the Rangers have to be willing to play heavy and battle for loose pucks near Carey Price, as well as clear out the net in front of Henrik Lundqvist.
"There's different areas of the ice. Through the neutral zone, we want to transition with speed … and in your own zone in front of the net - actually both ends of the rink - it's more about engaging with the other guy and fighting for the puck," Vesey stated. "I think it's a little bit of a balance."
McDonagh said his team must also do a better job in Game 3 of clogging the neutral zone. He said Montreal was often able to break through the middle of the ice and get pucks deep into the Rangers' end zone, leading to prolonged stretches of time in the Rangers' defensive zone that ultimately led to scoring chances against.
"We allowed them to gain the red line and dump the puck in a lot and spend some time in our zone, too much time than what we like," McDonagh stated. "Try and be a little more in their face and take away some more of their ice and hopefully that'll keep the pucks in our hands a little bit."
Neither side expects the bruising play of the first two games to subside any time soon. In fact, it's likely to increase as the bad feelings on both sides mount.
"You see a team - this'll be the third time now," McDonagh said. "That's when things start to carry over and you can remember those matchups. You've seen each other a lot now and you want to make sure you're doing what you can to do the job done."