Tuesday proved once again why the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the best post-season tournament in pro sports.
The Montreal Canadiens refused to go gentle into that good night. Their backs against the wall in a 3-1 series hole vs. the Rangers, the Habs dug down deep and came out swinging (literally at times), and forced a sixth game back at Madison Square Garden.
Teams don’t get to the Conference Finals by accident. These players have been performing at a high level in the playoffs for over five weeks now. Tuesday’s Game Five win by the Canadiens marked their third consecutive victory in an elimination game. Vezina Trophy candidate goalie Carey Price on the shelf for the series seemed to spell doom for Montreal (and it still may), but the Canadiens still showed up.
We’re still two wins away from NBC’s dream Cup Final – the No. 1 media market in the US vs. the No. 2 in New York and Los Angeles. Trust me when I tell you that the league office is silently rooting for this matchup, even at the expense of losing out on the popularity of the Chicago Blackhawks and an original six face-off.
The reason it may happen? Actually, two reasons. Goaltending and coaching.
Yes, Darryl Sutter looks more like a character from a Keystone Light commercial than an NHL bench boss, but the truth is the man can coach. He took the eighth-seeded Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012 and is poised to return to the Finals without having home ice advantage in any series this spring. Down 3-0 in the opening round series with San Jose? No problem. On the verge vs. Anaheim in a 3-2 hole? Child’s play. The Kings have won six consecutive elimination games, giving the Canadiens something to shoot for.
Then there’s Jonathan Quick. He was the reason the Kings stayed within striking distance in the San Jose series, and shut down the Ducks when it mattered to give LA a chance to advance. His experience in winning a cup, as well as representing the US at the Olympic games, has served him well.
In New York, Henrik Lundqvist does more than stop rhinos charging his net (though I think he should keep an eye out for Rene Bourque for the remainder of this series). He’s been the backbone for the Rangers this postseason. The good news for Montreal – if they win Game Six, they get Game Seven back at home. The bad news – Lundqvist has won each of his last five Game Sevens.
And Alain Vigneault on the Rangers’ bench gives them an edge that MSG has not seen since the days of Mike Keenan. Vigneault was rumored to be the Dallas Stars’ first choice to be their new head coach last summer, but the Rangers beat them to the punch, and for good reason. (The Stars ended up doing just fine with Lindy Ruff, who may actually be a better fit for Dallas).
Expect the Canadiens to come out hard once again in Game Six and give the Rangers all they want. I still like New York’s chances to advance to the Cup Final for the first time in 20 years.
The Kings? Despite good coaching and goaltending, don’t be surprised if the Blackhawks push them to the limit and even come back to win the Western Conference Finals. The Kings may have been on the mountain top two years ago, but Chicago is the defending champ and they know how to win.