Well, folks, very few of the Habs die-hards among us would have thought the dramatic seven-game triumph over the hated Bruins in the quarter-finals of these playoffs would have ended in...this. After the gut-wrenching, heart-stressing Boston marathon, not many could picture those Canadiens quite so easily tamed by a team to which we'd paid little attention all year.Yet, here we are. We have to admit, four games in, the Rangers aren't lucky. They're a good team. They're probably better than the Habs are right now.
The New York defence is better, man-for-man than the Canadiens. Their coach has them playing a sling-shot style breakout, in which their defenceman gets the puck deep in their zone and then fires it hard up ice to wingers in motion. Those forwards are getting behind the Habs D and leading to countless odd-man rushes and breakaways. The Canadiens defence, in contrast, is chipping the puck up to stationary forwards who flip it along the boards or through the middle, leading to giveaways and one-and-done attack.
The Rangers coaching is better. Alain Vigneault is using creative counters to the Canadiens attacks, as was so deftly illustrated by Sportsnet's Justin Bourne earlier in the series. Their special teams are better too, underlined by the killer short-handed goal they scored in Game 4 and their aggressive attack at their own blueline on the Canadiens' anaemic power play. Habs, on the other hand can't score on the PP and have given up four PP goals and a SH tally against.
Both the Rangers and the Habs have an undersized Francophone veteran in the lineup. The Canadiens have Daniel Briere. The Rangers have Martin St.Louis. One of them will be in the Hall of Fame. Guess which? The Rangers team speed is as good or better than the Habs. They're better on the boards and they're making better use of their opportunities.
The loss of Carey Price was devastating mentally for the Canadiens. The goalie is the unquestioned leader on the team; the guy who stood up in the second intermission of the last game against Boston and inspired the team to bring it home, and the guy who walked the walk on the ice. Yet, his loss isn't directly responsible for the position the team finds itself in now. Price's puckhandling might have helped with the Habs struggles to get out of their own end, and perhaps he might have stopped one or two of the breakaway chances that beat Dustin Tokarski. It's unlikely, though, that he would have stopped all of them. And, perhaps Price might not have stoned St.Louis in close more than once like Tokarski did. The goaltending isn't the issue. It's everything else.
It's big forwards who play small and little guys who are more easily controlled when they crash the net. It's an aging Andrei Markov who looks drained. It's an overworked P.K.Subban, who's trying to do it all and who's partnered with a guy who'd be a borderline 4th defenceman on a serious contender. It's Alexei Emelin on the second D-pair when he's not hitting and doesn't have the hockey IQ or mobility to be more than a hitter. It's a PP that goes 1-for-9 in a game and a coaching staff that continues to play the same people in the same situations with the same results, while guys like Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk have strong games and aren't given opportunities to help the team. It's the Rangers best players being their best while the Habs best guys are MIA. Yeah, we're talking to you, Pacioretty and Vanek.
Even though it hurts a lot to see this opportunity to play for the Cup slipping away, the good thing about this unexpected playoff run is it's giving management the opportunity to evaluate the team under fire and recognize the holes in the lineup. Marc Bergevin surely sees Brian Gionta is done and Andrei Markov needs to play fewer minutes with a better partner if he's to return. After watching Therrien's by-the-gut style coaching get trumped by Alain Vigneault's actual strategic approach, Bergevin must be thinking about the direction he wants his staff to go. He must know young defencemen like Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi need regular-season experience so the likes of Francis Bouillon, Doug Murray and Emelin aren't the team's go-to help in the playoffs. And he's got to see that, while he's on the right track to look for character in his players, that character has got to be wrapped up in bigger, younger, faster bodies. It's a process.
The Habs have made us very proud this post-season, and it would be amazing if they somehow found a way to grope back into this series. Deep down, though, we're probably not expecting it. Management will have to take the good from this run, use it to make the team better and hope like hell this opportunity wasn't the best shot they'll have to get this far for a while. The Rangers are a good team, and they, so far, deserve to win this series. Next time, if Bergevin has learned this year's lessons well, the Habs will be the better team. If we're honest even if they were to make the Finals this year, they'd have an awfully hard time compensating for their weaknesses against either Chicago or L.A. When they're in this spot again, we want the Habs to be ready for anything and the lessons learned this year will be part of that.