Jack Todd: Habs up against speed, sympathy

 

 
 
 
 
Rangers’ Martin St. Louis celebrates with teammate Carl Hagelin after scoring a first-period goal against the Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at the Bell Centre on Saturday.
 

Rangers’ Martin St. Louis celebrates with teammate Carl Hagelin after scoring a first-period goal against the Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at the Bell Centre on Saturday.

Photograph by: Francois Laplante/Freestyle Phot, Getty Images

No matter how uncomfortable we feel about linking the billion-dollar world of the National Hockey League with a personal and essentially private tragedy, it is there now, as unavoidable as the 7-2 score on the big board at the end of Saturday’s debacle.

There will be a funeral in Laval on Sunday, a funeral attended by Martin St. Louis and his New York Rangers teammates. A funeral for St. Louis’s mother, France, who died of a heart attack 10 days ago at age 63. A funeral that was postponed a day so St. Louis could play Saturday.

Because this is real life and not Hollywood, St. Louis merely scored the game’s opening goal and was voted the game’s first star. He was accorded a warm ovation from the remnants of the crowd, after most had absconded beginning five minutes into the third period.

So this is the situation: you’ve gone from playing the hated Boston Bruins to the speedy Rangers, a team that is relatively well-liked here to begin with. A team coached by Alain Vigneault, arguably the best-loved of all the living former Habs coaches not named Scotty Bowman.

And you’re facing a team that has come together around St. Louis, a player who is almost a metaphor for the province of Quebec as a whole: the little guy who has to fight for every ounce of respect, who has managed to soar to the top of a league that didn’t want him.

So how do you simultaneously embrace a guy and try to whup his butt on the ice?

“I expected nothing less,” Vigneault said of the ovation for St. Louis. “The support for him is unconditional.”

Of course it is. St. Louis is loved and respected here. The whole province was up in arms after St. Louis was initially left off the Canadian Olympic team. In the end, of course, he went to Sochi and played a key role in Canada’s gold-medal run.

If you thought that was enough to soothe the hurt feelings between St. Louis and Steve Yzerman, you don’t know St. Louis. He possesses a species of prickly pride that can make him difficult to deal with. You would probably be difficult, too, if you knew you were one of the great players of your time and yet you had to keep proving it again and again, even to your own general manager.

St. Louis came home with his gold medal, met with Yzerman, and demanded a one-way ticket out of town. Next stop, New York — and at the end of a roller-coaster few months, a trip to the conference final against his hometown Canadiens.

One way or another, St. Louis was always going to be the story of this series. You didn’t expect it to start quite as soon as it did, but St. Louis has a rare fire, a breed you rarely encounter even among great athletes.

When the Canadiens were in the process of being swept in four games by Tampa Bay 10 years ago, I wrote about St. Louis’s eyes. I had seen those eyes only once before, on a man in his 70s who was spinning his chair around the ice at the Forum after a photo session.

A fellow named Maurice “the Rocket” Richard.

With St. Louis, as it was with the Rocket, the fire is always right there, in the eyes. Up front, for all to see. In an emotional game, there is no more emotional player and now he is coping with the waves of emotion from the unexpected death of his mother.

Somehow, the Rangers seemed to channel some of that emotion to come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Penguins. Now they caught a Montreal team that was flat as Saskatchewan after an emotional series against the Bruins and simply owned them on home ice.

“Obviously,” Vigneault said, “the emotion for us is real strong. They had a wake for Marty’s mother yesterday and a few of the guys went. Marty got back to his room just before midnight. I texted him to see if everything was OK and he said it was.

“It’s helped our team come together, but tomorrow (at the funeral) is going to be a tough day for our group.”

Vigneault himself appeared to be red-eyed, as though he might have been in tears after the game.

St. Louis, the man at the heart of it all, said he hadn’t had time to talk with his team about playing in Montreal or in the unique atmosphere of the Bell Centre. “I didn’t have conversations with anyone about anything,” St. Louis said from the heart of a suffocating scrum.

“I was here a day early and I didn’t get to talk to anybody. ... It’s an emotional time for everyone, but the guys have been behind me, they’ve supported me.”

At that point, one of the Rangers media people supported St. Louis by cutting off the scrum before he could be asked more questions.

Brad Richards, St. Louis’s teammate in both Tampa and New York, demonstrated a clear understanding of the situation after scoring a goal himself. “There are things beyond hockey that no one can help him with,” Richards said. “All we can do is to be there to support him. His family has a lot of grieving to do.”

Now the Rangers have to go from triumph to tragedy, from steamrolling the Canadiens to the funeral for St. Louis’s mother. It’s an emotional whiplash, but it appears to have helped St. Louis bond with this team, to be something more than a late-season rental with an uncertain future.

Dealing with the death of a parent is difficult at any time. Handling it when you’re in the midst of a playoff marathon is almost unthinkable, but all the years of battling the doubters have made Marty St. Louis as tough as they come.

In the other dressing room, there is a very different sort of problem. After playing like magna cum laude graduates of Catatonic State U in Game 1, the Canadiens have to put all that water bottle and death threat stuff from Boston in the rear-view mirror and focus on an opponent they don’t hate.

Michel Therrien shouldn’t have to do much more than post the final score to motivate his team, but this is a very different series against a very different opponent.

In the first period, it appeared the Habs were like a baseball team going from a knuckleballer to a pitcher with 100-mph heat. They didn’t seem ready to handle the Rangers speed and the same swiftness that was their ticket through the first two rounds now threatens to derail their drive to a berth in the Stanley Cup final.

It was only the fourth loss in 12 post-season games for the Canadiens, but it means they have surrendered home-ice advantage and taken a bruising licking to boot.

And that guy wearing No. 26 for the Blueshirts isn’t going to quit. He is fuelled by grief in addition to the chip he has always worn on his shoulder and as much as the Habs might like to, you’re not going to stop him with love.

For Therrien and his team, this is as delicate a motivational conundrum as you can face. It’s a balancing act, sympathy and survival. But with a shot at No. 25 on the line, they are going to have to find a way or another playoff drive is going to stall, a series short of the goal.

jacktodd46@yahoo.com

Twitter: jacktodd46

 
 
 
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Rangers’ Martin St. Louis celebrates with teammate Carl Hagelin after scoring a first-period goal against the Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at the Bell Centre on Saturday.
 

Rangers’ Martin St. Louis celebrates with teammate Carl Hagelin after scoring a first-period goal against the Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at the Bell Centre on Saturday.

Photograph by: Francois Laplante/Freestyle Phot, Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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