NEW YORK -- “Son of a … ”
That was the yowl you heard from the New York Rangers Tuesday night at the Bell Centre when they swung their hammer at the nail in the Canadiens coffin and struck only their thumb.
The digit throbbing, a delirious Montreal salved the boo-boo by flipping its middle finger to the Rangers, olé-ing into the night after having witnessed a reasonable facsimile of a hockey game — entertaining as heck though a purist’s nightmare.
The Habs are still a long way from being out of hockey’s proverbial woods. But their ridiculous 7-4 victory over the Rangers — the game was ridiculous, not the win — has dramatically changed the complexion of this series.
The pressure was on the Canadiens Tuesday to stave off elimination, the third time this postseason, twice on home ice, that they’ve had their backs to the wall. The pressure is still on, of course, Thursday’s game at Madison Square Garden another win-or-go-home tilt (8 p.m., CBC, RDS, TSN Radio 690).
But the heat felt by the Habs might not be as severe as that which now bakes the Rangers. On MSG ice, the Blueshirts will have little forgiveness from their fans who want nothing to do with a seventh and deciding game in this best-of-seven and who, for the love of Mark Messier, can probably feel their heroes’ collars tightening.
Win now, Rangers fans are saying, and let’s get to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 20 years.
“How,” veteran centreman Brad Richards was asked Wednesday, “do you build from game to game in terms of belief and not feeling the pressure?”
“It has nothing to do with us right now,” he replied, turning the question around. “You’re asking how the Montreal Canadiens are going to do that. You can ask them. I’m not going to tell them how they should feel.”
The Canadiens, Richards should know, are feeling loosey-goosey and playing with house money since superstar goalie Carey Price was shelved by injury in Game 1, are relishing yet another challenge.
Win two more, Habs fans are now saying, and let’s get to the final for our first time in 21 years.
As canvas-laying heavyweight fighter Rocky Balboa ignored trainer Mickey’s bellows to “Stay down, Rock!”, so too do the Canadiens keep getting up against their Apollo Creeds — first the Boston Bruins, now the Rangers.
In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn it was the Bruins rumbling in the alley with the Canadiens on Tuesday, the third period marked by a vicious cheap shot and a late unravelling of good grace.
The Habs might have taken 25 of the 37 third-period penalty minutes, but the sharpest sting of the night would be felt by John Moore, who on Wednesday was suspended for two games for his blindside “illegal check to the head,” according to the NHL, of Canadiens forward Dale Weise.
The Rangers defenceman smoked Weise with a savage elbow to the head 10:41 into the third, a hit that sent the latter to the dressing room, his world spinning, and the former to the showers with a match penalty.
It’s a coach’s duty to protect his players, so it was hardly surprising that Alain Vigneault had Moore’s back on Wednesday.
“It was a hit that Johnny caught (Weise) a little high in the chest, player didn’t see it coming,” Vigneault said. “It probably warrants the penalty that was given on the ice. Other than that, I don’t see what else it could warrant, but I’ve been surprised before. …
“The player (Weise) didn’t see him coming, obviously, but the guy was admiring his pass a little bit at the same time. Unfortunately, it was a hit and because of the force of the hit, the head seemed to snap back a bit.”
A bit? Weise’s helmet was torn off his head like he had been hit by a train. Spin the embellishment wheel in certain cases, but not in this one. If you didn’t like Brandon Prust’s late, high, crushing check of Rangers’ Derek Stepan in Game 3, which earned Prust a two-game ban, this hit was worse.
A woozy Weise needed P.K. Subban’s help to be steered to the door off the ice, but returned to the game after being cleared by doctors.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien wasn’t surprised at Vigneault’s comments, no matter that they were north to Therrien’s south view of the incident.
“What Alain is saying, it’s normal,” Therrien said. “He’s there to protect his players with his comments and any coach is going to say those types of things.
“But we all saw the hit. It’s in the league’s hands and I’m sure they’re going to take the good decision. So that’s the way we see it.”
Beyond dispute is the nauseating disrespect players continue to show for each other #becauseitsthecup, as Twitter glibly says as a catch-all for everything good and bad.
Beyond dispute is the blatant disregard players have for each other’s safety and health with these brutal, often concussive hits.
Moore’s headhunting opened the floodgates Tuesday. The Canadiens’ Lars Eller and New York’s Derick Brassard fenced with three and a half minutes to play, then hat-trick hero Rene Bourque was dinged for a cross-checking major and a misconduct after mixing it up with Rangers’ Derek Dorsett. That was in reply to Dorsett’s goal-crease head-butt a few seconds earlier, ignored by officials, of Habs’ Mike Weaver.
A head-butt. What, Dorsett suddenly thought he was a goat?
“Why’s he doing that at the end?” Weaver said. “(Dorsett) was running around with his head cut off. It’s the kind of player he is.”
In the eyes of some, the Rangers forward had cast himself as the villain of the night much earlier, blasting snow on one of the Canadiens’ pregame munchkin flag-bearers as the Habs arrived on the ice and the Rangers raced to and braked hard at their bench.
(No biggie; remember the international incident when Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin did the same thing to a little guy four seasons ago? And props to Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello, who moved to help the other wee flag-bearer who stumbled on a camera cable between the New York and Montreal benches.)
So where does all of this pick up Thursday?
One New York columnist suggested in recent days that Prust should have been suspended for three games, not two, so as not to tempt fate by having him available for a Game 6 at MSG.
Prust will be back Thursday, however, and there’s not a bulls-eye big enough for his back, as far as Rangers fans — and perhaps Rangers players — are concerned.
The last thing that should be on the home team’s mind, of course, is revenge. Should the Canadiens find a way to win Thursday, all bet are off for a seventh and deciding game back in Montreal on Saturday.
“We lost our composure in all areas of the game,” Rangers forward Brad Richards said Wednesday of Game 5. “There are a lot more problems losing our composure in our stretch of the game, getting into whatever you call that game.
“I don’t see many of those games in playoffs. But you get into that where we were just cheating and hoping, and some of it was a product of being down 4-1. But even as we were getting momentum there, we were still doing it and playing with fire that way. Just the whole structure of the concept, we just broke away from it for whatever reason and never got back into it.”
It’s up to the Canadiens to keep the Rangers from doing so now.
The day’s most refreshing quote, on a day when the clichés were being furiously recycled by everyone, came from Canadiens centreman David Desharnais.
Asked whether there was one thing that likely would happen in Game 6 of this gloriously unpredictable series, Desharnais nailed it:
“One team’s going to win.”
A big truth from little Davey as the Canadiens prepared for their most important game of the season.
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