MONTREAL — When the Canadiens play the Bruins, it’s like a ferret against a bear. Quick and small vs. big and strong. Smart against dense. The card sharp and the rube.
But when the Habs tangle with the Rangers, it’s like they’re playing themselves. Two quick, smooth-skating teams with strong goaltending that rely more on speed and finesse than brute strength and intimidation. These two teams are so much alike, maybe Michel Therrien should have the Canadiens practise with a mirror.
That may be part of the problem Montreal faces in this series. They’ve met the Bruins so many times in the playoffs, they know how to approach it. But how to prepare to play yourself?
To top it off, the key matchups for this series come in pairs: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price, Ryan McDonagh and P.K. Subban, Martin St. Louis against Thomas Vanek, and Alain Vigneault vs. Michel Therrien.
The first pairing lasted less than two periods of Game 1. Lundqvist had a slight edge on Price when Chris Kreider played Bowlie the Goalie and Price’s series was finished. (In hindsight, Price probably should not have stayed in to surrender those two late-period goals.)
If the Canadiens are going to steal a couple of games now and get back in this series, it’s up to Dustin Tokarski — but so much for the marquee matchup.
The next one is water torture for Canadiens fans. Not because Subban has been bad. He’s contributed his usual energy and the big shot, but he has made a couple of mistakes and is a minus-3 with no points for the series, while McDonagh is a plus-3 with two goals and four assists.
The agony, of course, comes from the fact that McDonagh should be a Hab. If not for the Great Gomez Giveaway, he would be, giving Montreal two of the finest young defencemen in the game to go with one of the best goaltenders — and probably elite status in the league for at least a decade to come. But the Canadiens aren’t going to get that one back, so for this team to have any chance at all, Subban (who contributed nine shots on goal in Game 2) is going to have to outplay the guy who should have been his teammate.
Both teams also came up with a trade-deadline prize in the form of an elite player: the Rangers gave up something in the form of Ryan Callahan to get Martin St. Louis, while the Canadiens surrendered essentially nothing for Thomas Vanek. The difference in trade value was the contract situation: St. Louis has a year to run on his, Vanek is a straight rental who seems to be halfway to Minnesota as we speak.
The early returns may have made it look as though the Habs made the better acquisition. After a couple of games to settle in, Vanek had a long, productive stretch when he showed more grit and more ability as a playmaker than expected.
St. Louis, perhaps feeling a little shell-shocked after demanding a trade from the team where he had starred for a decade, took longer to get rolling. But he unquestionably has it going on now, while Vanek has vanished so utterly in this series that if we hadn’t already used the moniker for Alex Kovalev, we’d call him The Enigma.
St. Louis had a goal and an assist in the first game and a goal in the second, and the Canadiens have had a hard time getting a rope on him, while Vanek is zip-for-the-series and a great big goose egg in both games.
Vanek is as clear an instance as you can find of a player whose stats are utterly deceiving. Someone looking at the numbers 20 years from now would say he had a strong post-season, but his five goals include three deflections, a tap-in and an empty-netter — and in the last nine games, he’s produced all of 11 shots.
It is possible that Vanek is hurt. He passed on a couple of good looks in Game 2 and when he did get one clear shot on goal from about 15 feet, he had nothing on it at all. It’s also possible that he is trying not to get hurt, to protect the merchandise before auctioning himself off to Minnesota this summer.
You have to hope Vanek is hurt because if he isn’t, the Wild are about to get their pockets picked. Vanek was conspicuously awful Monday night because his team played so well and his biggest contribution was a dumb first-period slashing penalty that cross-checked a Canadiens power-play.
At Wednesday’s practice, Vanek found himself on the fourth line with Daniel Brière and Brandon Prust. Not too shabby a fourth line, but still — for a guy who went into the post-season on the top line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, Vanek has been a spring disaster.
The coaches, of course, once succeeded one another with the Habs. Both hold the distinction, with Claude Julien, of being fired prematurely in the days when the Canadiens were floundering.
You can’t criticize the work Therrien has done in the post-season. After all, his team swept a Lightning team that was missing Ben Bishop and took out the highly favoured Bruins. A great goalie makes a coach a whole lot smarter: Jon Cooper didn’t have much success without Bishop, and so far Therrien hasn’t had much without Price.
But Vigneault has done a superb job of bringing the Rangers together after a slow start. The Rangers had a long, hard slugfest with the Flyers and another in a come-from-behind effort against a pouting Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. Vigneault is now two games away from taking his second team in four years to a Stanley Cup final.
Not too shabby for a soft-spoken, down-to-earth coach who, aside from acquiring a bit of wisdom, perhaps, hasn’t changed a bit since he coached the Habs.
Now, if Therrien is going to have any chance at all of halting Vigneault’s drive to another berth in the Cup final, he is going to need a minor miracle from a kid goalie, a whole lot from P.K. Subban — and at least a little bit from a Minnesota Wild winger named Thomas Vanek.
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