That’s it. That’s the answer. Yes, the Montreal Canadiens can win the Eastern Conference Final.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will. If the New York Rangers have shown anything this playoff series, it’s that they’re comfortable making a comeback. Tuesday’s insane 7-4 loss says more about Montreal than it does about New York, even taking into consideration the substitution of Cam Talbot for Henrik Lundqvist in the second period.
But the Habs have played well throughout the series; they absolutely outplayed the Rangers in Game 2, though the Rangers found a way to win regardless. It’s been the character of all the Rangers’ playoff games this year: finding a way to win, no matter what the competition is doing.
But I’ll say it again: the Habs can win this series. They are not outmatched in any way but one, and as long as they can find a way to play without Carey Price, there’s no reason why they can’t find themselves headed to the Stanley Cup Final.
But for that to happen, there are four things we’ll have to see in tonight’s showdown.
1. Dustin Tokarski stars in the NHL goalie remake of 2006’s Stick It!
Montreal’s players, staff, and fans have taken every opportunity to bring up the whole “Chris Kreider Broke Carey Price” thing, and they should. But Tokarski has proven himself a worthy follow-up to Price’s legacy. He’s certainly not the goalie that Montreal wanted to push through this series with, but he’s played a huge role in keeping the Habs in this series.
There’s no way Tokarski can magically develop into an Olympic gold-medal winning goalie overnight, but I really believe that he can meet the Habs halfway. If Tokarski can play the absolute best games of his life—and if the Canadien players can play like hell in front of him—then there’s no reason why Montreal can’t, at the very least, force a Game 7.
2. Brendan Gallagher Embodies the Canadiens’ Scrappy, Can-Do Attitude
How is it possible that Montreal—Montreal—is a Cinderella story? They’re a wealthy team with one of the winningest histories of any team in the NHL. They won round 1 in a sweep. I mean, they’re the Habs.
And yet, somehow, they’ve managed to turn themselves into the underdogs this playoff run, first against Boston and now against New York. With their prize goalie down for the count as they face down the King, guys like Brendan Gallagher keep reminding us why hockey is fun to watch.
Gallagher in particular has been a stand-out player this series, playing with the kind of heart that, honestly, it sometimes hurts a little to watch. Having a guy like that on the ice makes a difference. It raises everybody’s level of play. Like Milan Lucic for the Bruins or Evgeni Malkin for the Penguins, guys who wear their heart on their sleeve can cause a chain reaction in their teammates—and nobody’s got heart like Gallagher.
3. Therrien Out Passive-Aggressives Vigneault
Just kidding, this won’t help anybody win games, it’s just hilarious. On the one hand, the Habs just shouting “CAREY PRICE” is a pretty fair response to any calls of foul play; on the other hand, they’ve absolutely been giving as good as they’ve gotten with regard to hits. When both coaches are holding up the “it was almost definitely an accident” card during their media availability, you know it’s gotten real:
Q. Did you feel that Prust hit was clean?
THERRIEN: You know what? His intention was not to hurt anyone. Like Kreider, his intention, even if he was going hard to the net and then laying on Carey Price, I’m sure his intention was not to hurt Carey Price. Brandon Prust, he tried to finish his check. His intention, honestly, was not to hurt Stepan.
And of course:
Q. How is Dale Weise today? And Alain was saying he thought he was admiring his pass, and the penalty was good enough and there wouldn’t be more?
THERRIEN: What Alain is saying it’s normal. 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.
In all seriousness, though, I don’t think the importance of good coaching can be overstated here. Montreal has a team that can beat the Rangers; the desperation they’ve showed when it counts is one of their greatest assets. But desperation can also lead to sloppiness and penalty minutes. Therrien’s job, right now, is to channel that desperation into intense play, not panicked play.
4. PK Subban Continues To Be PK Subban
Love him or hate him (and, just so we’re clear, you should absolutely love him), PK Subban has proven himself to be an absolute superstar in the Canadiens playoff run this year. From Tampa to New York, he’s been consistent, intense, and smart.
Of course, Subban is also the type of player that takes risks, which had a vastly different risk/reward ratio when he was skating in front of Price. The key in tonight’s game will be finding the balance between allowing him to take those risks and playing it safe in front of a rookie goaltender.