And though the stakes were relatively lower this time around, the two teams brought as much energy as ever to Saturday night’s game at the Bell Centre, which saw the Canadiens win in a 3-1 decision.
The night began with an emotional tribute to the Ottawa soldier shot at Parliament on Wednesday as well as the Quebec soldier attacked on Monday. There were three Canadian NHL teams playing last night–Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto–and the six teams involved in these games honored the fallen soldiers together during their respective pre-game ceremonies. Ottawa’s ceremony was presented as a livefeed on the scoreboards at the other two Canadian games, and the three crowds sang the Canadian national anthem as one in a powerful display of remembrance, pride, and honor for the country.
Then the puck was dropped, and solemnity became game-time intensity.
The Rangers and the Canadiens traded goals in the fast-paced, high-energy first period and went into the first intermission tied 1-1. These are two teams largely defined by their speed, and both goals in the first came as a result of this quickness on the ice. Montreal C Tomas Plekanec opened the scoring by converting a 2-on-0 shorthanded breakaway with LW Max Pacioretty at 12:06. Plekanec and Pacioretty made several quick passes back and forth and were able to outmaneuver G Henrik Lundqvist to put Montreal up 1-0.
“We could have executed better [on that penalty kill]. We had full control of the puck, and we just didn’t execute,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault told the media after the game.
Rangers LW Carl Hagelin answered with a goal of his own five minutes later, at 17:07, off a quick rebound from D Dan Girardi‘s shot. Girardi tallied the primary assist, and LW Anthony Duclair, playing in front of friends and family in his first NHL homecoming game, registered the secondary to give him four assists on the season so far. Duclair would go on to receive the third star of the game for being instrumental in setting up scoring chances and contributing a strong performance all around.
The score remained tied until midway through the second period, when Canadiens C Lars Eller found the back of the net for the eventual game-winner. The second also saw five-minute fighting majors for Rangers D Kevin Klein and Canadiens LW Brandon Prust following a hard hit by Prust on Rangers LW Mats Zuccarello. Let it never be said that the Rangers don’t stick up for one another; this team has shown repeatedly that it will fight for and defend its players on and off the ice.
The Canadiens’ offense struck again in the third with a goal from Pacioretty at 6:35. Trailing 3-1, the Rangers pulled Lundqvist with two minutes remaining. But despite their extra attacker, New York saw its 3-game winning streak come to an end. Two of the Rangers’ four wins this season have come from third-period rallies; tonight was not one of them.
“As a whole group, we can play better. We had won three games in a row, and we came back in two of those games. I thought we had a push in the third [on Saturday], but obviously it wasn’t good enough, and we weren’t good enough to get to the second opportunities,” said Vigneault.
“[Montreal was] quick to all the pucks–defensive zone, neutral zone, offensive zone–and we were trying to make those little plays. But they kept batting them down and kept pucks in, and that got us into trouble,” Girardi added. “Price was really big for them tonight. We just needed to get that second goal, and maybe it would have been a different game.”
Lundqvist (27 saves) and Canadiens G Carey Price (34 saves) both had strong showings in goal, and the Rangers looked to be on the verge of a comeback as the clock ran out. But had this game truly been the Eastern Conference Finals 2.0, Montreal would be moving on to the Stanley Cup Final, and New York would be going home for the summer.
Fortunately, it’s still early in the season. Though the Canadiens are red-hot right now, and the Rangers are looking at a current record of .500, it’s impossible to know what the standings will look like in the future. For now, both teams can put the past behind them and continue to focus on the season at hand.
The Rangers return to action on Monday at home against the Minnesota Wild.