There are two teams left standing in the East and they are… the Canadiens and Rangers? In a matchup that seemed unthinkable even a week ago, Montreal and New York will meet in the NHL's Eastern Conference Finals. And to get here, both teams had to topple the conference's giants.
On Tuesday, the Rangers punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup semi-finals by winning their second Game 7 of the playoffs. In the first round, they took the Philadelphia Flyers the distance. And in the second round, they found themselves down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. At one point, New York was 0-Forever on the power play, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had pitched 100-plus minutes of shutout hockey, and the Rangers looked listless and exhausted.
But in Game 5, they roared back to defeat the Pens in Pittsburgh, 5-1, and got their first power play goals of the series. Then they took Game 6 in New York, 3-1, to force Game 7, which they won, 2-1. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist was the difference maker in the series, holding the high-octane Pittsburgh offense to only three goals in the final three games. But Martin St. Louis, who came to New York in a trade with the Lightning, added an emotional spark, too. His mother died before Game 5, and the team rallied around him and used his loss as added incentive to get back into the series.
The other half of the East Finals matchup was set last night when Montreal stunned the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of their series. The Canadiens entered the series as major underdogs. They swept the Lightning out of the playoffs in the first round, but faced a juggernaut in Boston. Last season's Eastern Conference champs won the President's Trophy this season by having the best record in hockey (54-19-9, 117 points) and were the top seed in the playoffs. The Bruins swatted away the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, but ran into a wall with Montreal.
The Canadiens won Game 1 in overtime, 4-3, and looked like they had Game 2 in hand when Boston scored three quick goals in the third period, then added an empty netter, to win, 5-3. Montreal took Game 4, but then Boston won Games 5 and 6 to push the pesky Canadiens to the brink. But the Habs bounced back, thanks in large part to goalie Carey Price. He shut out the B's, 4-0, in Game 6, and was nearly unbeatable in Game 7, backstopping Montreal to a 3-1 win. Also huge for the Canadiens was defenseman P.K. Subban who had 4 goals and 3 assists and was a +12 in the series. More than that, he got under the Bruins' skin, threw them off their game, and was a spark plug for his upstart team.
Now, the two teams that were written off before the postseason even started meet for a chance at the Stanley Cup. It's the 15th team in NHL history New York and Montreal has met in the postseason. The Rangers hold the edge with an 8-6 record, including bouncing Montreal in 1995-96, the last time they met in the playoffs.
It should be a tight series. Goalies Price and Lundqvist are both in top form right now, and whichever team can rattle the other's goalie will likely take the series. (Fun fact: Price (Canada) and Lundqvist (Sweden) met in the 2014 Olympic Finals, which Canada won, 3-0.) But count on a low-scoring affair: The Canadiens won the regular season matchup, 2-1, and in those three games only four goals were scored (3 for Montreal, 1 for New York).
Game 1 is Saturday at 1 p.m., and it should be an intense start to the series. Both teams are riding high and will want to set the tone early. The Rangers are at the summit of an emotional Mt. Everest right now, and the Canadiens will be feeling invincible after defeating Boston. But New York has been very inconsistent this postseason and the Habs are playing the kind of complete game a team needs to win championships. It'll be a tight series, but Montreal will find itself in its first Stanley Cup Final since they last won the Cup in 1993.
Prediction: Canadiens in 6
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Photos: Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images (Canadiens), AP Photo (Rangers), Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images (Subban)