By Sean Garland, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
MONTREAL, QC. — The Canadiens have had their share of bad luck in the Eastern Conference Final: the Carey Price injury, goals ricocheting off of Alexei Emelin and Josh Georges and Alex Galchenyk’s shot off the crossbar with under four minutes remaining in Game 3 are only but a few. Add in an off-ice distraction like ‘spygate’ and the war of words between the head coaches and the Habs seem flustered.
New York, by contrast, seem to have all the bounces going their way. When they skate with speed, the puck seems to follow their trajectory. Look no further than the overtime winner as an example of how the Rangers have the puck on a string. Andrei Markov tried banking the puck off the boards to David Desharnais, yet it goes straight onto the stick of Carl Hagelin who miraculously finds Martin St-Louis wide open deep in the Montreal zone. The Rangers are finding each other on the ice by following the bouncy puck, something the Habs have yet to see happen for them.
Still, there have been a few bright spots for the Habs since the 7-2 drubbing in Game One. Dustin Tokarski, who has been stellar in this series, has given the Canadiens confidence that their Stanley Cup dreams aren’t yet dashed. With Price out for the rest of the series, it’s Tokarski’s time to shine and he has been a silver lining for the bleu, blanc et rouge. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning for minor league netminder Cedrick Desjardins, Tokarski has shown that he deserves to be Price’s backup going into next season. Although he has primarily played in the American Hockey League, Tokarski has gone toe-to-toe with Henrik Lundqvist, one of the best goaltenders in the world, making key saves for his team. The Habs have since responded, showing signs of a more confident and synchronized squad as Game Three wore on.
The Rangers peppered Tokarski on Sunday night and caused lots of traffic in front of his crease, but the young goaltender’s strength has been a passive aggressiveness to his game. Tokarski appears cool, calm and confident. Yet when shots are coming from the high slot he moves well outside his crease to challenge the shot and cut the angle. Before Martin St. Louis scored the overtime winner last night, Tokarski had robbed him of his opportunity to score: the desperation save with his pad in Game Two and the iconic glove save on a breakaway in Game Three. Sadly, it was only a matter of time before St. Louis got one through.
Structurally, the Canadiens often find themselves victims of the Ranger’s neutral zone trap and are caught deep in the offensive zone when backchecking. If the Habs can learn to control the play once they’ve dumped the puck in, as they’ve shown in the latter parts of last game, their forecheck will wear out the Rangers defense and open up scoring chances. The Habs need to also find better ways of breaking out of their own zone, as New York seems to be winning the board battles.
So, how do the Habs get the puck to go their way? For starters, the defense needs to tighten up. There have been countless times in this series where the Canadiens have let the Rangers split their defensive pairing for a scoring opportunity. P.K. Subban was liable for the opening score of Game Three and a miscue by Markov caused the Rangers to have a commanding 3-1 series lead. While head coach Michel Therrien has done well to juggle his forward lines, perhaps now is the time to do the same with his defensive group. The addition of Francis Boullion to the lineup was another stroke of genius, but making the New York Rangers disappear from the playoff picture will need more from the coach’s magic.
The Rangers are a strong team in their own end, having blocked many of the Habs’ shots towards Lundqvist. While the Canadiens’ passing has been crisp and clean at times there haven’t been too many chances from off angles. Rather, the team is using traditional shooting lanes that the Rangers can easily obstruct.
In order to turn the tide, with their backs against the wall, the Habs need to start being uncharacteristic. There were signs of that in the Game Two victory, when Brandon Prust added some tenacity to the series and when Alex Galchenyuk used his chin to score the game winner.
Spontaneity can be a good thing and therefore the Habs shouldn’t be afraid to detour from their game plan of dumping and chasing the puck. Perhaps the Habs should fight speed with that of their own, storming the Ranger’s wall at their own blueline and attacking King Henrik’s goal. Chipping and chasing can be effective, but the Rangers have become well aware of the Habs tactics, resulting in the opposition’s quick transition game.
The Habs can look back at their series against the Boston Bruins for some experience in playing a desperation game. Their 4-0 win at home was their strongest showing of the year and the team took control of the series from there. The same kind of game is needed for Tuesday night or the Habs face seeing their chances of playing for the Stanley Cup hit a bump in the road and will be bounced from the playoffs.