The scene is set. Two original six teams do battle once more, renewing acquaintances for the first time since the Rangers knocked out Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals. In the case of Price it was literal, figurative of course in terms of the Canadiens in general.
Many in Le Metropole - it's a nickname for Montreal according to Wikipedia - still harbor grudges against Chris Kreider and the Rangers for that series, though I'm sure few of those same fans will recall the blindside hit by Brandon Prust on Derek Stepan in Game 3 that broke his jaw, nor would those same fans recall that the Canadiens would probably have cleaned up in the World Diving Championships held the next month in Shanghai. But I digress...
We've got a new old coach in Montreal with the return of Mr Claude Julien, who threw out the first barb of the series by bringing up former minor league team mate Alain Vigneault's skate size - six for those who missed the memo. We've got the same coach in New York, the aforementioned, small-footed AV who recently signed a contract extension, which means about as much in the NHL as that email you got from Nigeria telling you that you won a lottery you never entered in Turkmenistan. In fact you couldn't even point out where Turkmenistan is on a map if someone was to type it into Google Maps on your iPad and hand it to you. But again i digress...
You have the same goalies in net...well sort of. I mean Henrik Lundqvist is coming off his worst season GAA and Sv% side and he's 35 year old now. And you've got Carey Price - he's 29 - who didn't even finish the series last time. Oh, but we do have different backup goalies! Antti Raanta for the Rangers, and former Rangers #6 pick over all Al Montoya, who actually never played for the Rangers, but has kind of carved out a career as a backup and sometime starter with several teams.
Up front New York have just four forwards left from Game 1 in 2014. Kreider, Rick Nash, Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Brad Richards and Martin St Louis have both since retired, while Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett, Carl Hagelin, Dominic Moore and Benoit Pouliot are all playing for different teams...though it's interesting to note that all but Dorsett's qualified for the playoffs.
On the blueline, the Rangers return three with Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal all dressing, while a fourth Kevin Klein will be a healthy scratch. John Moore and Anton Stralman both long gone, and neither made the playoffs.
Only three Canadiens forwards were there back on May 17th, 2014, and they all wear letters on their sweaters now. Brendan Gallagher, Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec are all that remain. While back on defense Nathan Beaulieu and Andrei Markov - who also wears an A - are still with the team, as is Alexei Emelin, though he'll miss tonight's game through injury.
Anyway, all that might be mildly interesting, but proves nothing as it comes to Game 1.
What IS clear however is that someone will win tonight...well probably. I mean there is always the possibility that the game gets cancelled because Hydro Quebec has a major outage, or they run out of poutine halfway through the first period, and the crowd proceeds to throw all manner of other forms of stadium food onto the ice in protest. It could happen. Really. Poutine is delicious.
Assuming that le fiasco de poutine doesn't happen, then here's how I figure the game will go.
The Canadiens open up the game with the US anthem, followed by both French and English versions of O Canada, followed up by introductions of every player that has ever played for the Canadiens, every official and every trainer, bottle cleaner and skater sharpener that has ever attendeded to the needs of Les Habitants. By the time we're done with all this, we've had to suffer through around four hours of Pierre Maguire anecdotes, an hyperbolic statements that make the Canadiens out to be the best team that has graced the ice in Sin City - another of those Wikipedia nicknames I swear.
At this point NBC Sportsnet is ready to start their coverage and we finally get the puck drop, only to find out that both teams had returned to their hotels for naps some time ago, and so there is yet another forty-five minute delay as they are rounded up and lead back to the benches.
Given the late hour, the Rangers accidentally send out twelve players for the opening face-off, and are immediately assessed a too many men penalty. Meanwhile all six Canadiens fall to the ice simultaneously, earning off-setting diving and interference penalties for the respective teams. Canadiens coach Julien throws Brendan Gallagher on the ice as a protest, earning the Canadiens a too many men penalty, and so we will start the game 3 on 3 for the first six minutes, as the respective penalties are rolled off.
The Canadiens draw first blood with two goals in 12 seconds as first Dwight King, and then Paul Byron score. King gets a breakaway after Marc Staal and Nick Holden collide, and then Paul Byron shoots from the center redline and beats Henrik Lundqvist five-hole when Dan Girardi falls over and tips the puck as he's falling.
Just 33 seconds later and the Rangers are on the board. Kevin Hayes gets a puck to carom off all three Montreal players as he attempts to pass the puck to a breaking J.T Miller coming down the right wing. Price has no chance to stop it, and takes out his frustrations on the skates of Nathan Beaulieu.
Montreal regains the two goal lead with an unlikely goal from Tomas Plekanec, who has the puck bounce off his helmet as he's falling to the ice following a Marc Staal cross-check. The puck flips up and over Lundqvist's shoulder to make the score 3-1 Montreal.
New York isn't done however, and gets three straight goals in two minutes and thirteen seconds by none other than Rick Nash. The three goals almost double his post-season output, but come in fine fashion. His first of the night comes off a feed from Tanner Glass, who accidentally was sent out as a defenseman, but springs Nash 1 on 1 with Price, whom he dekes and goes high stick side.
Seconds later and Nash is again sprung free, but this time is pulled down from behind to earn a penalty shot. He makes no mistake, using the exact same deke on Price and going high stick side to make it a tie game. The Rangers are penalized however for having too many men on the ice again during the Penalty Shot, and are forced to go shorthanded. No problem though for Nash, who secures the puck and races away to once again beat Carey Price high stick side to give the Rangers the lead.
We're only eight minutes in, and it's 4-3 Rangers!
The remainder of the first is a dull affair, with no shots registered by either team.
The second opens up with the Rangers taking their third too many men penalty. The ensuing power play sees the Canadiers tie it up when the puck is ruled to have crossed the line despite no referee nor camera evidence showing that the puck even got to the goal. The on-ice ruling is no goal, but Toronto calls in and overrules the call, claiming that there was evidence that the puck had indeed crossed the line, but at this time they could not explain, or show why. Shea Weber is credited with his first playoff goal as a Canadien as a result.
Midway through the game and Chris Kreider is pushed into Carey Price by three Montreal defenders and is penalized for goaltender interference. Price, who appears to be a bit sensitive about being hit by Kreider, takes a swing with his stick at the prone Kreider and instead connects with the ankle of Weber, sending the high-powered blueliner crumbling to the ice.
Weber has to be assisted off the ice by the trainer, and Price spends the next fine minutes yelling at the ref, earning his team a double misconduct penalty. The teams skate four aside for two minutes, ad then the Rangers earn their first power play of the night. With the man advantage, the Rangers get the lead back when a puck is kept in the zone not once, but twice by the linesman, leading to a Stepan cross ice pass that is converted on the back door by Zuccarello.
Price, once again upset with the call hacks yet another defenseman down on his team, this time taking out the knee of the unfortunate Bealieu. Montreal are down to four d-men and have half the game to play.
Meanwhile the Rangers have their own problems on defense, with Nick Holden slamming himself into the goal post as he tries to cover a streaking Pacioretty. Holden lays motionless on the ice for several minutes before finally regaining consciousness and having to be helped off the ice. He's later shown smiling and having a Molson Blue with Beaulieu and Weber who both appear to be on crutches.
With five minutes remaining in the period, Lundqvist and the Rangers come under immense pressure. Fortunately most of the Canadiens have poor accuracy, and although they put 22 shots towards goal in the final five, all 22 are ruled to be missing wide.
With twenty minutes to go, the Rangers are holding on to a 5-4 lead when things finally break open. First Nash gets his fourth goal of the night courtesy of a breakaway, and yet another deke to the stick side. Michael Grabner then gets in on the act with a breakaway of his own, he ends up shooting high, but the resulting carom strikes the glass, and rebounds back onto the back of Price and trickles into the goal just moments before Markov can get back to save the goal. New York finishes the night with a goal to none other than Tanner Glass, who immediately after scoring is challenged to a fight by Price, a fight that even Glass can win handily.
Final score on the night is 8-4 Rangers, with Mats Zuccarello holding the game winner.
In his post-game conference, Calude Julien once again tries to bring up Vigneault's skate size, but is drowned out by several questions about his own skate size, which he neglects to answer.
Vigneault in his corresponding presser, proudly displays what appear to be his old skates, telling the gathered reporters that from this point forward, the broadway hat will be retired, and the player of the game will be awarded the right to wear his old skates. Only Zuccarello and Matt Puempel seem to approve of this turn of events, as 6-4 Rick Nash attempts to squeeze his feet into the undersized footwear.