By Steve Silverman
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The last thing that Alain Vigneault and any of the New York Rangers are about to do is look at the Carey Price-less Montreal Canadiens and take them lightly.
Whether the Habs have Dustin Tokarski (probably) or Peter Budaj (unlikely) in net Thursday night, the Rangers are going to be all business. At least when it comes to public consumption.
In their most private moments, though, the Rangers have to be giddy. Not only did they avoid a matchup with Boston, they don’t even have to face the Bruins’ conquerors at the top of their game. Price is clearly the Habs’ best player, and the Canadiens know in their heart of hearts that anything short of a miracle is going to result in their season coming to an abrupt halt.
Nobody would be surprised if this series ended in four games, and it doesn’t seem likely to go more than five.
The Rangers have perhaps the best or second-best goalie in the league on their side in Henrik Lundqvist. Tokarski is just another young goalie with potential at this point and Budaj is the NHL’s equivalent of Brand X.
Lundqvist has been waiting for the opportunity to go to the Stanley Cup finals throughout his career and he’s sitting home right now ready to attack Game 3 up two games. There’s no way in the world he or his teammates are going to let this opportunity slip through their grasp.
They know it, and so do the Canadiens. Montreal’s players and coaches may talk bravely of rallying under the circumstances, but those words are just drivel.
In a few days, the Rangers will qualify for a spot in the finals.
Regardless if they face the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings, the task will be formidable. However, the Blackhawks have the game’s top 1-2 punch in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and as a result are the biggest challenge.
These two have the ability to break any game open, and they seem to take turns doing it. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville knows that Toews is perhaps the most complete player in the game, while Kane is one of its best individual talents. They not only lead the Blackhawks on an every-game basis, they compete with each other to see who the star will be on a given night.
The Rangers have been playing with much of that same kind of fire since the start of Game 5 in the second-round series against the Penguins. Since the death of Martin St. Louis’ mother, the team has come together the way only hockey teams do.
Baseball and basketball teams would feel empathy for a teammate who lost a mother, but they would not regularly go out of their way to comfort their teammate and attend the funeral. In the NFL, life goes on and while a few players might close ranks, the rest would be worried about their own jobs.
But the best NHL teams often behave like close families, and it seems the Rangers are now playing for one another the way only the best teams do.
It started with the tragedy of a teammate losing a mother, but it has grown into something more. The Rangers will have an opportunity that almost nobody predicted as long as they can keep their skates firmly on the throats of the desperate Canadiens.
The Rangers are playing with a sense of responsibility and joy in the conference finals. Lundqvist is bearing a huge part of the responsibility, as he knows that if he plays his best game, he will be much better than his Montreal counterpart(s).
The joy is coming from Ryan McDonagh, Brad Richards, Mats Zuccarello and St. Louis, who are skating with freedom and taking advantage of the opportunities that have come their way.
This run has to be beyond what team president and general manager Glen Sather ever could have realistically planned for when he fired John Tortorella a year ago and brought in Vigneault shortly thereafter.
The Rangers are going to be in the Stanley Cup finals, and they just might have the right stuff to make the 20-year anniversary of the 1994 championship a duel celebration.
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