AP Sports Writer
The Montreal Canadiens can rest easy. They won’t be disrespected by their next playoff opponent,
If anything, the New York Rangers are giving them too much respect heading into Saturday’s opener of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Canadiens come in following a bitter matchup with the Boston Bruins that concluded with harsh words in the series-ending handshake line. Bruins forward Milan Lucic reportedly threatened defenseman Alexei Emelin and forward Dale Weise.
Weise never revealed exactly what was said, but Lucic called him a “baby” when told that Weise brought it up. Whatever it was, it won’t be repeated by the Rangers, who are already playing the underdog card as they enter the series.
“I know they went into the Boston series saying that they felt Boston didn’t respect them. We respect Montreal quite a bit,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after practice Friday before traveling north. “They’re not only a very strong team, but they’re a team that has beaten the No. 1 team in the NHL right now, a team that went to the Stanley Cup finals last year, a team that beat the New York Rangers in five games last year. We know that we’ve got our hands full.
“They’re the favorites. Against Tampa Bay and against Boston, they were the underdogs, they didn’t have home ice. Now, they’re going into this series very likely expected to win. Pressure does funny things to different people. I’m anxious to see how we’re going to react. I’m sure they’re anxious to see how they’re going to act.”
There is no question Vigneault believes it, but this could also have a tinge of gamesmanship tied into it. Since the Canadiens eliminated the Bruins on Wednesday with a road victory in Game 7, there has been talk that the Rangers caught a break by avoiding Boston — which had the NHL’s best record in the regular season and knocked them out in five games in the second round last year.
Montreal coach Michel Therrien, who replaced Vigneault as Canadiens coach during his first stint with the team back in 2000, knows his counterpart quite well. He didn’t engage in a debate over which team is the favorite.
A trip to the Stanley Cup finals is at stake for each club.
“The favorite? That’s a media game,” Therrien said Friday. “You go in the New York paper, and they’re the favorite. You go in the Montreal paper, we’re the favorite. I’m not paying too much attention to those things. My only focus is to make sure today that we met with our players, and it’s about tomorrow.
“This is our philosophy. This is not going to change. We understand that we need a really, really good hockey team. There’s a four-point difference between us and them, so they’re a good hockey team.”
New York also is coming in off a road win in Game 7, finishing off the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night to cap a comeback from 3-1 down in the series. That upset victory has already caused shock waves as the Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero on Friday following the team’s fifth straight early exit since winning the Cup in 2009.
Home ice didn’t matter in the first round when the Canadiens swept the Tampa Bay Lightning, or much in the second when they won the series opener and the clincher in Boston.
Weise and rugged forward Brandon Prust are both familiar with the Rangers, having played with them briefly.
Prust became a fan favorite during parts of three seasons with the Rangers, beginning with the 2009-10 campaign. Weise was drafted by New York in 2008, and played 10 career games with the Rangers.
Prust left for Montreal as a free agent in 2012.
“The rivalry against the Bruins definitely brought out emotion,” Prust told canadiens.com. “It just gets more and more emotional as you get closer to the Stanley Cup. It goes to a whole new level from here on out.
“We’ll need to take the same approach, play with the same speed, be aggressive on the forecheck and make their defensemen work. The same goes for our ability to go the net, get rebounds, and most importantly play a physical brand of hockey.”
While there will be hitting and tight defense, neither the Rangers nor the Canadiens feature the big bruising bodies the Bruins employ. These clubs rely on the fine goaltending they get from Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price, respectively.
Lundqvist was the difference in New York’s final three wins over Pittsburgh, outshining Penguins counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury and frustrating offensive stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin while stopping 102 of the final 105 shots he faced.
However, he has struggled in Montreal and didn’t play there this season. He is 4-5-2 with a 3.87 goals-against average and .876 save percentage at the Bell Centre. His last appearance in Montreal was Jan. 15, 2012, when he was pulled after allowing four goals.
Price had a 1.50 GAA, .950 save percentage and one shutout in the final four games against Boston. In two games this season versus the Rangers, Price stopped 74 of 75 shots.
He also got the best of Lundqvist in the gold medal game at the Sochi Olympics when he lifted Canada to a 3-0 win over Sweden.
“You go against a guy like that … you know you’re going to have to match his play or try to be better,” Lundqvist said of Price. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I look forward to that. I always like a challenge.”
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.