P.K. Subban and Mats Zuccarello will renew hostilities in the conference finals. Credit: Getty Images
Derick Brassard looked like a kid on Christmas morning Thursday.
This was a man — and, a team — that appeared ready for the challenge that awaits them in the Eastern Conference finals in the form of the Canadiens.
“We’re pretty excited,” Brassard said following an optional skate at the Rangers’ facility in Greenburgh, New York. “We know we’re in a really good position. We’re facing a really good team. Obviously when you’re in the [final] four you’re not going to face … it’s not going to be any easier. We’re excited.”
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals is set for Saturday (1 p.m., NBC) at the Bell Centre in Montreal. This series will mark the 15th time the Rangers and Canadiens have met in the playoffs. The teams are 7-7 in the previous 14 all-time meetings, with the Rangers having won the last series, a six-game Eastern Conference quarterfinals matchup in 1996.
Montreal won the regular season series, 2-1-0, by an aggregate score of 3-1. The Rangers’ lone win was a 1-0 shutout on Nov. 16, in which Cam Talbot was in net. Prior to that game, head coach Alain Vigneault, whose first NHL head coaching job was with the Canadiens, relaxed the Rangers by discounting the Bell Centre aura.
When it was brought up to Vigneault during his media availability Thursday that his players praised his approach heading into that game, he demurred.
“[Bell Centre] is a great building to play in,” Vigneault said. “Whether you’re the home team — and I can talk from experience — or you’re the visiting team — just like playing at Madison Square Garden. You’re talking about great buildings, a lot of fun and what we’re going to try and do is basically what we’ve tried to do all year. We’re going to prepare for a tough opponent, we’re going to come up with a plan, try and execute our plan and Montreal just [beat] the best team in the NHL. So we’re going to have our hands full.”
The Canadiens have given Henrik Lundqvist fits throughout his career, as he is is 13-11-2 with an .897 save percentage and 2.85 goals against average in 27 career games. He is 4-6-2 all-time at Bell Centre, and last played there Jan. 15, 2012.
“It’s so long ago since I played there, so I don’t really remember,” Lundqvist said about playing at Bell Centre between laughs. “I look forward to playing there. It’s a conference final; it’s in Montreal. That’s special, and I’m excited about that. And when it comes to my game, I just try to go out and play the same way. Don’t overthink it, enjoy it. ... We’re going up there, sticking together, believing that we can do it.”
In order to do win, it will be imperative to limit P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty. Subban has been dominant in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with 12 points in 11 games. Pacioretty has seven points in the first two rounds, including three in Games 6 and 7 of the Bruins series.
“He’s a big, strong skater,” Ryan McDonagh said of Pacioretty. “He’s not afraid to use his body as far as driving to the net. Playing below the goal line is a big strength of his. Obviously his shot, [and] quick release [are impressive]. They’ve had that line together — I think he’s played with [David] Desharnais for quite some time — so there’s some good chemistry there. You just have to be aware of keeping guys in front of you, try and keep a good gap with him. Try not to let him get a shot off as much.”
According to Vigneault, the Rangers will attend the funeral for Martin St. Louis’ mother, France, on Sunday. Vigneault noted the organization attempted to work with the NHL to switch the time for Game 1 before St. Louis was able to switch the day as, initially, the funeral was set for Saturday.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter@DenisGorman.