The Canadiens Own the Recent Rangers

The Rangers lost another game in which they led on Thursday night in Ottawa. Now their two-game road trip north of the border stops in Montreal on Saturday night for their second meeting with the first-place Canadiens this week.

Andrew Berkshire of Eyes on the Prize joined me for an email exchange to talk about why no one is giving the Canadiens the credit they deserve, why they are a bad matchup for the Rangers and what it’s like to have Brandon Prust on the Habs.

Keefe: John Tortorella called the Canadiens a “bad team” (which I ripped him for) after their win over the Rangers on Tuesday night. Henrik Lundqvist called the Canadiens “boring” despite their 3-1 win and now first-place spot in the Eastern Conference. No one seems to want to give the Habs credit for their strong start and five-game winning streak before their shootout loss on Thursday, but we are now one-third of the way through this shortened NHL season and while 17 games might not be a strong enough sample size in other years, it certainly is this year.

Why isn’t anyone giving credit to the Canadiens for their 11-4-2 start? They just won five games in seven days and beat the Hurricanes in Montreal and the Rangers in New York in less than 24 hours. They have outscored their opponents 18-9 over the last six games and outside of their loss to the Senators on Jan. 30 and their loss to the Maple Leads on Feb. 9, they have either won every other game or lost by one goal. The Canadiens might not have the type of stars other teams around the league do or an exciting and flashy style of play and maybe they are “boring,” but the Devils proved that “boring” can lead to championships in the NHL.

I’m buying into the Canadiens, but why isn’t everyone else?

Berkshire: As far as Torts goes, he’s always bitter after a loss it seems. His grumpy¬†demeanor¬†is funny from the outside at times, but it also wears thin. The Canadiens team he saw was playing its third game in four nights, all against teams that are fighting to get into the playoff picture. I don’t think the Canadiens were particularly great that night, but calling them a bad team is just Torts blowing hot air.

As for Henrik, I believe he also called them a smart team, which gives it a little context. The Canadiens played a boring brand of hockey against the Rangers on Tuesday, there is no denying that, but they were dog-tired and it ended up working.

I think the main reason no one wants to believe that the Canadiens are a good team is that, especially among the mainstream press, narratives are hard to shake. Under Jacques Martin the Canadiens were labeled a bad team, even though they were actually a good team. When they fell apart last year, many people felt like they’d been given justification for their former misgivings. And these are Habs fans! There are a lot of people who would rather be right than see their team win, and I think that was largely the case there.

As far as national media goes, the Canadiens were so bad last year for two thirds of the year that it was hard to believe they could possibly recover so quickly. At Eyes on the Prize, we go over a lot of data every day and we figured that a quick turnaround was more than possible, in fact it was highly likely. You can only be so bad when you have Carey Price, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov heading up your back end. But it’s hard for a lot of people to move away from their opinions. The Habs were bad last year, so surely they would be bad again.

All this said, the Canadiens have still been one of the luckiest teams in the league, with high shooting percentages for several players that aren’t really sustainable. They’re going to lose more often in the next few weeks than they have so far this year, but they’re a playoff team in my opinion, maybe a Top 4 team in the East.

Keefe: I’m a Yankee fan, so I understand people wanting to be right and have their opinions be validated rather than having their team win.

It seems like there’s something different about the Rangers when they play the Canadiens. Actually I know there is. No matter how well the Rangers have played leading into the game or for how long they have been playing well, they always seem to either give an awful effort against or look like a completely different team when they face the Habs.

The Canadiens have won 11 of the last 17 meetings with the Rangers dating back to the beginning of the 2008-09 season. (I started counting with the 2008-09 season because the 2007-08 season featured the Rangers’ epic embarrassment on Feb. 19, 2008 when they blew a 5-0 lead in Montreal with 34:57 left in the game. I’m sure you remember that game well.) After Saturday’s game, the Rangers and Canadiens will only meet one other time this season (unless they meet in the playoffs) on March 30.

Why do you think the Rangers seem to never have their best game or anything that closely resembles their normal game when they play the Canadiens even though the names on the rosters change?

Berkshire: It’s an interesting question. I believe heading into that 5-0 comeback game the Rangers had dominated the Habs for a couple straight years, but I could be wrong.

I think part of it could be psychological. That game between the Rangers and Habs in 2008 was a turning point in that season for Montreal, and they blitzed through the rest of the season to finish first in the conference. One guy who always seems to be ordinary against the Habs is Lundqvist and we all know that he’s anything but ordinary. It’s possible that he’s still annoyed with that game a few years later. Something I’ve noticed with Lundqvist is that if you put a few past him, he stops fighting to make saves, and gets visibly frustrated.

Other than perhaps some latent mental frustration lasting from that game, I don’t really think there’s a logical explanation. The Rangers are a strong team, especially defensively that they shouldn’t be too far below .500 against the Habs.

It reminds me a little of the Habs and Leafs. The Leafs have been a terrible team by pretty much any measure for the last five or so years, while the Canadiens have been OK to strong over that time, yet they split the games down the middle. Something about the way the two teams match up that isn’t readily apparent causes results that shouldn’t happen.

Keefe: Brian Gionta has been one of my favorite players in the league since he debuted during the 2001-02 season even though his career has been spent with New Jersey and Montreal. I had the chance to watch him in college at Boston College and admired his scoring ability and his style of play despite being 5-foot-7, which he’s listed at, but appears way, way smaller.

Scott Gomez was also a personal favorite of mine after his Calder Trophy campaign in 1999-2000 despite playing for New Jersey and I was ecstatic when the Rangers signed him before the 2007-08 season. I was even more ecstatic when they were able to trade him to the Canadiens before the 2009-10 season.

The two of them formed the EGG line in New Jersey with Patrik Elias before teaming up in Montreal, but now their careers have gone separate ways with Gionta being the captain of the Canadiens and Gomez being told to go home for the year before ending up with the Sharks.

How much do you enjoy getting to watch Gionta play for your Canadiens and how did you feel about Gomez’s time and unusual departure?

Berkshire: I’m one of the few Canadiens fans who doesn’t harbor any ill will against Scott Gomez. It’s not his fault that Glen Sather signed him to an insane contract and it’s not his fault that Bob Gainey gave up Ryan McDonagh and Chris Higgins for him (two players that are younger and better than he is).

Gomez had the misfortune of being in Montreal when his career plateaued and he began to decline into old age and he was eviscerated for it. That said, he did have one very good year in 2009-10, and probably could have had a second one in 2010-11 if the Pacioretty-Gomez-Gionta line was a thing from the start of the season to the end.

I enjoyed watching Gomez’s transition game and neutral-zone play, which is still a strong skill set of his, but the rest got to be pretty mind-numbing by last year. I was glad to see him go, although it was still surprising. I think in the end, the buyout is good for both the Canadiens and Scott Gomez, who no longer has to worry about being labeled overpaid.

Gionta on the other hand, has been excellent for the Habs. He’s also at the age where his scoring has taken a slight dip every year, from a near 40-goal pace in his first year, to near 30, to an injury plagued year and now he’s likely a 25-goals-per-82-games kind of player.

He’s still solid defensively and plays a strong possession game against top competition though, and he rarely takes a shift off. Watching Gionta go in on the forecheck against Zdeno Chara and winning the puck battle tells you all you need to know about the Habs captain.

Keefe: Brandon Prust became an important part of the Rangers after being traded to New York in the Olli Jokinen deal three years ago. His grinder style of play and his willingness to fight anyone at anytime made him a blue-collar player and fan favorite in the city. My friend Dave went so far as to buy a Prust jersey last season, which I strongly advised him not to do.

So far this season Prust has already has two goals and five points after having just five goals and 17 points in all 82 games last year. He has a plus-7 rating, leads the league in penalty minutes with 76 (on pace to break his career high even in a shortened season) and is second in the league with six fighting majors. At four years and $10 million it seemed like the Habs overpaid for Prust in the summer, but he is giving them everything he gave the Rangers in two-plus seasons and more. Right now the Rangers could use Prust, but instead he’s helping your team try to achieve the 1-seed this season.

Berkshire: I really like Brandon Prust. I think his contract is a little too much money for a little bit too long, but that’s what happens with unrestricted free agents who have a unique skill set.

He’s already a fan favorite here, which has led to fans and media completely overblowing his value to the point where our local sports radio station asserted that he’s been the second most important player on the team this year. That’s pretty crazy and I wrote about what his real value is to the team on Wednesday.

I think he’s an above average fourth liner who can play on the third line if necessary, something the Canadiens have four of now along with Travis Moen, Colby Armstrong and Ryan White. He’s also been lights-out on the penalty kill, which is a welcome surprise since he was only middling by the numbers on the Rangers.

Is he going to be worth his contract by the last year of it? I don’t know, but for now I really like what he brings to the team.

Keefe: When the two teams met on Tuesday night, it was ugly. It was the second-worst game of the year for the Rangers after their 3-0 home loss to the Penguins on Jan. 31.

On Thursday night the Rangers blew a third-period lead to the Senators, and lost in a shootout, to drop their second straight game in which they led and it was their third loss in a row in which they scored the first goal. The Canadiens also lost on Thursday, but it was the first in six games as they blew a two-goal lead to the Islanders and lost in a shootout.

Saturday night will be the second-to-last meeting of the season between the Rangers and Canadiens (the last one is March 30) and hopefully we see a better all-around game than we saw on Tuesday. But in the bigger picture, what do you see for the Rangers and Canadiens over the remaining two-thirds of the season?

Berkshire: I think what we’ll see on Saturday is a much more entertaining game than what we saw on Tuesday. The Canadiens were extremely disappointed with how the game ended against the Islanders with Max Pacioretty being particularly fired up. The Canadiens are also a much stronger home team than they are on the road and won’t be coming off of three games in four nights.

Similarly, I think the Rangers are going to be a lot better as well. It’s possible that Rick Nash will be back in the lineup and that’s a big boost on its own, but I also think they have something to prove after the last game. I think we’ll see a high tempo game.

As for how the season will go, I think the Habs will be taking a step down sooner or later, because they’re not as good as their record. They should challenge the Bruins for the division title, but I’m not sure that they’re there yet. They’re a playoff team though, and a pretty good one.

The Rangers don’t seem to be the team they were last year. They’re still fantastic defensively, but they lost quite a bit of depth when the traded for Rick Nash, and they seem to miss Brandon Prust on the fourth line. They’re still a playoff team in my mind. I don’t think they’re as good as the Penguins over an 82-game season, but over this 48-game one, they could begin a hot streak that propels them up the standings to a division title.

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Neil Keefe is the founder and editor-in-chief of Keefe To The City along with writing columns and hosting podcasts. He has written for WFAN.com and CBSNewYork.com since February 2010.

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