The fairy tale is over. The Cinderella story Canadiens, who all experts (including your humble servant) discounted at the beginning of the season, raced to a hundred point season, swept the Lightning in the first round, bounced the Cup-favourite Bruins in seven games in the Division Final, before bowing out tonight against the also previously underestimated Rangers. The Blueshirts played a hermetic game against a team that seemed finally out of gas, winning 1-0, and taking the series in six games.
The Canadiens needed to storm the battlements and take New York to push the series to seven games, but they didn't play like the team that slayed the dragon in Boston and chased Henrik Lundqvist from the net on Tuesday. Instead, we got the team that we fear we have when we let our insecurities take over.
Tonight's incarnation was the team that critics have described all season. A #1 line in name only. Max playing on the periphery and providing few impact moments. David Desharnais too small and too slow to make a difference. Brendan Gallagher fighting alone for the win, not able to do it all himself, swarmed and slashed into submission by the bigger Rangers. Thomas Vanek with Minnesota on his mind. Brian Gionta and Francis Bouillon too old, too slow. René Bourque floating, invisible. Lars Eller and P.K. playing frazzled, ruined by their head coach. Andrei Markov about to Sputnik-crash back to earth after a great career, diminished by too many injuries. Tomas Plekanec running on fumes.
It hurts that we did the heavy lifting, outlasted the Boston Bruins and their allies at NHL headquarters, only to be deprived in the next series of our best player by a reckless play from a reckless (at least) Chris Kreider. Crime does pay. And the Rangers get to profit from the job we did, opening up the road to the Cup final.
Not that I had strong belief that our boys could win the Cup, but it would have been great to have a shot at the title, at least we'd have a puncher's chance. And it's more fun to watch hockey when my team is in it. June usually makes it kind of tough to focus. Besides, I've already had enough of the myth-making around Martin St. Louis, and the Henrik Lundqvist sidebars, I don't know that I can stomach another two weeks of that.
The thing is, the Rangers took me by surprise. I was well aware that they played better at the end of the season than they did at the beginning. A coaching change and a lengthy road trip out West right off the bat kind of put them on their back foot, but they found their rhythm as the season progressed.
What I didn't know about them was how deep their roster is, how balanced they are, how big and fast they are. I'd take in the highlights on SportsCentre, and see that Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis weren't producing, and that was enough for me to write them off. Their big guns were silent, they can't possibly be any good. And that's even with Derrick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello on my fantasy teams for most of the years. I shouldn't have slept on the Rangers.
So yeah, they have horses on the back end, and Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider are a handful. Even Derek Dorsett, as brain-dead as he can be, can actually really skate and cause havoc when he forechecks. If Rick Nash wakes up, and Martin keeps rounding into form, they could give their Western Conference opponent problems.
So a tough loss, but one which will be infinitely easier to digest than the debacle last season against Ottawa. The boys did themselves proud, never backed down. And with a lucky bounce here or there, this series could still be headed back to Montréal for a Game 7. So hats off to the boys, take a break for a couple of weeks, then train like mad over the summer, because I'm already looking forward to training camp.