BROSSARD, Que. – The NHL Eastern Conference final will be more than just a rematch of the Sochi Olympic final between goaltenders Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.
But that’s where much of the attention will be when the best-of-seven series opens Saturday afternoon at the Bell Centre.
Price completed a majestic Olympics as he allowed only three goals at the Winter Games in February and backstopped Canada to a 3-0 victory over Lundqvist and Sweden in the final to claim gold.
He hopes to do it again in the battle of Original Six teams.
“A big reason those two teams got to the gold medal game at the Olympics and why both these teams are here is goaltending,” Brandon Prust, a former Ranger now skating on right wing for Montreal, said Friday. “They’re two of the best goalies in the league, so it’s a great matchup there.”
It has been an uneven matchup in recent years however, which has to be a concern for the Rangers.
The man they call King Henrik has a dreadful record when he plays in Montreal. In his career, Lundqvist is 4-5-2 at the Bell Centre with a whopping 3.87 goals-against average and .876 save percentage.
He has been so bad, successive coaches John Tortorella and then Alain Vigneault have not given him the starting assignments at the Bell Centre.
Lundqvist’s last game in Montreal was Jan. 15, 2012, when he let in four goals and was subbed by Martin Biron.
Vigneault has confidence in his No. 1 goalie, however.
“I can’t comment on what happened in the past,” he said. “All I can say is that Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the NHL.
“He’s a goalie that excels under pressure and as far as I know, there is no place in the NHL where he doesn’t play well.”
This season, Cam Talbot started both meetings at the Bell Centre, earning his first career shutout in a 1-0 win on Nov. 16 and losing 1-0 in the regular-season finale for both clubs on April 12. Lundqvist started at home on Oct. 28 and lost 2-0 to Montreal backup Peter Budaj.
“I don’t think he ever played here when I was with the Rangers,” said Prust. “Marty Biron always played here.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a big factor in the series. He’s a top goalie for a reason. We’ve just got to make sure we’re getting on him right away, getting lots of shots, getting lots of traffic and just causing some havoc around there to keep that confidence away.”
Lundqvist’s last win in Montreal was a 4-3 shootout victory on March 9, 2009.
His troubles seem to go back to a wild game in 2008 when the Canadiens stormed back from a 5-0 deficit to defeat the visiting Rangers.
Then again, the entire Rangers team has struggled in Montreal, scoring only four goals in their last nine visits.
Montreal winger Max Pacioretty isn’t counting on Lundqvist crumbling at this point of the post-season.
“He’s obviously a world-class goaltender and that whole mental block that you mentioned can change with one save in the first period of Game 1,” said Pacioretty. “If we get worried about things we can’t control, that’s when we start to get away from our game.”
When he’s not facing Montreal, Lundqvist is spectacular. He leads playoff goalies with a .931 save percentage to go with a sterling 1.99 GAA.
He was especially solid as the Rangers came back from a 3-1 series deficit in their conference semifinal against Pittsburgh, allowing one goal in each of three straight wins.
Price pretty much matched that as Montreal overcame a 3-2 deficit against Boston, allowing one goal in the final two games. He has also matched Lundqvist’s 1.99 average, to go with a .928 save percentage.
“It’s not always making the amount of saves, it’s making saves at the right time and I think he’s really figured that out,” Pacioretty said of Price. “In that series, every game you could say he made huge saves at the right time and it changed the momentum of the game.”
In Game 7 in Boston on Wednesday night, Price took the unusual initiative of standing up in the dressing room after the second period with Montreal leading only 2-1 to deliver a speech about staying calm.
“Carey’s a leader,” added Pacioretty. “He’s a man of few words, but when he speaks he knows the right things to say.
“He’s been a leader since Day One that I’ve been here, but right now it’s at a whole other level. I want to play for a guy like that and I’m happy to see him step up like this.”
The Rangers and Canadiens will meet for the 15th time in the post-season. The teams are 7-7 against each other so far, with New York taking their last meeting in 1996.
On the ice, they are similar teams, relying on speed, skill and goaltending to win, so it could make for entertaining, end-to-end hockey even if all three regular-season meetings were low scoring.
The Rangers’ only goal against the Canadiens this season was from Ryan Callahan, who was dealt at the trade deadline to Tampa Bay for Martin St. Louis.
“They’re a lot like our team,” said Montreal winger Dale Weise, another former Ranger. “They’ve got a lot of skill and speed up front and their small guys really compete, so it’s going to be a great matchup.”
For Montreal, it will be a second straight Original Six matchup against a team with a former Canadiens coach. They beat Boston and coach Claude Julien in the conference semifinal and now face New York and Alain Vigneault, who coached in Montreal from 1997 to 2001.
The Rangers’ lineup features ex-Habs Dominic Moore, Benoit Pouliot and Raphael Diaz. And their top defenceman Ryan McDonagh was drafted by the Canadiens in 2007 but dealt to New York as part of a trade that brought the since-departed Scott Gomez to Montreal.
The Canadiens look like they’ll start the series with the same lineup they had in Boston, with rookie Nathan Beaulieu on the third defence pair with veteran Mike Weaver.
They will soon have the option of using gifted young forward Alex Galchenyuk, who missed the opening two rounds of playoffs with a knee injury. Galchenyuk was cleared for contact practices and was on the ice Friday, but coach Michel Therrien said he will need more practice time before he can be used.
“It’s obviously tough not to play in the playoffs,” said Galchenyuk. “You wait the whole year to be in this position, but I’ve got to deal with it.”