The Montreal Canadiens have heard the talk.
Down two games to none, minus Carey Price, with a rookie in goal in Dustin Tokarski and heading into hostile territory at Madison Square Garden, they know they’re not supposed to win this series.
The oddsmakers are against them. The narrative is against them.
Heck, logic is against them. Teams that have won the first two games of an NHL playoff series on the road are 63-18 all-time in those series, an overwhelming number given the better team typically starts at home.
Those that have done it in the semi-finals are 16-1.
“We use that as motivation,” Habs defenceman Josh Gorges said of people counting them out. “It’s kind of been the same thing all year long. No one really thought we would be a good team – [it was] we would be an average team, we might make the playoffs, we might not.
“Heading into the playoffs, no one really gave us the chance to be here. Now we’re in this situation again and that’s great. We’ll do everything we can to defy all the odds.”
It’s not like Montreal hasn’t been here before. Down 3-2 in their series against the Boston Bruins, few in the hockey world would have bet on the Canadiens.
All they did was win twice in convincing fashion – even outshooting Boston in a must-win Game 6.
Price was obviously an enormous part of those wins, and without him, there’s no question Montreal are the underdogs, especially with Henrik Lundqvist stopping almost everything in the New York net.
That, however, is hardly a role they’re afraid of, and coach Michel Therrien spent Thursday afternoon before Game 3 heaping a little more praise on the Rangers as a way of building up the bully.
“Honestly, this is the best team that we’ve played in the playoffs so far,” Therrien said in an indirect shot at the higher ranked Bruins. “So we all understand the challenge that we're facing tonight. Yes, we’ve got a young guy in the goalie position, but for us we’ve got to make sure we play the way we play, to play the right way, to play with confidence.”
That message appears to have been received in the dressing room, where players hardly seem cowed by the challenge.
They realize they were outplayed in Game 1 but that Game 2 could have gone either way, especially considering Montreal dominated in stretches early and late. (Several Rangers players remarked even days later that they were incredibly impressed with how the Habs had started the game, generating six of the game’s first seven shots and the first goal off the stick of Max Pacioretty.)
Lundqvist aside, this series hasn’t been nearly the mismatch the 10-3 goal differential indicates. At even strength, Montreal may have been outshot, but much of that comes back to the fact they’ve missed the net 23 times (to just 13 for New York) and have had a whopping 28 shots blocked through two games.
(They’ve also been beaten up badly on special teams, which is becoming a growing issue given how low their penalty killing percentage has sunk.)
But getting zone time – which can be difficult against the possession-focused Rangers – hasn’t been a problem.
What they need are a few key saves from Tokarski, a return to dominance from their power play and some better lanes to the net to test Lundqvist, something that’s become one of the key focuses heading into Game 3.
“We’ve got to be in his eyes, in his face,” Gorges said of the netminder, who’s likely the leading Conn Smythe candidate at this point after his heroics the last five games. “Make him play deep in his net and try to make life miserable.”
Defensively, meanwhile, the Habs are trying not to overthink things minus Price. While the tendency might be to collapse more in front of their net to help Tokarski, Therrien was adamant that he wants them to play the same as they did in those dominating stretches of Game 2 and count on the rookie to make the save.
“We can't start thinking about changing things because of the goalie,” Therrien said, calling Tokarski a “winner” in reference to his success in junior and the minors. “We all know if we play the way we can play, we give our team a chance to win. This is what we want to do tonight.”