Obstacles loom largest when you’re standing at the foot of them, from the Montreal Canadiens’ perspective this one must be blotting out the sun.
An alpine comparison, therefore, seems appropriate.
Studies conducted among climbers who have conquered the world’s highest peaks have revealed a few common traits: they tend to prepare obsessively, visualize in heightened detail, will themselves into an advanced state of mental toughness, and refuse to have their single-minded focus broken.
Some elite climbers say they concentrate on nothing more than their next footfall – this may sound familiar to consumers of dressing room clichés.
As the poet and aphorist Michael Bassey Johnson writes, “there’s no secret on how to attain a greater height, just keep climbing the ladder, don’t look at the dreadful distance.”
The Habs have one other thing going for them as they contemplate the peak standing before them: they have seven holdovers from the 2010 team that dug itself out of a 1-3 hole against the Washington Capitals.
“You remember the situation and you remember the feelings that you had. At no point in that series did we feel we were out of it, and the same holds true now,” said captain Brian Gionta, one of the 2010 campaign vets.
The claim is not far-fetched.
While it’s true the Habs have trailed for all but a handful of minutes against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final, absent a game one blowout where the Blueshirts scored five times in 20:49 – including three quick power-play goals – this has been a closer series than it appears on the surface.
New York has broadly been the better team, but they needed Henrik Lundqvist to steal game two, and games three and four were nip-and-tuck, 3-2 overtime affairs.
If the Habs had been a little more effective on the power-play on Sunday – they went 1-for-8 and gave up a short-handed goal – or if Alex Galchenyuk’s late third period shot had zigged instead of zagged as it danced off the goal-line after striking the iron, this is, as P.K. Subban said after the game, “a different conversation.”
So what do the Habs need to do on Tuesday to avoid heartbreak?
Essentially, they must deliver what they haven’t managed since the second round: an all-cylinders-firing, consistent, two-way effort.
Here are a few ideas on getting there (spoiler alert: it’s mostly the stuff the Rangers have been doing well):
Step up the transition game: Quicker counter-attacking, particularly through the neutral zone, will help them get on top of the Rangers. That means solidifying their regroups and pressing New York into mistakes not just on the forecheck but with back-pressure through centre ice. The Habs haven’t been terrible at five-on-five in this series, but they could do with more aggressiveness.
Managing the Rangers’ speed: Montreal’s blue line has been exposed by fast teams all year long, and they have to be crisper at breakouts and moving the puck up to their forwards. From there, the forwards need to be spending more time deep in the New York end, the Rangers have looked vulnerable to the Montreal cycle game all series long. Having the last line change should create favourable match-ups for Montreal’s top-six forwards.
Control the neutral zone and middle of the ice: The Habs must work harder to deny easy entries to the Rangers, and create more of their own. This sounds simple in theory, in practice it isn’t. As with the breakout game, forwards need to help out the Montreal defence in bottling up the Rangers and forcing them to chip. The Habs have had success with controlled zone entries rather than chipping and chasing all the time, and seem to have a little more room to create offensively – “It’s been different from the Boston series that way,” Max Pacioretty said over the weekend. More of that will be needed, and clogging up the area in front of Lundqvist could help too.
Also, a few players need to get the lead out: Defenceman Alexei Emelin was absolutely brutal in games three and four, Tomas Plekanec has been a shell of his former self in this series, Thomas Vanek has lost the bulk of his even-strength playing time to Alex Galchenyuk and can have no complaints. Gionta hasn’t scored a point in six games and Rene Bourque has just one over the span. Subban was better in game four, but still isn’t the force of nature he was in the Bruins series. Pacioretty had no shots on goal in game four – not acceptable.
Make some adjustments on the power-play: The Habs had Andrei Markov pop down to the front of the net in game four, which is new, perhaps they might consider giving Galchenyuk and Lars Eller a lot more power-play time, Bourque and Vanek a lot less, and removing Emelin and Francis Bouillon from the equation altogether.
The laundry list of details that the Habs need to get right is long, but not insurmountable.
And the Rangers are all too aware of how thin the margin can be between a 3-1 lead and losing a series; they turned the trick in the last round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
When New York’s Martin St. Louis was asked if it’s an advantage for the Rangers to have been on the business end of a 1-3 deficit, his answer was, in essence, not really.
“You understand what they’re going through, how they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. So that’s why you can’t take anything lightly. You don’t want to give them any hope, you know? I don’t think it’s an advantage, it’s more of an understanding what we’re up against,” he said.
The Habs will have to beat Lundqvist three straight times to extend their season.
That seems like a big ask, but as the Rangers know all too well, it starts with one.