It’s said that rivalries in hockey are what makes the game great. We see many such rivalries. With the Montreal Canadiens alone, there is the Toronto Maple Leafs (a fairly friendly, but intense one), the Ottawa Senators (after the 2013 playoffs) and the biggest of all, the Boston Bruins (heated, vitriolic, some use the word “hatred”).
So when the playoffs began, and the first opponent to meet was the Tampa Bay Lightning, fans talked about the utter lack of rivalry between the two teams. In fact, it was a rare respectful meeting between two teams similar in locker room culture and style of play.
Round 2, Boston, was quite the opposite. The hockey world watched as old rivalries were not only renewed, but heightened in tension at ice level, management level and the fanbase.
In Round 3, however, the New York Rangers were going to meet the Habs in the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. There was no rivalry between these two clubs. No one “hated guy” on the ice (for either team, unless you count Brandon Prust, seen as a defector when he left the Rangers for the Canadiens). Nothing but healthy, good old-fashioned motivation to win driving both teams.
It didn’t take long for a rivalry to form, beginning with the much-disputed hit on Carey Price in Game 1, which benched him for the series. Rangers fans said the hit was accidental, Habs fans and staff invoking the two other times goalies have been crashed in this very same fashion, this season, by the same player.
But it took Game 3 to send this rivalry to another level when Brandon Prust delivered a late hit to Derek Stepan in the first period. Stepan left the ice, came back a little over six minutes later and was clearly given the green light to play, presumably having been X-rayed in the locker room.
The next morning it was announced the Prust’s hit would be reviewed by the NHL, in a phone hearing to be held that afternoon. It was convenient timing, only an hour later, when Coach Alain Vigneault released the statement that Stepan had suffered a broken jaw, was undergoing surgery and a question mark for Game 4.
Fans on both sides have erupted in emotional reactions. Rangers fans railing against Prust for his “dirty play” and the Habs camp questioning this connection. How could Stepan have been cleared to play, playing for the next two periods (16+ minutes in addition to the first shifts before the hit), and suddenly be off in surgery with a jaw fractured on that play?
Brendan Gallagher stirred the pot at practice Saturday, stating that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Stepan in action on Sunday. He said Stepan was “yapping and yelling” and the jaw couldn’t have been hurt that much. Gallagher is giving voice to what many have surmised since the injury was announced. That perhaps the injury was not as serious at that moment, but perhaps sustained later in the game.
Prust received a two-game suspension, again setting emotions aflame; Habs fans stating the injury’s questionable origin should not be used in the supplementary discipline, Rangers fans railing against the short term doled out.
The rivalry hit new levels at Saturday’s practice as well, when two of the Rangers’ assistant coaches showed up to watch the Canadiens practice. They were confronted by Michel Therrien in what was reported to have been a “prickly exchange.” They left, but not long after, Rangers GM Glen Sather took a seat in the lower bowl. It’s reported that Sather seemed more interested in his phone than the practice, but has anyone put forth the theory that perhaps he was using it to film the Habs?
In any case, Therrien made very clear to the media, in a press conference after practice, that there is a longstanding “gentleman’s agreement” in hockey; no coaches are supposed to observe practices on a non-game day. Were the Rangers trying to get under the skin of the Habs? Or were they just marking their territory? In any case, it is a clear breach of protocol and has added to the already-burning rivalry.
Game 4 will be a test for the Canadiens, but one thing is for certain. This rivalry is bound to grow as the series progresses. Especially if the Canadiens prevail on Sunday night.