Can the Montreal Canadiens dig down deep again?
The Habs paid a mental and physical toll while upsetting the Boston Bruins -- the best team in the Eastern Conference -- in the second round. You have to wonder whether there is anything left in that tank to erase a 2-0 series deficit against the New York Rangers in the conference finals.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said that, although the effects of the Bruins series perhaps explain the Game 1 loss to the Rangers, not so for Game 2, when Montreal dominated for long stretches but ran into a wall named Henrik Lundqvist.
"Yes, the first game was tough for us, emotionally it was tough for us, physically it was tough for us," Therrien said Tuesday on a media conference call, his players having been given the full day off.
"Didn't get much time between Game 7 [against Boston] and Game 1, and it was an afternoon game. Obviously, it shows with the result.
"But you know what? I thought we regrouped really well from that first game. I thought [Monday] we were a team that played with a lot of energy," Therrien continued. "I thought we were a team that was pushing the pace, and we played a solid game. Today, I think it's good for us mentally to get a day off for the players. I think I'm anxious to see my guys tomorrow, and going to New York because, you know what? We were looking for one win, and momentum can change quickly in the playoffs.
"So, I'm really optimistic. Reason why? Because of the way that we were capable to compete and get engaged in our game [Monday]."
Montreal's play probably warranted a split in the opening two games, having launched 41 shots at Lundqvist and carrying most of the play for long periods of Monday night's game. But, just as the Habs got their fair share of breaks in beating the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Bruins in the opening two rounds, those breaks went the other way Monday night.
The series-ending injury to stud goalie Carey Price will probably be the reason there won't be any miracle comeback in this series. Price has the ability to go save for save with Lundqvist, just as he did with Tuukka Rask in the second round.
Replacement Dustin Tokarski did give the Canadiens a fighting chance to win Monday night, and it's the way his teammates rallied around him that matters most. They didn't play like a team that has given up despite the loss of Price.
Still, if there's going to be more magic in Montreal's spring run, it'll have to involve putting more pucks behind Lundqvist, who is dialed in like nobody's business. Getting more out of star winger Thomas Vanek would certainly help, too. The veteran sniper has gone three straight games without a point, and five of six games overall. You always wonder at this time of year whether an injury is holding a player back, but Therrien said on Tuesday that Vanek was healthy.
Furthermore, Therrien also didn't want to single out any of his players and so left the Vanek issue at that, otherwise saying only that Vanek is part of the team that made contributions to get the team into the conference finals. So, we asked an NHL scout keeping a close eye on the Eastern Conference finals what he has seen from Vanek so far.
"Looks frustrated, for sure," the scout told ESPN.com. "He isn't winning many puck battles for a bigger, stronger guy. Looks tired or out of shape. Says something when he isn't on the ice after they pull their goalie and have a [power play]. His center hasn't been as good as he can be, but put more blame on Vanek.
"If he wants the puck or wants to make a difference, he can. Always the problem with him, his highs and lows vary so much. They need his net presence if they're to get anything by Lundqvist, the way he's playing."
The scout also gave the Rangers credit for some terrific up-ice pressure, smart chip-ins that the scout said are putting a lot of pressure on the Montreal defensive corps and leading to turnovers. It looks bleak, to say the least, for the Canadiens.
Therrien certainly will use that as motivation for his players, rallying them behind the overwhelming media buzz that the team is cooked.
"I've got the luxury to go to coach a really good group of players and really good bunch of guys who care," Therrien said. "That's the reason why we reached the Eastern Conference final. We surprised a lot of people through the course of the season. When we started the season, there were a lot of people not even putting us in the playoffs, or, if they wanted to be polite, they'd give us the eighth spot.
"We caused a surprise to make the playoffs. We caused a surprise against Tampa Bay Lightning to win in four, and we caused a bigger surprise to beat the Boston Bruins. Now, again, there are not many people that believe in us, but that's a group with a lot of character. This is a group that believes in themselves, and we're going to focus on one game and try to create a surprise for Thursday night again."
Do the ghosts from the old Montreal Forum travel across the border? The Habs need to believe so.