For the second time in this series, the Montreal Canadiens are heading to New York City with a chance to tie up the Eastern Conference Finals. This time, their attempt comes with much narrower margin for error.
When the Habs first attempted this daring feat, they came within an Alex Galchenyuk crossbar late in regulation of going back to Montreal with their series knotted up. Sadly, after a Martin St. Louis gut-punch of an overtime winner, the Habs instead found themselves staring down the daunting task of beating New York three times in a row. After an emphatic Game 5 victory, the Canadiens are one third of the way there.
The Habs have had their strongest efforts in this series all come on home ice. After a terrible first period, the Habs played well in the second period of Game 1, but their push was derailed by two late-period goals following an injury to Carey Price, effectively ending the game after forty minutes. In Game 2, the Habs were dominant, but couldn't buy a goal against Henrik Lundqvist. On Tuesday, in Game 5, the Habs chased Lundqvist on four goals, and then put three more past his back-up. The Canadiens have shown have demonstrated their efficacy on Bell Centre ice. Tonight, if they want to home again, they need one more victory in the big apple.
There were several keys to the Habs latest strong performance in an elimination game. The reinsertion of Nathan Beaulieu, at the expense of Alexei Emelin, restored the Habs defensive depth, giving them three pairs able to hold back the Rangers and get out of their own zone when necessary. While it would be nice to see Emelin back in the line-up tonight, perhaps removing Francis Bouillon and giving the sturdy Russian a crack at the Rangers depth forwards, Michel Therrien has given no indication toward that type of a maneuver. Instead, it appears Habs fans will have to settle for extending Mike Weaver's stay on the second pair, and allowing the dynamic Beaulieu to make things happen awesome speed and coordination.
Thomas Vanek was another player who suffered a similar fate to Emelin, and his movement to another position in the lineup seems to have paid off. Emelin's demotion took him all the way out of the lineup, while Vanek's left him on the fourth line with Danny Briere and Michael Bournival. Sheltered, and with lots of opportunity to faceoff against the Rangers' dregs, the Austrian sniper ended up with positive possession numbers in his limited minutes. His uninspired/lazy/frustrating plays per minute metric was still through the roof, but it seems that the bottom of the lineup is the best place for Vanek right now. Look for Vanek to take on a similar role in Game 6, perhaps with Brandon Prust for a line-mate instead of Bournival.
The other significant adjustment from Game 5 to 6 is on the Blueshirts back-end, as John Moore will serve the first of his two-game suspension this evening. Moore is no world-beater, but he's been effective for the Rangers, coming out with positive possession stats in each game of this series. Moore's absence leaves Alain Vigneault with a quandary, as both Raphael Diaz and Justin Falk are available to fill-in. Diaz may be smaller, but his track record is that of a much, much more reliable hockey player than Falk. However, in addition to being 6'5", Falk is also a lefty, which may be significant if AV opts for a defender who can play his natural side alongside the right-handed Kevin Klein. Regardless of Vigneault's choice, there's going to be a whole in the Rangers' D that hasn't existed so far in this series. It will be up to Lars Eller and the Canadiens' third line, Moore's most frequent opponents, to take advantage.
After an exciting Game 5, the Canadiens are still in the running to win this series. Tonight, the Habs have to find a way to earn the tie.