Controversy seems to be part of Habs’ makeup

Shawn McKenzie reports from New York where players and coaches from the Montreal Canadiens and the Rangers comment on the hit by Brandon Prust on Derek Stepan and much more.

NEW YORK — If you are the sort of person who appreciates dissension, there are few better places to go than a Montreal Canadiens practice.

This is a team that is never far from controversy — either real or imagined. In fact, after watching them up close during this playoff run, the only reasonable conclusion that I can draw is that it helps fuel them. It’s part of their makeup.

How else to explain a delightfully entertaining Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden?

This was the second off-day between Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference final. This is usually the kind of day that a hockey writer approaches with dread. However, on this occasion we only needed to turn on the voice recorders.

It all started with Canadiens coach Michel Therrien ejecting three New York Rangers staffers -- assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, video coach Jerry Dineen and travel secretary Alex Case -- from the stands at the beginning of practice. Therrien felt that those men were in violation of an agreement which the Rangers vehemently deny was ever made.

"There is always a gentleman's agreement between two teams and the general managers that coaches are not allowed to attend practices between games," said Therrien. "It's respect for coaches that want to make adjustments ... and it's always been like that and that's the way it is."

The list of grievances didn't stop there. The Canadiens don't believe that Derek Stepan's broken jaw is as serious as the Rangers have made it sound. Daniel Briere called it "fishy" and other members of the organization feel that the New York centre will dress for Game 4 on Sunday night.

"We're 100 percent expecting him to play," said agitator Brendan Gallagher. "He got up and he was yapping and yelling. So I’m sure the jaw isn’t hurting too much.”

Don't go anywhere. There is more. Like this little gem, courtesy of Briere: "Ryan McDonagh’s a great defenceman, but I haven’t seen anyone slash as much as he has since Chris Pronger."

Keep in mind that all of this fodder came out of one innocuous day of practice and the Habs actually won the last game. That narrowed the series to 2-1 and renewed hope that their chase for a 25th Stanley Cup is still alive and well.

It must be pointed out that Montreal doesn't hold the copyright on this type of behaviour. The nature of injuries in the playoffs is usually more closely guarded than a Brinks truck, so there was a certain amount of theatre to the way Rangers coach Alain Vigneault discussed Stepan's situation on Friday. That just happened to be a couple hours before Brandon Prust's discipline hearing for throwing the late body check that caused it.

Perhaps all of this should be expected following a game that featured two suspensions. Prust received a two-game ban for the Stepan hit while Rangers forward Dan Carcillo was slapped with an automatic 10-gamer for jostling with linesman Scott Driscoll while trying to get free and go after Prust. On Saturday, Carcillo decided to launch an appeal of that suspension with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Vigneault maintains that the altercation with the official would have been avoided had Prust been assessed a penalty when he laid out Stepan.

"At the end of the day if the right call is made on the ice, that whole situation doesn't happen," he said. "I still don't understand why Scott grabbed him in that fashion. All Scott had to do was tell him he had a penalty; Dan didn't know he had a penalty. (He could have said) 'Can you come to the box with me?"'

It is debatable what effect, if any, the list of complaints and thinly veiled shots will have on Sunday's game. However, it's hard to ignore the underlying trend following a second-round win over Boston that saw the Canadiens repeatedly complain about being disrespected by the Bruins. The early stages of this series were rather benign -- although Therrien did his best to stir the pot by suggesting that Chris Kreider had been "reckless" in injuring Carey Price -- but both sides seem to be in top form now.

That is why there was probably a little method behind Therrien's apparent madness for having the New York staffers removed from practice. What state secrets were they going to uncover anyway? They could easily have read one of a hundred articles mentioning that Michael Bournival had replaced the suspended Prust in line rushes or that veteran defenceman Francois Bouillon appeared likely to draw in for Nathan Beaulieu.

The notion that they violated a rule appears foggy at best. In fact, according to Rangers PR man John Rosasco, Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin acknowledged that the teams had made no agreement regarding practices when he met with New York counterpart Glen Sather on Saturday.

The more you look at this situation the more it looks like Therrien was making a statement. To both the Rangers and the Canadiens.

"When we saw the assistant coaches watching our practice, (Habs assistant) Jean-Jacques Daigneault went to tell them and they didn’t seem to understand," Therrien explained in French. "The second time I went, and they didn’t seem to understand. The third time around, you had to send your message."

It was heard loud and clear.

There are some bad feelings bouncing around MSG right now and it seems to be by design.