NEW YORK — It was advantage Rangers on Saturday in the off-ice gamesmanship that is running parallel to the Eastern Conference final between New York and Montreal.
There has been no shortage of storylines in this series, which has already featured one surgery and two suspensions in three games. And with two days off between Games 3 and 4, the old adage that idle hands are the devil’s workshop was proved true at Madison Square Garden when two New York assistant coaches showed up to watch Montreal practise.
The intrusion seemed squarely aimed at getting under Montreal’s skin.
When Canadiens goalie coach Stephane Waite noticed the break in protocol, he told head coach Michel Therrien. As the players stretched, Therrien moved down the rink and had words with Rangers assistant Ulf Samuelsson. Observers said the exchange was somewhat prickly.
Samuelsson, no stranger to antagonizing rivals during his playing days, and fellow assistant coach Dan Lacroix left soon after.
Therrien told reporters later there was a “gentleman’s agreement” that rival coaches don’t attend practices on non-game days. The idea is to allow coaches to make changes or test out new strategies in private.
“When we saw those assistant coaches there, they were not supposed to be there, so we let them know,” Therrien said pithily.
New York president and GM Glen Sather watched the practice from one of the top rows of the lower bowl at Madison Square Garden, seemingly more interested in his phone than what was happening on the ice.
Game 4 is Sunday night. The Rangers lead the series two games to one.
While coaches seemed hot and bothered over the presence of the Rangers coaches, Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban was oblivious.
“I get in trouble when I’m looking up in the stands,” he said, drawing laughs.
The Canadiens, coming off a bitter seven-game battle with their rival Bruins, are finding themselves down and dirty again in the trenches with the Rangers.
The series has already left an ugly trail.
Montreal’s Brandon Prust has been suspended two games for the Game 3 hit that broke Derek Stepan’s jaw. Rangers agitator Dan Carcillo has been banned for 10 games for jostling a linesman in the wake of the Prust hit. And Stepan was recovering in hospital Saturday from surgery to repair his jaw.
Carcillo has requested that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman review the 10-game suspension, according to the NHL Players Association.
“I think it’s building,” Habs forward Brendan Gallagher said of the animosity between the two teams, which he has helped grow by throwing his five-foot-nine, 180-pound body around with reckless abandon.
“Last game, it certainly took a big step forward,” he added.
Gallagher looks like his mum still packs him a lunch. But he is fearless, a hockey Smurf full of grit and attitude.
While his assistants were stirring the pot Saturday, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault — the picture of calm normally — was still burning over the missed call on the Prust hit and the domino-effect mayhem that ensued.
“At the end of the day if the right call is made on the ice, that whole situation doesn’t happen,” he lamented.
The war of words continued on the Rangers website, which noted Stepan was New York’s second-leading playoff scorer while fourth-liner Prust “has had trouble keeping up with the speedy Rangers through the first three games of this series.”
The good news for Vigneault was word that Derick Brassard is healthy.
The New York centre left early in Game 1 with an upper body injury after being checked by Canadiens defenceman Mike Weaver and has not played since.
Brassard told reporters after practice that he was good to go. That brought a smile to the face of Vigneault.
“I was told he cleared himself,” Vigneault said with a laugh. “That’s good to know. He didn’t tell me.”
As one might expect, Vigneault said Stepan was “unlikely” to play Sunday. The 23-year-old centre has not missed a game since coming into the league in the 2010-11 season.
Carcillo declined to speak to reporters Saturday. But Vigneault said the player knew he needed to have kept control of himself.
“I can’t begin to tell you how bad he feels about the whole thing,” the coach said. “His situation, his personal future, the team. There’s nothing he can do about it now and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Forward Brad Richards called the abrasive Carcillo “a great teammate.”
“I heard a lot about him before but I don’t have one bad thing to say about him.”
The New York players, for the most part, had little to say about the length of the ban to Prust, a former Ranger. But goalie Henrik Lundqvist said that hot spots in the playoffs usually cool down in the off-season.
“Especially during the playoffs, you don’t see your opponents as friends, even though you’ve played with them. Right now I don’t have any friends in Montreal,” the stylish Swede said with a chuckle. “They’re just enemies and you play it that way. That’s your approach.
“But you also have to understand this game, you know, there’s a lot of players that play on the edge. That’s their role, that’s what they do. They’re always going to play it like that and sometimes things happen and maybe they take it a little too far. As it comes to relationships, as friends, in the summertime you move past it.
“But right now, do I like what happened? Absolutely not. But it’s on the ice, it happens on the ice. It is what it is.”
Michael Bournival slotted into Prust’s place on Montreal’s fourth line in practice. Francis Bouillon was skating in place of Nathan Beaulieu on defence.
Subban and other Habs said, despite the Game 3 overtime win, the Canadiens have more in the tank.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey yet this series,” said Subban.
And they acknowledged that they cannot rely on young goalie Dustin Tokarski’s heroics, as they did last time out.
“We now we can’t expect him to do that every game, so we want to be better in front of him,” said Canadiens captain Brian Gionta.
On the Rangers side, J.T. Miller was skating in place of Carcillo on the fourth line with Derek Dorsett and Brian Boyle.
New York gave winger Chris Kreider a “maintenance day” off. That meant Dominic Moore skated with Rick Nash and Jesper Fast, filling in for Kreider.
NOTES: Game 4 will be shown at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Canadiens officials say more than 20,000 tickets have already been snapped up.