Henrik Lundqvist once wondered aloud whether there was something wrong with the water in Montreal. So deep have his struggles been at the Bell Centre that the New York Rangers have basically taken to giving their top goaltender the night off when they visit la belle province.
That won’t be an option when the Eastern Conference final opens Saturday afternoon against the Montreal Canadiens.
Lundqvist is the backbone of the Rangers, their MVP. He has more regular-season victories than any other NHL goaltender over the last decade and the best save percentage in these playoffs. However, he also has a few mental demons to overcome in the loudest arena in hockey – although, naturally, that won’t be something he’s acknowledging publicly now.
"Great building, loud building," Lundqvist told reporters in New York on Thursday. "I know I won a couple games – actually I won my first game that I played there. So I know I can do it. You know, in the playoffs so far the record is 0-0.
"It’s just going out there with a good mindset."
The former Vezina Trophy winner sports an uncharacteristic .876 save percentage in Montreal, going 4-5-2 in the process. He backed up backup Cam Talbot during both visits by the Rangers this season, although head coach Alain Vigneault says "it just happened that way."
You have to go all the way back to March 17, 2009 to find Lundqvist’s last win at the Bell Centre. Even in that one, he allowed a late tying goal before New York pulled out a shootout victory. The Rangers then went on a run of eight straight losses in Montreal, a stretch that was interrupted by Talbot’s first career NHL shutout on Nov. 16.
Prior to that game, Vigneault addressed his players about their Montreal malaise. He is in his first year with the team and wanted to clear the air before things spiraled any further.
"I made the point that there are no ghosts in this building," Vigneault said after a 1-0 win. "I told the players that I had coached here before and there was nothing to be afraid of."
As much as the Bell Centre losses clearly got to Lundqvist, who hasn’t played in the building since 2012, the team’s forwards should probably be shouldering more of the blame. Amazingly, the Rangers have scored just four total goals in their last nine visits.
Lundqvist was correct when he pointed out that he fared just fine in Montreal early in his career. The real source of the demons is a Feb. 19, 2008 game where he was in net and the Rangers blew a 5-0 lead. It has been a house of horrors since.
What makes this all the more interesting is that the battle between Lundqvist and Carey Price could ultimately decide this series. They went head-to-head in the gold-medal final at the Sochi Olympics and only one of them will get the chance to play for the Stanley Cup this spring.
Home ice has also proven to be a big advantage for the Habs in these playoffs, with them taking a 1-0 lead by the three-minute mark in three of five games so far. Enthusiasm is running extremely high around the city right now and the Bell Centre is as loud as a plane engine after iconic Quebec singer Ginette Reno performs "O Canada."
"I feel sorry for any team that’s got to come into our building and our city," defenceman P.K. Subban said after a Game 7 win over Boston in the second round. "It’s going to be spectacular. I can’t even explain it. You’ve just got to be there, man.
"So get your tickets."
You can expect the Rangers-Habs series to be low scoring. There was a shutout registered in all three games they played against each other in the regular season, two of which belonged to Montreal. This is a situation that calls for great goaltending and that is what Lundqvist has provided the Rangers for years.
Just not in Montreal too often.
"They’ve just beaten the best team in the NHL," Vigneault said, "so we’re going to have our hands full."
Should the Rangers coach want to put an end to any notion of ghosts in the Bell Centre with his players, he would be wise to pull a good omen from the past. These teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 1996, which just happens to be the first series ever held at the building that succeeded the Montreal Forum.
Not only did the Rangers win all three road games they played against the Habs that spring, they also closed out the first-round series at the Bell Centre.