GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Coach Alain Vigneault, Brad Richards and the rest of the New York Rangers couldn't hide their excitement about facing the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals.
They already knew their next opponent would be a fellow Original Six team, but facing the storied Canadiens carries a little more cache than playing the Boston Bruins.
Montreal advanced to the final four with a 3-1 win at Boston in Game 7 on Wednesday night. The Rangers moved on one night earlier, knocking off the Penguins in Pittsburgh in another Game 7—capping a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
The series begins Saturday in Montreal.
"I'm not going to lie, it's the best place to play," Richards said Thursday. "I've been fortunate enough to see Super Bowls, I was at Yankees-Red Sox at old Yankee Stadium Game 7, World Series, I've played in the Stanley Cup finals.
"I can't imagine any other sporting event that is this amazing of an atmosphere. It's very special."
Vigneault was a bit more tempered, and looked relaxed in sandals while speaking to reporters in English and French following his team's optional practice. Vigneault is in his first season as Rangers coach, following a long stint with Vancouver. The Canadiens hired him back in 1997 for his first NHL head coaching job.
"I've got nothing but positive memories from my time there," said Vigneault, a day after his 53rd birthday. "I've worked with some great people. I'm here today because I started there.
"Original Six games are always exciting and there's a lot of history associated with both teams. Playing against the Montreal Canadiens, it's going to be a lot of fun. Our group is real excited about this opportunity, and I'm sure the Habs feel the same."
Montreal won the last of its record 24 Stanley Cup titles in 1993, and the Rangers ended a 54-year championship drought the following season but haven't captured the Cup since.
These teams are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 1996, when the Rangers won the first-round series in six games. Overall, they have faced off in the post-season 14 times with each team winning seven. This is the third matchup since Montreal knocked off the Rangers in five games in the 1979 Stanley Cup finals.
"For a Canadian kid, for the guys from Quebec it's really special," said Richards, a native of Prince Edward Island. "From where I'm from, there's a lot of Montreal fans. It's the closest NHL city in Canada to us. Our whole life was Montreal. That's all you get to see on TV.
"It's an amazing place. It's going to be so fun. It's a great opportunity for us."
The Canadiens were the only team from north of the border to qualify for this year's playoffs, and they have certainly proven they belong. They swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round and then outlasted Boston—the NHL's best team during the regular season—after trailing that series 3-2.
They are 4-1 at home in these playoffs. The Rangers and Canadiens went 1-1-1 against each other during the regular season. New York earned a 1-0 victory in Montreal on Nov. 16 and lost 1-0 in a shootout there to complete the regular season.
No. 1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist didn't play in either game there, a building in which the Rangers have struggled to win in recent years—going 1-7-2 in their last 10 visits.
"It's so long ago since I played there, so I don't really remember," said Lundqvist, with a laugh. "I look forward to going there. I am excited to play. It's a conference final in Montreal. I will try to go out and play the same way. Don't overthink it. Go out and enjoy it.
"As much as you focus on yourself, it's a team game. Going up there, sticking together, and believe that we can do it."
The Rangers are still dealing with the unexpected death of forward Martin St. Louis' mother before Game 5 against Pittsburgh. St. Louis briefly returned home to Montreal, but rejoined his teammates. He then scored a goal on Mother's Day in the Rangers' Game 6 win.
Funeral plans had been made for Saturday, and the Rangers were unable to change the starting of Game 1 that day because of television commitments for NBC.
"Marty, being who he is, was able to move the funeral to Sunday," Vigneault said. "So, Sunday, as a team we'll be able to attend his mother's funeral. Hopefully, we'll play a good game Saturday and get ready for the next one after."
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