Top Shelf: Habs, Rangers prove the critics wrong

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Updated: 5/15 1:55 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Let's be honest: Most of us in the NHL prognostication game never saw this coming.

Before the playoffs began, the New York Rangers had a solid chance of making it to the Eastern Conference finals, but would you believe they'd make it there after falling behind 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins?

The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, completely blindsided us with their march to the third round. Most people had Tampa Bay disposing of the Habs in the first round, but even after Montreal swept the Lightning it seemed like the Canadiens had little chance to get past the powerhouse Boston Bruins.

Both the Canadiens and Rangers disposed of their vaunted opponents in close Game 7 battles, setting up a surprising matchup for the conference title.

However, just because Montreal and New York have positioned themselves one series win away from a Stanley Cup appearance, the quest for respect is far from over for both teams.

Of the two East finalists, the Canadiens have a greater cause to feel slighted. They were underdogs against Tampa, but when Montreal completed the sweep, a lot of people said the Lightning would've won if not for the injury to starting goaltender Ben Bishop.

Picking the Habs to beat the Bruins in Round 2 didn't make much sense. Boston not only was the reigning East champions but also claimed the Presidents' Trophy as the team with the most points during the 2013-14 regular season.

Montreal has speed on offense, a talented blue line led by P.K. Subban and a great goaltender in Carey Price, but Boston seemed to have the Canadiens beat in terms of overall depth and were obviously more experienced when it came to winning in the playoffs. The Bruins also had a tremendous size advantage over Montreal and Boston was supposed to wear the smaller Canadiens down as the series wore on.

Of course, that didn't happen. Montreal got under the skin of Boston's best players and the club's speed negated the size advantage held by the Bruins.

The Canadiens already earned a huge chunk of respect by virtue of forcing the Bruins to a Game 7, but winning the decisive game on the road and silencing the Boston crowd brought it to another level.

"It comes down to respect," Subban said after Game 7. "I think we've done a lot of great things in this league since I've been here. Our team has done a lot but we've failed to get the respect that I think we deserve and I think now we've earned it."

Even after vanquishing the mighty Bruins, however, the question of respect is still a lingering issue. Although his actions don't speak for the Bruins as a whole, Boston's Milan Lucic chirping at Montreal players in the handshake line is not the type of behavior that suggests the Habs earned his respect.

It's odd that a franchise like Montreal, with its 24 Stanley Cup titles, finds itself trying to prove itself to the rest of the league. It has been over two decades since the Canadiens last played in the Cup Finals, when it won it all by beating Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in the spring of 1993. In fact, the berth in this year's East finals marks only the second time the Habs have made it to the third round since their last title, with a 4-1 series loss to Philadelphia in the 2010 conference finals standing as the club's lone appearance.

While New York is an Original Six franchise like the Canadiens, the Rangers don't boast the same storied history. The Blueshirts have won the Cup four times, but the club's last championship run was in 1994, and that ended a 54- year title drought.

New York also hasn't made it back to the Cup Finals since last reaching the top of the mountain behind captain Mark Messier 20 years ago.

For both clubs, the quest for respect is not nearly at an end. The consensus still maintains that the West is a far superior conference and this year's East champions will be easy pickings for either Anaheim, Chicago or Los Angeles.

Whether it's the Habs or Rangers moving onto the final round, it seems true respect will come only when one of them hoist the Cup and pass it around. The critics still see that as a long shot, but what do they know?

CONFERENCE FINAL OPENERS ANNOUNCED

While the announcement of the complete schedule for Round 3 awaits another Game 7 battle -- Friday's decisive showdown in Anaheim between the Ducks and Kings -- we at least know when the conference finals will get underway.

The Habs and Rangers will kick off their series Saturday afternoon in Montreal, with Game 1 of the West finals set for the following day.

Chicago has earned a spot in the conference final after beating Minnesota in six games, but the location of the opening game out West is still up in the air. If the Ducks beat L.A. on Friday, then Anaheim, the conference's top seed, will host the reigning Cup champions on Sunday afternoon, but Chicago will hold home-ice if the Kings take Game 7.

A Los Angeles victory also would set up a repeat of last season's West finals, which Chicago won in five games.

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