By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers will face off in an Eastern Conference Final that few would have predicted but the matchup of Original Six rivals could be the highlight of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The best-of-seven series, which begins Saturday in Montreal, is both rich in history and subplots, the most intriguing being the looming goaltending duel between the Canadiens' Carey Price and Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist.
Nowhere in the world does passion for hockey burn hotter than Montreal, where one of the city's universities offered a course called The Religion of the Canadiens and where fans are eager to see the team snap a title drought dating back to 1993.
"I told the guys, moving on to the third round, you have no idea what (Montreal) is going to be like," Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban said. "I feel sorry for the team that's got to come into our building now."
But they also love their hockey in the Big Apple and it has been nearly as long since the Rangers were the toast of Broadway and paraded the Stanley Cup along Manhattan's famous Canyon of Heroes in 1994 after ending a 54-year barren run.
The starting goaltenders for the penultimate round of the playoffs represent a rematch from the gold medal game at the Sochi Olympics where Canada's Price outplayed Sweden's Lundqvist in a 3-0 win.
Including the Olympic medal round in Sochi, Price is 5-0 in elimination games this year with a stellar .984 save percentage and will now be now counted on to anchor Montreal's bid to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
"He's a leader; he's the guy on this team," said Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty. "He spoke up and said something like, 'Only live in the moment, don't worry about the past.' I don't know if that's the difference in his game this year from every other year, but I'm speechless with how he's playing."
Rangers fans have also been searching for superlatives to describe Lundqvist's post-season play after New York fought back from a 3-1 series deficit in the East semi-final to eliminate the favored Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.
Lundqvist allowed just three goals over the final three games of the series and the Rangers' 2-1 victory in Tuesday's clincher gave him his fifth consecutive Game Seven win.
Both teams come into the East final battle tested.
New York needed all seven games to get through both their previous series against the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers while Montreal, who swept Tampa Bay in the first round, needed seven games to depose top-seeded Boston Bruins.
The Canadiens and Rangers possess plenty speed and play a similar up-tempo style which should produce entertaining hockey.
Subban, a puck moving defenseman with a booming slap shot, has emerged as the most exciting and despised player of the postseason in leading the Canadiens with 12 points while getting under the skin of the Bruins and their fans.
Austrian Thomas Vanek, a late season pickup, leads Montreal with five goals while Lars Eller, feisty Brendan Gallagher and Rene Bourque each have four. Pacioretty, meanwhile, looks to have rediscovered his touch after scoring the Game Seven winner against the Bruins.
The Rangers have also received contributions from all over their roster with 15 different players finding the back of the net in the 2014 playoffs.
Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, who led Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup title in 2004, have been reunited and rejuvenated in the Big Apple. St. Louis set up Richards for the Game Seven winner against the Penguins.
The Rangers, however, are still looking for Rick Nash, their leading goal scorer during the regular season, to break out of his slump and finally get his first of the playoffs.
Richards leads New York with nine points while St. Louis, who is playing with a heavy heart following the sudden death of his mother last week, has eight.
The Rangers, who will attend France St. Louis' funeral in Montreal on Sunday, have rallied around their teammate, whose courage following the passing of his mother has provided the team with inspiration.
"Him showing up and coming back for us was a real inspiration," said Richards. "I hate talking about it because he lost his mom.
"We'd rather have her back and not rallied around that. It deserves to be talked about it, but at the same time it's still a tough time for their family."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)