Let the hatred begin.
The Canadiens' Brandon Prust received a two-game suspension for what the NHL department of player safety called a "late, violent" hit that broke Derek Stepan's jaw in Game 3 on Thursday night.
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So Prust, the once-popular Ranger, is eligible to return for a potential Game 6 at Madison Square Garden. Even without Stepan's fracture, which was discovered Friday, that hit awoke some unpleasant feelings on both sides. Sunday night's Game 4 is primed to be a bit more intense than the previous three games of the Eastern Conference finals.
"Naturally, maybe there is not that rivalry or that hatred for each other the same way that we have with Boston,'' Canadiens forward Lars Eller said. "You have to hate them, yeah, you have to hate them. It shouldn't be hard to get motivation for the conference finals, but it is a little different. There's no problem getting motivation now."
And even with Prust sidelined, the Rangers will have no problem getting fired up themselves. The Canadiens' David Desharnais lauded Prust for the hit on Stepan early in the first period of Game 3, and Montreal coach Michel Therrien tried to equate Stepan's injury with the one suffered by Canadiens goaltender Carey Price in Game 1. Chris Kreider bowled over Price on a failed breakaway attempt, knocking Price out for the remainder of the series.
Desharnais thought Prust "set the tone" for Game 3 with the blindside hit on Stepan.
"I thought it was a good hit," he said. "You never want to see a guy injured like that. But like I said, we were fighting for our lives yesterday and wanted to set the tone."
Therrien's bit of gamesmanship Friday included steering his media session away from the legality of Prust's hit -- Therrien and his players spoke with reporters before the NHL handed down its suspension -- and back to the subject of Price and Kreider.
Therrien had called the play an accident right after Game 1, when Price was pulled after two periods and four goals allowed. The next day, Therrien began to question Kreider's intent. By Monday, when Therrien announced Price was done with a knee injury, Kreider had become "reckless" in Therrien's eyes.
On Friday, with his own player in the spotlight for a reckless play, Therrien returned to one of his favorite topics.
"If there is a team that can understand the loss of a player, it's us," he said. "We lost Carey Price in the first game of the series and we felt frustrated at the time. We're still frustrated not having our goalie, our No. 1 most important player . . .
"[Prust's] intention was not to hurt anyone. Like Kreider, his intention, even if he was going hard to the net and then laying on Carey Price, I'm sure his intention was not to hurt Carey Price. Brandon Prust, he tried to finish his check. His intention, honestly, was not to hurt Stepan."
There still is one more day off before Game 4, so perhaps cooler heads will prevail and the series will get back into focus. That doesn't seem very likely, however.
"Things like that add up," Eller said. "It builds that hatred."