The Rangers’ first-round series against the Canadiens will mark the 16th time the teams have met in the playoffs, the most of any opponent in Rangers history. (The Rangers won eight of the first 15.)
The teams’ most recent encounter was in the Eastern Conference final in 2014, in which the Rangers won the series, 4-2. But even those stakes do not match those in 1979, when they met in the Stanley Cup Final.
That series is not as well remembered around here as the Rangers’ six-game upset of the Islanders in the prior round, one of the most memorable series in New York hockey history.
But the Final had its moments, too, with the Rangers winning Game 1, 4-1, then taking a 2-0 lead 6:21 into Game 2 before it all went wrong against the supremely talented Canadiens, who won the series and the Cup in five games. (The Rangers lost Game 4 in overtime with a chance to tie the series at 2.)
Did the Rangers appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking at the time, given the Canadiens’ roster full of future Hall of Famers, bound for their fourth consecutive Cup?
“I think we recognized it at the time; I know I did,” said Dave Maloney, then the Rangers’ captain and now their radio analyst. “But it gets more striking as time would go on and you look at that roster.”
Maloney recalled thinking that things were going well when the Rangers took that early lead in Game 2, “but then we got blitzkrieg-ed from there on.” The Canadiens scored six goals in a row to win, 6-2.
The Islanders series loomed so large that many fans were less disappointed by the loss to Montreal than they might otherwise have been. But Maloney recalled sitting on the bus after the Final ended and not feeling that way at all.
“My most vivid memory was when it was over how empty you felt,” he said, “just thinking, that’s it, we’re done.”
He figured the Rangers were young and talented enough that they would be back, but instead it was the Islanders who appeared in the next five Finals, winning the first four. The Rangers did not get back until 1994, and after that not until 2014 — stepping over the Canadiens to get there.
Maloney, a defenseman, was not a big goal-scorer, but he had a really big one in Game 1 in ‘79, scoring shorthanded on Montreal goalie Ken Dryden for the game’s final goal.
Where does it rank among the 78 he scored in his NHL career?
“It’s there,” he said, laughing. “It might be THE highlight, in all honesty . . . I have to admit, it was a pretty good goal, down the left side. When I tell the story of that goal, it was actually a good goal.”
For a time Maloney thought he might have scored the final goal ever against Dryden when Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman benched Dryden in favor of Bunny Larocque for Game 2.
But Larocque was hurt in warmups when a puck hit him in the head. Dryden won the next four games, then called it a career.
Maloney, 60, spoke while sitting on the plane Tuesday awaiting the trip to Montreal, still eager after all these years to be starting another potential playoff run. He will be heard on the radio during the games and appear on MSG's TV coverage after games. He recalled his first, the year before the loss to the Canadiens, when the Rangers were eliminated in a best-of-three preliminary round series by the Sabres.
“Everybody is at the starting line, and I’ve always had that feeling come playoff time,” he said. “No question how exciting it is to get going and zero in on one opponent.”
This opponent more than most.