THE CANADIENS WIN IF…
…they and their goaltender play the way they did in the first and last months of the season. If either plays like it did in between, the Canadiens are in trouble. The Canadiens are at their best when their best player, goalie Carey Price, is on his game and gives them the confidence to win low-scoring games. Since the arrival of Claude Julien as coach, the Canadiens are spending a lot less time in their own zone and they’re attacking the puck with more gusto. The Canadiens also have the luxury of Price peaking at the right time after experiencing some ups and more than a few downs during the regular season. A healthy Shea Weber makes the Canadiens far more difficult to play against, particularly in front of their net, than they have been in the past.
The Canadiens go into this series with a lot of success against the Rangers the past couple of seasons, going 3-0-0 against them in 2016-17 and outscoring them 12-7. What’s more, though, is they know they’re in the head of one of the best clutch goaltenders of his generation. Henrik Lundqvist was in goal for all three losses to the Canadiens this season and his career numbers against the Canadiens are downright ugly – a 14-17-3 record, a 2.87 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage. And he has never beaten Price in a regular season game. If they get to Lundqvist early, they’ll be able to turn his playoff persona from dominant to that of a liability.
THE RANGERS WIN IF…
…somehow Lundqvist recaptures his game and outduels Carey Price, while his teammates in front of him play with the physical edge and defensive zealousness that defined them as a team a couple of years ago. The Rangers know their goaltender is a little fragile right now, which means it is now up to them to bail him out for a change. They can do that by keeping the puck out of their end, which means they’ll have to be a much better possession team than they were in the regular season.
And this may seem strange when they’re playing a team that beefed up as much as the Canadiens did at the trade deadline, but the Rangers are going to have to play some smashmouth hockey here. And it looks as though that’s what they’re going to do, putting Tanner Glass in the lineup over rookie Pavel Buchnevich. That’s actually really, really dumb. But if the Rangers top players can create a physical imbalance, it might force the Canadiens to play their bottom-six forwards far more than they’d like and it will seriously curtail their offensive potential.
Canadiens: The only thing missing from Carey Price’s otherwise sterling C.V. is a Stanley Cup championship. And the Canadiens made it clear by dealing P.K. Subban for Shea Weber that their time to win is now. It’s fair to say things have not exactly turned out the way GM Marc Bergevin envisioned in Montreal, but all of that can be made right by Price giving the Canadiens the otherworldly goaltending they’ve received in the past from the likes of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. An interesting subplot to all of this is Price is due to become an unrestricted free agent after next season. How much longer is he willing to wait to be part of a Stanley Cup-winning team?
Rangers: This is an experienced veteran team, the core of which is three years removed from advancing to the Stanley Cup final. It will not be a group that panics if it gets down early in a series because it has been in that position a number of times before. The Rangers are going to need someone to step up and grab this series by the throat. And what if that player is Rick Nash? He has the size and skill to be an enormous difference maker.
If I had to think of the two most underrated wingers in the league, it just might be the two guys going head-to-head here: Max Pacioretty and Mats Zuccarello. Everyone knows about Pacioretty, but he rarely gets fair credit as one of league’s best wingers which he undoubtedly is. He scores, he makes plays, and he drives play better than most players. He’s the complete package. Zuccarello isn’t on his scoring level, but he’s a much better play-maker and gets points at nearly the same rate. He’s been an even better two-way player this season with the Rangers being five shots better in both directions whenever he’s out there. Both guys look about equal by GAR, though Pacioretty gets the edge in Game Score thanks mostly to his massive shot totals. Both these guys are real impressive and their skill will be front and centre in this series. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
CANADIENS in six games.