New York: 0-2-1 7 Goals For, 12 Goals Against 90 Shots, 95 Shots Against
Montreal: 3-0-0 12 Goals For, 7 Goals Against 95 Shots, 90 Shots Against
The Montreal Canadiens:
The Montreal Canadiens, after a real disappointing season last year, came back strong this year and clinched the Atlantic Division, solidifying home-ice advantage for at least two rounds. They made the big trade during the off-season, giving up fan favorite P.K. Subban for veteran star defenseman Shea Weber. They also added Alexander Radulov, who ended up having a stellar season for the Habs. Montreal found early success, but then started to fizzle out at the end of December through February, which was scarily reminiscent of their pace last season, which ultimately led to missing the post-season. Before repeating history, they made a bold move and fired head coach Michel Therrien and hired Claude Julien, returning to Montreal after coaching the Bruins for nine and a half seasons. They also added rugged defenseman Jordie Benn, strengthening their blue line. The Canadiens found their stride and played very good hockey down the stretch, heading into the post-season with real confidence.
The Price Is Right
It is pretty obvious the strength behind this team is their goaltending. Carey Price is arguably the best goaltender in the NHL. He posted an impressive 37-20-5 record with a 2.23 GAA and a .923 SV%. And scary enough, he has a whole other level he hasn’t tapped into yet. Not only is he healthy (which has been a concern over the years), but Claude Julien has implemented a system that has been very beneficial to his play. The Montreal defense have been extremely aggressive in their own zone, and with the acquisition of Shea Weber and Jordie Benn, Price has been able to see all pucks coming his way, which has been something he hasn’t been used to. He hasn’t been overworked this season, playing a reasonable 62 games, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. If he’s on, the Canadiens can be a real challenge going down the stretch.
The Scoring Woes Continue
Though Montreal boasts an impressive goaltender and defense, they have a lot of trouble getting pucks in the net. Montreal is 15th in the league in goal-scoring, managing 2.72 goals a game. Captain Max Pacioretty has led the way with an impressive 35 goals, but no one else besides Paul Byron (22) has eclipsed the 20-goal mark this season, which simply is astonishing to say the least. Brendan Gallagher, who is their net-front finisher, has only 10 goals in 64 games, when last year had 19 goals in 53 games. Tomas Plekanec has an abysmal 10 goals and 18 assists in 78 games played. Their future star Alex Galchenyuk also has seen his stats dip, having only 17 goals and 44 points in 61 games. With a great defensive system in place and Carey Price, the Canadiens may not need as many goals a game as most teams, but that being said, they are going to need some of their more offensively gifted players to step up to keep up with the New York Ranger offensive depth they boast.
Small Stature, Biggest Heart
There are many players down this roster that are keys for success (Price, Pacioretty, Byron, Weber) and all of them would be fine choices, but there is only one guy that can set the tone for this team, and that man is Brendan Gallagher. Though not the biggest guy on the team, he plays with heart, passion, grit and tenacity. He doesn’t mind getting into the dirty areas, and come post-season, dirty goals are the goals that win a series. As previously stated, Gallagher has had a tough season not alone on that stat sheet, but suffered a broken hand thanks to his own teammate Shea Weber back in January. Similar to Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello, he uses his height to his advantage, sneaking behind the defense and creating plays around the blue paint, where he makes his living. With a porous Ranger defense, Gallagher could be a deadly weapon the Canadiens desperately need, in an offense mired with inconsistency. If he catches fire, Montreal will have a great chance in winning this series.
The New York Rangers:
This has been a very strange season for the New York Rangers. For a team that has over 45 wins and 100 points, there is still a considerable amount of concern in the Big Apple. The team made little moves over the off-season, though made one very bold trade in sending fan favorite Derick Brassard over to Ottawa for young center Mika Zibanejad. They brought in Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri cheap, and added Nick Holden from Colorado to fill in defensive depth after losing Yandle to Florida and Boyle to retirement. They were also fortunate enough to land Hobey Baker award-winner Jimmy Vesey, after becoming a free agent after refusing to sign with the Nashville Predators. The Rangers exploded out of the gate, scoring at will and even went on a stretch of games where they scored 5 or more goals in 5 straight games. After a strong start, the Rangers showed inconsistency for pretty much the rest of the season. Losing Zibanejad for 2 months due to injury was tough, but most of their struggles have been in the backend, resulting in long stretches in their own zone and quality chances for the opponent. With that being said however, the Rangers are the definition of a Wild Card team.
Deep, deep and deeper
The New York Rangers are deep with talent on all four lines for the first time in a long time. They are 4th in the league in GF/GP, averaging over 3 a game, and have found scoring throughout the line-up. Chris Kreider (28), Michael Grabner (27), Rick Nash (23), and J.T. Miller (22) led the way in goal-scoring while Mats Zuccarello (15 G, 44 A), Kevin Hayes (17 G, 32 A) and Derek Stepan (17 G, 38A) led the way in playmaking. Captain Ryan McDonagh emerged with fire from the backend (6 G, 36 A), while rookie Brady Skjei surprised us all and anchored the blue line offensively on a consistent basis (5 G, 34 A). New-comer Mika Zibanejad suffered a horrific leg injury early in the season and missed about 2 months of play, however still was able to post an impressive season in only 55 games (14 G, 21 A). With the Rangers’ speed and transition, they are a very dangerous team to trade goals with and they will have to rely on their core to continue pushing them offensively against a very good defensive team.
Defensive Holes And Giveaways
The Blueshirts are one of the best transition teams in the game, but their intense focus on transition has also foiled their defensive capabilities. There are too many times during a game where opponents are left wide open in the slot, or spend minutes upon minutes in the defensive end. With Lundqvist on the decline, the Rangers are unable to rely on him game in and game out to bail them out. There are times where the Rangers play up too high looking for the odd-man rush from the defensive end, leaving large gaps in the slot areas. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are playing hard every night, but they always seem a step behind and many times they are to blame for sustained sequences of pressure in the defensive end. The Rangers are also notorious for being too complacent in front of their own net. Lundqvist is always under siege and screened and the Ranger defense needs to do a better job clearing the area, something their opponent does masterfully.
Ranger fans have only seen a small sample of Mika Zibanejad’s brilliance. At 22 years old, Mika was brought in for his speed, creativity and face-off abilities. He has missed a good chunk of games for the Rangers and it took a while for him to get back into the swing of things. But now he’s starting to heat up and the Rangers desperately need him to be one of the best players on the ice, which he is fully capable of being. Here’s a little reminder of what he’s capable of –
One thing that has killed the Rangers in recent years has been their face-off percentage, and even though as a team they are 22nd, Zibanejad has been stellar, so look for Vigneault to put him out there in big time situations, like Keenan did with MacTavish. He is a deadly weapon with both his shot and passing skill, which could really be a huge factor in this series.
This will be one of the toughest series to try and pick a winner. When these two Original Six teams get together fans are always treated to some great hockey. It can go either way, whether Price is a stone-wall or the Rangers clog up the holes and continue their scoring prowess. I think the Rangers are definitely going to be the underdog, even if they’re road record has been stellar. There are just too many gaps in the defensive zone, and the Canadiens do much of their damage around the net. No matter the winner, it’s going to go to 7 games, I can already feel it.
Nothing beats post-season hockey, let’s get the show on the road.