Rangers and Canadiens – The Sequel
If you look at each team’s skill level up front, there really isn’t much of a debate as to which is better set up for success. Aside from Max Pacioretty, the Canadiens don’t have much firepower in their forward group. They have some nice pieces in Alex Radulov, Alex Galchenyuk, and Tomas Plekanec, but not a whole let else. Although guys like Paul Byron, Andrew Shaw, and Brendan Gallagher will chip in a goal every now and then, they aren’t expected to give their team serious contributions. The Canadiens play a “heavy” game, they use their size and physicality on the forecheck and make life difficult for teams that play with speed.
As for the Blueshirts, the team doesn’t have a bona fide superstar, but they do have a lot of highly skilled players. Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, JT Miller, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Mika Zibanejad will all be expected to carry the load. Michael Grabner will need to snap out of his nasty funk; while young guns like Jimmy Vesey, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast and Pavel Buchnevich are going to be counted on to contribute where they can. The Rangers are a team that relies on speed, making stretch passes and breaking out in transition to force an odd man rush. If the Canadiens can get their forecheck going, the Rangers won’t be able to generate a lot of scoring chances.
The good news for the Rangers is that the Canadiens don’t have much in the way of talent up front. The bad news for the Rangers is that the Rangers defense doesn’t have much talent on the back end. Aside from Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei, the Rangers defense is still going to be their Achilles’ heel. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are the grizzled veterans of this group, but their play has been regressing the last two years. And while both have been better this season, there is still a concern with their game. Nick Holden, who started the season on a tear has cooled down significantly, and his play in his own zone has been suffering. Newly acquired Brendan Smith has been steady since coming to Broadway, but he will need to step it up for the postseason. Any defensive mistakes in this series might not mean just losing a game but could also spell the end of the Rangers season.
The other piece of good news for the Rangers is that the Canadiens defense is not so spectacular either. Barring Shea Weber, who is sitting out the last two games of the regular season, the Habs defense is not awe-inspiring like it was in their hay-day of the 1950s, the 1960s, and 1970s. They have some solid pieces in Jeff Petry, Alexei Emelin, and Andrei Markov but those aren’t players that will strike fear into their opponents. These are also guys that won’t be able to skate with the likes of Grabner, Miller, and Kreider; which bodes well for the Blueshirts. On paper, this series will come down to which team can get their forecheck working. If it’s the Canadiens, their physical game will wear down the Rangers. But if it’s the Rangers, they’ll be doing laps in the offensive zone.
While this is a matchup of two marquee goalies, the 2012 Vezina winner that is Henrik Lundqvist has not been himself this season. Whether it is his age or something else, he has been very inconsistent between the pipes for the Broadway Blueshirts. If his Rangers have any chance of making a run in the postseason, King Henrik will have to play like one and be able to steal some games. For the Canadiens, Carey Price has been his usual self this year, with a .923SV% and a fifth best 37 wins. And unless Chris Kreider has designs of a repeat of the 2014 ECF, the Rangers will need to figure out how to get pucks past the Habs netminder. And how can that be done? Simple. Scoring in transition and creating traffic in front. In a piece on MSGnetworks.com, Chris Boyle analyzed Price’s play and said: “…the Tampa Bay Lightning employed against the Canadiens during the 2015 NHL playoffs, resulting in Price registering an un-Vezina like .896 SV%, as the Canadiens bowed out meekly in six games.” If the Blueshirts can capitalize on the Canadiens’ mistakes, they should be able to put pucks past Carey Price.
The Rangers have struggled mightily this season at MSG, which is not good coming into the playoffs. But, there is one saving grace for the Blueshirts; they have been the best road team in the NHL this season. Nobody knows why the Rangers have a tough time at The Garden, but they have to win at home to move on in the playoffs. They will have possibly four games at the Bell Centre in the first round, but the Rangers can’t expect to win every single night. The boys will need to work hard on the road, but even harder at home to ensure success at MSG.
Can Henrik Lundqvist play like the playoff hero of years past? Can the Rangers force the Canadiens to play in their own zone? Can the Rangers get pucks past Carey Price? These are the factors the series hinges on. If things go right for the Blueshirts, I see them winning the series in six games. If not, they can be knocked out in five.