The Conference Finals matchup between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadians features two teams that are remarkably similar. Both are small and speedy, have their greatest strength in net, are deep defensively, will struggle to score at times, and neither has made a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals the past two decades. In short, it figures to be a long, tightly contested series — and really, what else would you expect from a series involving this Rangers team?
Both teams have some big names — Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash of the Rangers, Max Pacioretty and trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek for Montreal — and then fill in the rest with a mixture of youth and experience. But while Montreal's forwards have arguably overachieved thus far in the playoffs — no one expects Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher to continue to average close to a point per game — the Rangers' group upfront has underachieved. Nash can't possibly go another series without a goal, can he? And an invigorated Nash would surely help Derek Stepan's middling game improve. Thomas Plekanec is still a good player, but dwindling offensive production suggests his days as a top-line center are behind him. David Desharnais is the French Mats Zuccarello offensively, but has historically struggled in the postseason. If Nash and Stepan produce at all, the Blueshirts have the edge upfront.
Montreal has the biggest name — P.K. Subban — but the Rangers have more depth. The Blueshirts' third pair of John Moore and Kevin Klein instills significantly more faith than Montreal's pairing of wily vet Mike Weaver and unproven Nathan Beaulieu. What the Habs do have, however, is much more offense on the back end. Subban is averaging over a point per game in the playoffs, and Andrei Markov put up 43 points — the same total as Ryan McDonagh — in the regular season. McDonagh has not been himself this postseason, and that, coupled with Subban and Markov's ability to make a difference offensively, gives Montreal a slight edge on the blueline.
One could argue — and you probably wouldn't be wrong — that neither team would be here without their goaltender. Both Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist have been outstanding, particularly in the last round when each helped engineer an upset of a higher seed. Price had the better regular season numbers, and backstopped team Canada to the gold medal — where he bested Lundqvist and Sweden — but the King's postseason numbers are slightly better: sub-2 GAA, .931 SV%, vs. 2.15 and .926 for Price. Lundqvist's playoff history isn't as checker as Price's — the Habs' netminder was a dud last year — but Montreal has been the Svelte Swede's own personal house of horrors — he has a career 3.87 GAA and .876 SV% at the Bell Centre, hasn’t won there since 2009, and last saw action in the building two years ago. There's strong arguments to be made in favor of each goaltender — it's a push.
The matchup of bench bosses features two guys who are about as similar as you can get — right down to their French-Canadian heritage. Both Alain Vigneault and Michel Therrien have been to the finals and lost — Vigneault to Boston in 7, Therrien to Detroit in 6 — neither had been past the first round since, and both have coached the Canadians — Therrien, in his second stint with the Habs, replaced Vigneault when the latter was axed in 2000. The difference is, Therrien was fired midway through the following season after his Penguins made it to the finals — and then watched Dan Bylsma lead the same group to glory. That's a black mark on his resume — Pittsburgh improved after Therrien's departure, Vancouver did not — to put it mildly — after Vigneault's. AV by a hair.
In the regular season, the two clubs' special teams were very similar — superb penalty kill, middling power play — but the postseason has been another story. Montreal's PP has been a weapon — 10 for 38 (26%) — while the Rangers are a hideous 6 for 55 (11%), including an 0 for 36 funk which stretched across nine games. The PK's have been about equal, with both teams around 80%, but if the Rangers don't find a permanent solution to their seemingly never-ending power play issues, special teams could be a decided advantage for the Canadians.
Verdict: Rangers in 6
Why? The Rangers are simply a stronger team. No one believes the Canadians are actually better than Boston, but you could make the case the Blueshirts – who did not play their best — really are superior to Pittsburgh. The Rangers should be able to dictate play against the Habs and earn an advantage in shots and puck possession. Aesthetically, this series will more closely resemble Philadelphia than Pittsburgh, from a Rangers' perspective, in that the Blueshirts should control the puck. The question is, can they beat Carey Price — the Rangers are yet to show they can light up mediocre goalies, let alone elite ones — and can Henrik Lundqvist exorcize his Montreal demons? If those two things happen, the Rangers will march on to the Finals — but would be wise to avoid the potential buzz saw that would be a game 7 in rowdy Montreal.
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