Sunday, April 9, 2017

{allcanada} Canadiens vs. Rangers playoff preview


Montreal Canadiens (A1) vs New York Rangers (WC1)

Season series: Canadiens won 3-0-0 (Rangers were 0-2-1)

Last playoff meeting: 2014 Eastern Conference Final, Rangers won series 4-2

All-Time playoff series: Rangers lead 8-7


How they got here

The Montreal Canadiens get a shot at redemption against the New York Rangers, who defeated them in six games in the Eastern Conference final in 2014.

The Canadiens won the Atlantic Division with a 47-26-9 record, going 16-7-1 after Claude Julien replaced Michel Therrien as coach on Feb. 14. The Rangers were in the thick of the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division race for most of the season, but limped into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. New York was 40-19-2 record on Feb. 25, but went 8-9-4 from that point on to finish at 48-28-6 to finish in the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.


5 storylines

The King vs. the Savior: The marquee matchup is in goal, one that did not occur in 2014. Montreal's Carey Price and New York's Henrik Lundqvist are two of the best in the world, and whoever plays better likely will move on to the second round. This showdown in the Eastern Conference Final three years ago was cut short when Price was injured in Game 1 in a collision with Rangers forward Chris Kreider. Lundqvist is 14-17-3 in the regular season against the Canadiens, one of three NHL teams he has a losing record against (Ottawa Senators, 15-17-3, and St. Louis Blues, 4-5-0).

The speedy game breakers: The Canadiens and Rangers each possess a player who can be the difference at any moment thanks to their blazing speed. Canadiens forward Paul Byron and Rangers forward Michael Grabner have been two of the most surprising players this season, and they've each done it turning seemingly innocuous loose pucks in the neutral zone into breakaways. Grabner had 27 goals and Byron 22, but what is remarkable is that neither of them score a power-play goal and each of them has scored once shorthanded.

Rangers depth scoring vs. Canadiens shutdown players: Under Julien, the defense pairing of Shea Weber and Andrei Markov and the forward line of Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher and Byron have consistently been used against the opposing team's top lines. The problem the Rangers present is that they make it difficult for opposing teams to identify what the top line is. New York coach Alain Vigneault spreads his offense across three balanced lines, and whoever doesn't have to face Montreal's top shutdown unit should have an easier time producing.

Rangers' lack of depth on defense: As deep as they are up front, the Rangers defense represents their biggest question mark heading into the playoffs. After Ryan McDonagh it gets very thin with a combination of Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Nick Holden, Brendan Smith, Kevin Klein and rookie Brady Skjei filling out the top-6. The Canadiens have a clear advantage in this area and that could be what makes the difference in the goaltending showdown.

The Kreider factor: Canadiens fans definitely have not forgotten what happened to Price in 2014. There is no doubt Kreider will be a target of the Bell Centre fans throughout the series, and the fact that Kreider was the Rangers leader with 28 goals this season should accentuate his villain role on the road. 


By the numbers

4: The Canadiens' NHL rank in goals against and the Rangers' rank in goals scored this season. Something will have to give. Montreal is a stingy team no longer solely relying on Price to prevent goals. Under Julien, the Canadiens are allowing half-a-goal fewer per game than they were under Therrien, so the Rangers will need to work hard to maintain their high scoring ways.

11: The number of times the Canadiens have trailed after two periods and won, the highest total in the League. However, the Rangers are second in the NHL in third-period goals scored (101), so perhaps they are equipped to counter the Canadiens ability to come back late.

88.4: The Canadiens penalty kill percentage under Julien. Montreal has been the least-penalized team in the NHL since Julien took over after being the most-penalized team in the League under Therrien. The Rangers power play went through a long lull but came alive over the final 15 games (13-for-37), but if the Canadiens continue their disciplined play it shouldn't get many opportunities to shine.


In the spotlight

Rangers: J.T. Miller, forward - Miller, 24, was the Rangers' second leading scorer with 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists) in 82 games but did not finish the season very strong with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in his final 26 games. The Rangers will need Miller to produce in this series, even if he's developed other areas of his game that help his team win.

Canadiens: Shea Weber, defenseman - Weber's last playoff game is one he'd rather forget. He was on the ice for all five goals against in the Nashville Predators' 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round last season. Weber entered this season tasked with making Canadiens fans forget the trade that brought him to Montreal and shipped P.K. Subban to Nashville, and he has done that to a large extent. Now Weber has an opportunity to erase the memory of that final playoff game in a Predators uniform.


Keys to victory

Rangers: Relentless pressure. The Rangers' primary advantage is up front and their ability to come at you in waves, with very little drop off from their first forward line to their third. The Rangers need to accentuate that and force the Canadiens to defend for long stretches, something Montreal hasn't done much under Julien, in order to wear Price down over time.

Canadiens: Secondary scoring. The Rangers will focus their attention defensively on the top line of Max Pacioretty, Phillip Danault and Alexander Radulov, so it is vital that Montreal's second and third lines contribute offensively, particularly the line of Alex Galchenyuk, Andrew Shaw and Artturi Lehkonen. With the Plekanec line drawing most of the difficult assignments, providing offensive support for the top will fall largely on the Shaw line. They've been good since they were put together on March 23, particularly the rookie Lehkonen, but that needs to continue.

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