Rather than recap a 4-3 win on home ice in which the Rangers held on for dear life against the mediocre Flyers Sunday, I would prefer to look ahead. By winning at MSG for the first time since mid-February, they guaranteed themselves the top wildcard. With three games remaining this week, they would have to run the table and have Columbus not get a point to tie them in the standings. Even if they did, they would have an identical ROW which probably means a second tiebreaker of head-to-head. Columbus took the season series 3-2.
With Montreal wrapping up the Atlantic Division with a 4-1 win over Florida tonight, the Canadiens have all but guaranteed a first round meeting with the Rangers. Unless pigs can fly or you believe in the tooth fairy, it’s happening. So, let’s just look at the potential match-up.
For starters, it would be the first playoff meeting since the much discussed 2014 Eastern Conference Final. A series the Rangers won in six games behind Henrik Lundqvist along with unlikely heroes Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore combining for the only score in an emotional Game 6 at a very loud MSG. The best game I’ve ever attended. I went to one Stanley Cup Final game. But they lost and fell in a crushing five games against Los Angeles. A winnable series despite the outcome.
You know when the Original Six series becomes official, every Montreal reporter will rehash the Chris Kreider collision that KO’d Carey Price in Game 1 ending his postseason. A play in which he was tripped from behind by defenseman Alexei Emelin. Something Habs fans like to conveniently forget. Even with unknown backup Dustin Tokarski who turned into an AHL goalie, the Habs fought valiantly back in the series after losing the first two games at home. They won two of the next three to put pressure squarely on the Rangers to win Game 6 which they did to clinch the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1994.
Regarding the whole Kreider/Price thing, it’s overplayed. It’s been over for a long time. Kreider remarked to Larry Brooks that it was five years ago. Well, actually three. But it feels like longer. So, I understand his frustration. Kreider does go hard to the net and leads the league in goaltender interference minor penalties with five. That’s part of his job. To use his big body and do the dirty work. That doesn’t make him what the Montreal press and some fans along with other Canadian journalists have tried to label him.
This isn’t three years ago. Kreider isn’t a second-year player who’s still learning. He’s 25 and now leads the Rangers in goals with 28, passing Michael Grabner finally with a nifty redirect of a Derek Stepan shot pass in Sunday’s one-goal victory to at least temporarily end the MSG jinx. We’ll see if they can make it two in a row when they host Pittsburgh this Sunday in the final game. One which will be emotional with the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award being presented by Steven’s son Pat.
For now, the Rangers will play the next two on the road with a Rivalry Night game at Washington Wednesday and a visit to Ottawa which could determine a great deal given the Senators recent struggles. The Lightning are very much alive and the Islanders still cling to hope. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
It’s no secret that this team historically doesn’t play well at the Bell Centre. What’s more? They lost all three games to Les Habitants in the season series getting beat badly last time out on March 4 in a lopsided 4-1 loss at The Garden. A embarrassing game in which the more beefed up Habs brutalized them. The end result was the organization summoning Tanner Glass from purgatory. It wasn’t pretty. Glass hasn’t played daily but has acquitted himself well when given the chance on the fourth line. How much he plays is up to coach Alain Vigneault, who has a much more skilled rookie in 21-year old Pavel Buchnevich. A gifted offensive player who can commit costly mistakes defensively. Ditto for rookie Jimmy Vesey, who the coaching staff has more faith in.
It remains to be seen how Vigneault will play it with his lines after the cohesive top unit of Kreider, Stepan and leading scorer Mats Zuccarello. He has gone to J.T. Miller moving him up to Mika Zibanejad and Rick Nash with positive results. Miller is the most interchangeable player on the roster. He can play any role but is best suited in the top nine. With Grabner going ice cold and Kevin Hayes in a funk, it doesn’t make sense to keep Miller with them. Not unless Vigneault goes back to the trio and they produce the final three games to form the kind of dangerous countering third line that can give the Habs trouble.
The coach has his work cut out. Meanwhile, Oscar Lindberg has proven to be a capable fourth line center who is strong on the forecheck and has contributed key goals and assists the past two months. He centered a Kid Line with Buchnevich and Vesey which looked good producing. Would he go back to it? Jesper Fast isn’t suited for a top nine role even though Vigneault likes his defensive acumen and tenaciousness. He fits better with Lindberg and Glass if the coach wants a physical checking line. But has the option of Buchnevich unless he finally drops Grabner to the fourth line. It would make sense considering.
Maybe Vigneault should try Buchnevich and Vesey with Hayes and see if they mesh. Vesey has gotten some shifts but not fared well. Buchnevich not as much. He’s been featured with Zibanejad and Nash but lately finds himself on the fourth line due to inexperience. He’s not a finished product. He still gets power play time as does Vesey, which the staff must continue to do come playoff time.
There’s also the matter of the defense. An area that remains a giant question mark. With Dan Girardi rounding into form, it looks like he’s a lock for the top six. But who will he play with? It’s either going to be Ryan McDonagh or Brady Skjei. Both are great skating left defensemen who can help protect Girardi and work well with him. Girardi is a meat and potatoes guy who sacrifices for the team. He must pick his spots and not get caught out of position. The forwards haven’t exactly helped in that area when it comes to protecting the house.
Nick Holden has been a Vigneault favorite. A good investment by GM Jeff Gorton, who only gave up a fourth round pick to Colorado for a good skating offensive defenseman. Holden has scored 11 goals including three on the power play. Both totals lead all Blueshirts D. Offensively speaking, his 34 points are good. However, his defense has fallen off. He’s been frequently beaten on goals against and forced into turnovers. But the coach has been reluctant to sit Holden and see if a lineup with a healthy Girardi and Kevin Klein can be more effective defensively. Not that Klein is what he once was. But he can also kill penalties like Girardi, who has more of a positive impact shorthanded. Holden can’t kill penalties.
The dilemma for the coaching staff is how to protect elder statesmen Girardi and Marc Staal. Staal has had his ups and downs but remains a trusted player who receives top four minutes. With the development of brilliant rookie Skjei, they can better manage his ice-time. Skjei is more than capable of being moved up when necessary. The addition of the more gritty and physical Brendan Smith has also given the blue line a boost. He will battle players in the trenches and in front. He just must stay away from the penalty box.
It would seem it’s seven players for six spots. Vigneault has a choice. He doesn’t have to go with the same six every game when the postseason starts the following week. He can mix and match. Something he’s been willing to try more of when the situation applied. It’s his call. Will he give Skjei and Smith more ice-time and use them as a second tandem that can check more effectively while giving Staal and Holden assuming they stay intact easier match-ups? That remains to be seen.
What about McDonagh? He plays power play, penalty kill and of course is the workhorse who gets the top lines. The captain is trusted in every situation and must excel five-on-five for them to have any chance against the team that drafted him. His brilliant play three years ago burned Montreal. He hasn’t been able to reach that elite level since with injuries to both shoulders and concussions limiting his effectiveness. At times, he still shows capable of dominating shifts while there are other moments where he is beaten more than he used to be.
Outside of McDonagh, the keys are one or two of Girardi, Staal, Smith and Klein (if he’s in) being factors. Believe it or not, the team needs the vets to come through or there’s no realistic chance of winning a potential seven-game series with a very fast and tougher Montreal. It won’t be a picnic. Maybe Vigneault should just let Skjei and Holden (if he plays) man the points on the power play and save McDonagh for the grunt work. He’s going to be asked to do a lot already. But knowing AV, he’ll have McDonagh play power play. Something he isn’t that good at. Especially when it comes to getting his shot through.
Of course, it’s up to Lundqvist to keep it together. Now 35, the veteran knows time is running out. How many more chances will he get at winning a Stanley Cup? But after a Stanley Cup appearance and a crushing seventh game home defeat in a third Conference Final, he finally broke against the eventual Cup champion Pens last year behind an awful D. One in which Vigneault relied too heavily on warriors Girardi and Staal. It was a sad sight. Lundqvist suffered the indignity of getting pulled for backup Antti Raanta twice while also leaving Game 1 early due to injury.
Statistically, this is his worst year. He’s still won 31 games but only has two shutouts with an uncharacteristic goals-against-average of 2.75 and a career low .910 save percentage. Way off his career average of .920. Injuries continue to plague Lundqvist as he hits the latter stage. Does he have it in him to carry a flawed team through the Atlantic back to a Conference Final where super powers Washington, Pittsburgh or even Columbus should wait? It’s hard to say. Nobody has ever questioned the goalie’s heart. Few have more passion and take losses more personally.
What about Lundqvist’s career at the House of Horrors? Sure. He went 2-for-3 at Bell Centre in the playoffs. But that was against Tokarski with Price down. Let’s face it. Price is the Canadiens. He’s also younger and at peak form. Ever since Claude Julien took over, he’s been back to the old Carey who swept the Hart and Vezina. Outside of Lundqvist’s success in that series, he has continued to have nightmares. He replaced an injured Raanta and gave up five goals on 22 shots in an ugly 5-4 loss.
If Lundqvist struggles and the team falls behind, would Vigneault ever consider going to his capable backup? Highly unlikely. If it came to that, I wouldn’t be opposed. Raanta has proven unflappable and the team seems to rally around him playing better hockey. How else do you explain his 16 wins, 2.26 GAA, .922 save percentage and team-leading four shutouts? Raanta can also play the puck more effectively than Lundqvist, who should stay in net. That might help explain the shots allowed differential. Lundqvist faces an average of 28.9 while Raanta faces 26.1.
Why are the Habs a dangerous opponent? For starters, Price is the goalie. It won’t be easy to get to him but can be done. As Kreider pointed out yesterday, clean shots don’t beat that kind of caliber goalie. It’s getting traffic in front, screening, deflections and rebounds. Not just Kreider must make life difficult on Price. But Nash, who’s been playing much better. Miller too as he brings a needed edge as does little giant Zuccarello. Stepan isn’t known for it but he really has picked it up and played a more consistent North/South game.
Montreal also boasts some big weapons in big finisher Max Pacioretty and top defenseman Shea Weber, who can blast away with the best of them. Skill players such as Alex Galchenyuk and Alex Radulov can make the Habs power play lethal. But it’s Weber who is most potent getting 12 of his 17 goals on the man-advantage. Pacioretty has eight of his 35 while Galchenyuk and Radulov each have six.
The Habs also have old reliable Tomas Plekanec to kill penalties and play a checking role. Though not what he once was, the veteran shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s a shorthanded threat. Montreal also has good support players in pest Brendan Gallagher along with former Cup champion Andrew Shaw. Both make them a pain in the ass to play. Throw in the annoying Steve Ott and Dwight King and there’s plenty of grit to Montreal.
Perhaps the most underappreciated player is Paul Byron. A former waiver wire pickup, all he does is score clutch goals. He has 22 markers and six have been game deciders. Byron is a solid secondary scorer who can be relied on as can Phillip Danault. Both have 40 points or more and have shown huge improvement. Throw in youngsters Arturi Lehkonen and Michael McCarron plus pesky Andreas Martinsen and it’s no wonder I have legit concerns about a Rangers/Canadiens first round series.
Top to bottom, the Habs are deeper due to a solid mix of speed, skill and physicality. It will be a tough match-up. The Rangers will need to impose their will. That means getting pucks deep and winning the battles in the corners. They must get the uniform dirty and forecheck Montreal to death. It also means good puck management. Any Julien coached team feeds off neutral zone turnovers. Something that was apparent in the final meeting.
The D can be attacked. Andrei Markov is still a good puck moving type that can contribute offensively. But can be exploited in his end. The key to the back end is the underrated Jeff Petry. A good right D who gets over 22 minutes while Weber receives 25, Petry is the nuts and bolts of their blue line. He is effective five-on-five and capable of contributing offense. There’s also Emelin, who loves to throw the weight around. It doesn’t matter if it’s borderline or clean. He will finish every check and drive our players nuts. They must stay disciplined but not be afraid to send a message.
The Habs added former Star Jordie Benn for depth to a group that includes Nathan Beaulieu. Nikita Nesterov was also a deadline pickup. Brandon Davidson and Nesterov have played lately.
Honestly, I want to believe that the Rangers can win this series. But they will need an awful lot to go right for it to happen. Realistically, I see the Canadiens avenging 2014 by winning in five. If I’m being generous, six. Hopefully, the boys will prove me wrong.