by Dan Mount, Contributing Writer
The Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers are a lot alike.
Both teams are steeped in tradition. Both teams are in the midst of long Stanley Cup droughts. Both teams have slain the giants of their respective divisions. Both have great goaltenders and both have tremendous depth. The similarities between the two clubs are eerie.
This is the first time that the Rangers and the Habs will meet in the playoff series since the 1995-96 season, when New York beat Montreal four games to two.
The 2013-14 Rangers got to hockey’s final four by winning a pair of seven-game series against Keystone State rivals Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Rangers had to survive a tough six game in eight day stretch at the end of the Flyers series and beginning of the Penguins series.
New York seemed left for dead after Pittsburgh took an almost insurmountable 3-1 series lead but the Rangers have seemingly rallied around Martin St. Louis, whose mother unexpectedly passed away last week. St. Louis and Henrik Lundqvist seemingly carried the team on their backs to the first-ever series win after trailing 3-1.
Montreal has carried the hopes of Canada all alone, as they are the only Canadian team that qualified for the playoffs. Les Habitantes started their playoff run with a flourish as they swept Tampa Bay in four games. Montreal got the last laugh against their ancient nemesis Boston in a nasty seven game series.
Both teams boast great goalies in the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and the Canadiens’ Carey Price. Lundqvist rose to the occasion as the Blueshirts earned another game seven win against the Penguins. Price made some spectacular saves to beat the Big Bad Bruins in the second round.
The key for the Rangers will be using their depth. They’ve used all four lines with efficiency, and gotten scoring from each one. The line of Derek Brassard-Mats Zuccarello-Benoit Pouliot has been playing just as well Chicago’s top line of Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane-Patrick Sharp. The fourth line of Derek Dorsett-Brian Boyle-Dominic Moore frustrated Sidney Crosby in the last series. Imagine how good the Rangers could be if guys like Rick Nash scored goals?
The Rangers will also try to exploit the thin defensive group of the Canadiens. P.K. Subban and Josh Georges have been great as the top pair, but the other pairings are a little thin. Subban will play 30 minutes a game, but could be worn down after a rough series against the Bruins and potential tough one against the Rangers.
The defense is also better equipped to handle the Habs high-flying forwards than the Bruins thin defensive ranks. Ryan McDonagh has played very well this postseason and the Blueshirts will need all six defensemen to stop the speedy group of forwards.
The Canadiens will need to rely on other defenders other than Subban and Georges in order to win. Subban can’t play all the minutes and needs more help. If the Rangers top six forwards can get rolling, it could be a bit of a problem.
Montreal does have one of the best goalies in the league in Price. This will be the first series the Rangers are facing an elite netminder. The Rangers had fits in a few games against Steve Mason and Marc-Andre Fleury. Price could steal a game or two for the Canadiens.
David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher broke out of their slump in the last two games against Boston and need to keep the scoring touch going. Montreal coach Michel Therrien has also pressed the right buttons when it comes to when to put different forwards in. He used Douglas Murray to counteract the size of the Bruins, but then inserted rookie Nathan Beaulieu to give them some speed.
Another things the Canadiens have going is that Henrik Lundqvist has trouble at the Belle Centre. King Hank is 4-5-2 with a 3.87 goals-against average and .876 save percentage when he plays in Montreal. He hasn’t even played a game at Montreal since January 2012, where he was pulled after four goals. Having that little edge could help in their efforts to beat the Rangers.
I expect this series to be a low-scoring one with goals at a premium. Both teams are playing with house money and didn’t expect to be at this stage of the playoffs. It’s going to be an entertaining one. I won’t offer a prediction.
Dan Mount covers the Rangers, Islanders and Devils for NYSportScene.com. He also is an NHL columnist for TJRSports.com and is a producer for Spadora on Sports. He can be found on Twitter @DanMountSports.