2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Prospectus: New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens
As always, once the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, the whole tournament is a total crap shoot. Everything you think you know (mostly) goes out the window at puck drop from the onset of each series. You can take these predictions as a grain of salt, or somewhat of a guide to what to look for in each series. For instance, Montreal owned the Rangers during the regular season, and with trade deadline acquisitions — more on that later — they appear to be even more formidable as the kryptonite to much of what the Rangers like to do.
New York Rangers (WC1/Metropolitan) vs. Montreal Canadiens (Atlantic Division Champion)
Two Original Six teams. Gary Bettman’s dream.
As it is, Les Habitants have home ice advantage in this series. It doesn’t mean much. Match up advantages rule all team versus sports. The Rangers have been the best road team in the NHL all season, but the one venue that has been a veritable “House of Horrors” for them for years now is the home ice of the Canadiens.
What to look for? Goaltending, for one.
Carey Price has been rolling since Claude Julien took over for Michel Therrien on Valentine’s Day, and with the acquisitions of Dwight King (Kings), Steve Ott (Red Wings) and the emergence of Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, the Habs can actually roll all four lines and be productive in the process. Montreal has so much depth that they have used Alex Galchenyuk on the fourth line (and could at times in this series). On defence, Montreal has no flash, but meat and potatoes stay-at-home guys who are generally responsible, if not beatable. Shea Weber is by far the best of the group, with Jeff Petry being arguably the second best defenceman the Habs possess. Erstwhile, they still maintain Nathan Beaulieu, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin to go with former Tampa Bay Lightning Nikita Nesterov. This is not a great defence. They do what they are asked in their own zone, but if they allow the Rangers to get out in their favored transition game, Montreal could be in trouble.
Up front, pests such as Andrew Shaw, Brendan Gallagher are going to be in Henrik Lundqvist’s grill all series. The Philip Danault line with longtime Rangers nemesis Max Pacioretty and formerly exiled Alex Radulov has been rolling under Julien. The Habs have a balance of speed, skill and size to play any type of game, and Carey Price backstops them.
(Photo Credit: Andy Martin, USA Today Sports)
On the Rangers’ side, their game is all about speed and skill. Teams know this and look to clog the neutral zone, standing up at the blue line and employing a heavy forecheck when possible in order to force the defence — half of whom are not good skaters (Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Nick Holden) or puck handlers — into turnovers. This makes Alain Vigneault’s pairings pivotal (and, since they have been released, quite dubious) but they are not engraved in stone and he is known to juggle when he doesn’t see things working.
One thing that “AV” does not adjust is when teams employ a 1-2-2 strategy to prevent the long breakout stretch passes which the Rangers love to employ in order to ignite their fast breaking transition game with odd man rushes. They even do this on penalty kills, as they were among the top teams in short handed goals and points. If the Rangers do not adjust their strategy, should Montreal be able to successfully stop the transition game, they will make a quick exit. Stubbornness is a quality that makes some coaches successful and others consistently fail in the same situations over and over. It has been the case whenever the Rangers have lost in the playoffs under Vigneault (and Tortorella before him), and it will bear watching if Vigneault has finally learned his lesson. Between adjusting puck movement strategies, his propensity for wearing out his top 9, and miscasting players like Tanner Glass on his fourth line — a fourth line that must produce if you expect to win, as the Pittsburgh Penguins proved last year — AV has his work cut out for him. Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast (who, at best, will be rusty after being out for about a month with an injury) had great chemistry heading down the stretch, and Pavel Buchnevich, while not officially relegated to the press box; although he will be there in Game 1, worked well with them. This intent on using the 4th line for grit and toughness only is old time hockey. No one has time for that anymore, nor the potentially of drawing silly penalties for roughing and fighting. Momentum does not always come from playing on the edge. It can sometimes have the opposite effect. The Rangers must be smart.
The top line of Kreider-Stepan-Zuccarello is key here. They must produce on par with the Danault line. The Zibanejad line with Rick Nash and Jimmy Vesey had been great to close the season. Zibanejad has found his game. Nash has played some of his best hockey, even if the geeky stats don’t always align with the eye test, and Vesey is a perfect match for those two big bodies who are strong with puck possession. The X factor in this series is the Kevin Hayes line. You are more apt to find Hayes on a carton of milk than producing on the ice. That must change. He hopes it does. AV hopes it does. His line mates hope it does. Rangers fans hope that it does. Otherwise, they waste the yeoman efforts of JT Miller, who was arguably the best player for the Rangers wire to wire. The Rangers also hope that Michael Grabner ascends back above earth, as he finished the season stuck on the same 27 goals he had at the trade deadline, despite having more glorious chances than some teams get over a 20 game period combined, all by himself.
Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei (who has quietly been on par with the best defencemen in the league in terms of production and playmaking) and Brendan Smith must be the puck rushers. The abomination that is the second pair, Marc Staal and Nick Holden; two big and stationary lefty d-men could doom the Rangers. They have by far been the worst pair on ice of any of the combinations the Rangers used all season. The decision to pair them is eyebrow-raising. But again, those pairings or line combinations up front are not necessarily permanent.
If that pairing is, however, the Rangers will lose. And with the stubbornness of Vigneault (that pairing, and playing Glass over Buchnevich or even Taylor Beck) — unless it changes here — that will inevitably be the case.
Special teams will be of great significance here. Montreal is pretty middling on both the power play and penalty kill, but better at home. The Rangers have been all over the place this season. Early on their power play was great, down the stretch it was about as good. For most of the middle of the season, it was abysmal. The penalty kill has gotten progressively worse since November. They have gotten pivotal kills at times, but the “PK” is either very good or dreadful, especially when it comes to chasing the puck below the goal line and leaving the slot wide open and making Lundqvist look like a fool.
The Rangers may win one game handily, come back from a one or two goal deficit to win another, but this series will turn on a game that comes down to the wire. If the Habs win it, they win the series in six. If the Rangers win it, they could push it to a Game 7, where Henrik Lundqvist, despite some ostensible slippage in the past 18 months, is still money, whereas Carey Price does not have the resume in such scenarios.
We do not think it goes seven, however.
Call: MONTREAL IN 6.