Nobody volunteered to write this for me, so I am going to just do a quick and dirty series preview.
Montreal has the three best forwards in this series between Max Pacioretty, Alex Radulov, and Alex Galchenyuk. Now, each of these three comes with a bit of a question mark. For Pacioretty, it’s the high stick he took in yesterday’s practice. I have a feeling that he’s fine, but if he were to miss any time, it would be a tremendous blow to the Canadiens. For Galchenyuk, it’s Claude Julien’s deployment that is puzzling, as he is trying to push Galchenyuk’s buttons (think AV putting JT Miller on the 4th line) at this time of year. For Radulov, it’s a question of performing in the NHL playoffs. We all can remember his behavior while a member of the Nashville Predators led to him being made a healthy scratch and NHL pariah for a few years before this recent return. It seems like all of that is behind him now, but he still needs to show that he can play in the NHL playoffs.
Rounding out the rest of Montreal’s forwards are the Erik Christensen-esque 1st line center of Phillip Danault, surprising Paul Byron, the disappointing but still pesky Brendan Gallagher, the whiplash injury waiting to happen Tomas Plekanec, the talented rookie Artturi Lehkonen, and then a lot of grit and sandpaper. There are some good parts here, but if the big three aren’t producing, it’s unlikely that any of the remaining forwards will be able to help carry the load.
For the Rangers, it’s definitely more of a committee approach. We have a lot of players that typically are not strong playoff performers, most notoriously Rick Nash, but there are so many lines that can contribute offense that we should be able to match lines or roll lines, whichever AV prefers, without any fear of being outmatched over the course of the game.
While I think Montreal’s depth at forward is being underrated around here, I still have to agree with the general consensus.
Montreal will have the best defenseman in this series in Shea Weber. Even if he’s not what he used to be, even if he’s not what he was at the beginning of the season, he’s still an absolute force and huge minute eater. Also, as a team in the playoffs we have been vulnerable to shots from the point as we collapse around the net. Weber can make us pay for that.
The remainder of the Montreal defense has been criminally underrated around these parts. Andrei Markov is still a solid puckmoving defenseman that’s not a total liability in his own zone. He’s probably the third best defenseman in this series. Jeff Petry is a solid puckmover and the addition of Jordie Benn to stay at home while Petry plays offense has really stabilized Montreal’s second pair. Nathan Beaulieu is a streaky player on both ends of the ice. His pairing with Nesterov has been working well for the Canadiens recently to the point that they are rarely liabilities. Emelin being injured is a blessing in disguise.
The Rangers defense is terribly overrated. Ryan McDonagh is great and has been having a very strong season. Brady Skjei is an excellent puck mover and his skills will be needed to help generate offense and keep the puck out of our zone t oeliminate the grinding game that Montreal’s bottom six will try and play. By the same token, I think Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and Brendan Smith are going to be liabilities in this series. These guys simply cannot get the puck out of the zone and Montreal’s bottom six is going to play a chip and chase game and grind them down, forcing these guys into turnovers (penalties in Smith’s case) all series long. Girardi handles the puck like it’s a grenade. Holden has shown flashes in both directions this season, so I’m not sure which way he will go. Recently, his play has been poor.
Despite the conventional wisdom that the Rangers have the superior depth on defense, I just think the inability of our defense to play the puck is such a tremendous liability that I can’t agree.
Both goaltenders had rough starts to the season. However, in Price’s case, once Montreal switched coaches, Price’s game stabilized and he returned to his form as one of the truly elite goaltenders in the NHL. He historically has dominated the Rangers, especially in Montreal. The one real exception to this rule was game 1 of the 2014 ECF, where he was being beaten even before he got hurt. The Rangers forwards are going to have to be willing to get to the dirty areas of the ice to screen him, make deflections, and force price to make difficult saves or this is going to be a very short series.
In Lundqvist’s case, there was a stretch of about three weeks before he got hurt where he started to consistently play like his old self, but has struggled to regain that form since he returned from injury. He has also historically struggled in Montreal, the 2014 ECF notwithstanding. He’s also historically been a tremendous playoff goaltender, the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and last season’s playoffs notwithstanding. There’s also a significant chance that we see Antti Raanta in this series, maybe even to start a game if Lundqvist spirals out of control.
While history would make me lean towards Lundqvist in the playoffs, if you think he’s suddenly going to be vintage Lundqvist after the season he just had, you’re just wishing. Wish in one hand, Doodie in the other, and see which one gets filled first.
Montreal’s power play should be much better than it is, given the personnel on the roster. It has been particularly anemic since March 1, running at a near league worst 10.5%. Even so, Weber’s blast from the point might cause problems for us given our traditional defensive strategy of giving away the shot from the point, especially if one of our guys gets hurt trying to block one of those shots. Given the struggles of the Rangers’ PK over the past two months, this could be the deciding factor of the entire series.
The Rangers’ power play actually finished ahead of Montreal’s buoyed by a strong start, and more importantly, a strong finish to the season (26.5% since 3/1, good for 5th in the NHL). They will need to maintain that good form because Montreal’s penalty killing has been excellent over the past month, running at an absurd 86.7% since March 1st.
The old adage is that a good PP might win you a game, but a bad PK will definitely lose you games. I tend to agree.
If Michel Therien was still the coach of the Canadiens, I wouldn’t even write anything here and just give the advantage to the Rangers. But Claude Julien is an excellent coach, having bested Alain Vigneault in the 2011 Final. He definitely fixed the Montreal PK, even if the PP still needs some work. That said, some of his forward deployments are puzzling, and he hasn’t had much success in the playoffs since 2013.
AV has demonstrated that he has the pulse of this team. His addictions to Jesper Fast and Tanner Glass aside, I have generally agreed with all of his forward deployments. His choices on defense are constrained by a lack of talent, especially on the right side. While there have been diminishing returns in the playoffs each of his first three years here (SCF, ECF, ECQF), and while his ability to adjust in-game is questionable, I think he is still one of the best coaches in the NHL.
The Rangers are a battle-tested group of hardened veterans. Even most of the kids are veterans. They will need to draw upon that experience in order to offset what I perceive to be the deficiencies in their defense, between the pipes, and at the top end of their forward lineup.
The Canadiens have Andrew Shaw and then a lot of guys who haven’t really been deep in the playoffs. There are still some members of the 2014 team that made it to the ECF against the Rangers, but by and large those are the most experienced players on the team. I also think that they may be distracted by the Kreider-Price incident, and given the grit and sandpaper in their lineup, they might get distracted trying to be physical for the sake of being physical and give away the series as a result (think Penguins-Bruins from 2013).
Prediction: Montreal in six.