By: Michael Abitabilo
With the Rangers set to take on the Montreal Canadiens in the eastern conference finals, here are five things to watch for as the series progresses.
1. Lundqvist in Montreal. Might as well get this one out of the way now. The Bell Centre in Montreal has been Henrik Lundqvist’s personal house of horrors. Don’t believe me? For his career, Henrik Lundqvist has a 2.26 goals against average and .921 save percentage. In Montreal? Those numbers are 3.87 and .876, respectively.
It all started on February 19, 2008:
The Rangers had a 5-0 lead just 5:03 into the second period (with two goals from Brendan Shanahan and four assists from Jaromir Jagr – wow, that was a long time ago). Then the wheels fell off; the Canadiens scored two goals in the second period and three in the third before putting the Rangers away in a shootout.
Since then, things have gotten so bad in Montreal that it has become a built-in night off for Lundqvist in the Rangers’ schedule. Backup Cam Talbot played both games in the Bell Centre this season, and Martin Biron started both games there in 2013. Lundqvist played one of the two games in Montreal in 2011-2012, a 4-0 loss, and one of two in 2010-2011, a 3-2 loss. Lundqvist did get both starts in the Bell Centre in the 2009-2010 season, a 6-0 loss and a 5-4 loss. To find Lundqvist’s last win in Montreal, you’ll have to go all the way back to the March 17, 2009, a 4-3 shootout victory in which the Rangers’ regulation goals were scored by Nik Antropov, Nikolai Zherdev, and some guy named Callahan?
The Canadiens will have home ice advantage in this series, but don’t expect Lundqvist to skip any games due to Montreal Fever. Simply put: the Rangers need Lundvist to be Lundvist, or they will not win the series.
2. Mirror Mirror
But for the red jerseys and French-speaking fans, the Montreal Canadiens are a close replica of the New York Rangers. Both teams are fast, deep, and rely on superb goaltending. The Rangers had 10 players score 10 goals or more this season. In the Eastern Conference, only the Bruins had as many, but the Canadiens had nine such players and added Tomas Vanek and his 27 goals at the trading deadline.
The Canadiens’ speed made the Bruins look slow and tired at times, something the Rangers couldn’t do in last year’s playoffs. But with a new system and some personnel changes, the Rangers have evolved into everything Alain Vigneault promised they would when he took over as head coach: a fast team that pushes the pace and puts pressures on opposing teams with their aggressive forecheck.
Just because these teams will look to open things up doesn’t mean fans should expect a high scoring series. In their three games this season, the teams scored a total of four goals. The teams split their first two games early in the season, and Montreal won the season series with a 1-0 overtime victory last month. With two teams this evenly matched, chances are the series will come down to a handful of plays, breaks, and calls.
3. The Subban Factor
P.K. Subban was the best player in the Montreal/Boston series, and it wasn’t close. He averaged about 27 minutes of ice time per game, and was a dynamic offensive force with seven points in seven games. The Rangers have had well-chronicled success defending some of the league’s best offensive players – Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin to name a few. But Subban is a defenseman, and so the Rangers won’t be able to count on Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal to shut him down. Instead, that responsibility will fall on the Rangers’ forwards, who must try to slow Subban down when he’s carrying the puck in the neutral zone and limit his time and space in the offensive zone.
Subban also has a knack for getting under opposing players’ skin. He plays a physical game that borders on dirty, and is constantly chirping his opponents, but will rarely drop his gloves. The Rangers can’t let Subban’s antics disrupt their ability to execute.
4. Special Teams
One of the best ways for the Rangers to limit Subban’s impact on the series would be to stay out of the penalty box. The Canadiens had a below average power play during the regular season, but have been lethal with the man advantage in the playoffs, scoring on 26.3% of their opportunities. Subban and Vanek are tied for the league lead in postseason power play goals with three each, which means those two players have scored as many power play goals this postseason as the entire Rangers team.
The Rangers’ struggles with the man advantage this postseason have been well-documented. But timing is everything. With their backs against the wall in game five against the Penguins, the power play went 2-for-3, and when the Penguins tied game seven, it was Brad Richards’ power play goal that put the Blueshirts ahead for good. The Rangers don’t need their power play to be dominant, but they probably can’t survive another 0-33 slump, either.
5. Rick Nash
Last week, we published a piece on how Rick Nash’s postseason struggles could impact if not define his legacy. Nash was spared an offseason of scorn – for now – because the Rangers were able to advance despite his lack of production. But the stakes are even higher now, which means that Nash has to get going or he will face the same questions and pressures outlined in last week’s post.
Nash has been streaky in his time with the Rangers. He scored 11 of his 26 goals this season in an 11 game stretch in January. If Nash can find a way to get a goal early in the series, it could springboard him to a dominant stretch. If that happens, the Rangers will be playing in the Stanley Cup finals.
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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and is unabashedly biased in picking the Rangers in 7.