NEW: SKLZ | Barstool Golf Training Aids To Help Improve Your GameSHOP NOW

Rangers vs Canadiens Series Preview

Sched

Besides a slight uptick in goals scored, the New York Rangers regular season looks an awful lot like the one prior. Record, goals against, special teams, goaltending and most importantly the way they finished are basically carbon copies. Now the playoffs are upon us and, again, it feels familiar as NY hops on a plane to Montreal for a first-round tilt against the hottest team in the conference. A year ago they ran into a Pens buzzsaw as Pittsburgh finished their slate winning 14 of 16 under in-season hire Mike Sullivan. This time it’s a Habs squad led to a 16-7-1 finish by their new coach Claude Julien. Uh oh.

I went into this matchup a couple weeks ago when it looked likely – but I’ll break it down a little more with Game 1 around the corner.

GOALTENDING

Can’t ask for two bigger names to square off in a playoff series than Vezina winners Lundqvist & Price. Their career numbers line up evenly if you project Price’s pace over another 230 starts – and that’s just it. Hank’s 35 years old & just wrapped up undoubtedly the worst year of his career. Some will quickly point to the defense (or lack thereof) which is true, but it’s the same defense Hank played behind last season when he led all goalies in 5×5 save percentage despite his poor finish. This year: 17th, largely due to uncharacteristically getting beaten by low/mid-danger shots. Still, we’re talking about a tender with 2.28/.921 peripherals over 116 playoff contests & Montreal isn’t an offensive powerhouse.

Meanwhile, Carey Price is smack in the middle of his prime & as fresh as can be after last season ended for him the day before Thanksgiving 2015 – fittingly, at MSG. And although the Blueshirts weren’t blamed for that, they certainly caught the ire of Canada when Chris Kreider ended Price’s season in the 2014 Conference Final. From a motivation perspective, Price wants this series in a bad way. As far as his play is concerned, he’s returned to MVP form since Julien took the reins with a measly 1.72 GAA & .937 save % over 19 starts. Price doesn’t have the overall playoff resume, but his last two postseasons rival Hank’s playoff career numbers. The edge between the pipes has to go to Montreal and that hurt my fucking soul to type.

COACHING

We’ve got a reunion of 2011 Stanley Cup Final coaches with Vigneault & Julien. In terms of regular seasons, both have had remarkably similar success. Playoff numbers paint a different picture though. AV’s a sub-500 coach thanks to a slew of underachieving in Vancouver. Julien on the other hand not only has himself a ring but a 61-47 record. Plus, the Habs & their Valentine’s Day hire are still in their honeymoon phase. That’s a huge plus. Advantage, Canadiens.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Overall, these squads match up evenly on both sides of special teams. The Rangers power play has been running hot lately though while the Habs have been among the league’s worst. On the flip side, Montreal ceded just FIVE PPG against in 25 games under Julien. Doesn’t hurt that they’ve been shorthanded 11 times less than any other NHL team over that span either. The best way to defend a Blueshirts PP unit that’s clicking at a 25% rate since March? Limit their opportunities. Based on how disciplined Julien’s squad has become & how much whistles disappear in the playoffs, advantage Habs.

DEFENSE

Ah, the achilles’ heel of the Blueshirts. Dan Girardi & Marc Staal have now been joined by Kevin Klein & Nick Holden as the banes of Rangers fans’ existence this season. Outside of studs McDonagh & Skjei (and to a lesser extent Brendan Smith), New York’s defensive corps is a hodge-podge of slow skaters with limited puck skills & a penchant for over-pursuing. The Habs speed will be difficult for them to handle & I really wish AV would go top-heavy with McD/Skjei as top pair & Smith with whomever as the second. Ride them as much as possible instead of aiming for balance. Vigneault’s the boss though & will roll with 27/5, 18/22, 76/42 tomorrow night – but don’t be surprised if Skjei & Smith rack up more minutes than Staal & Holden.

The Habs D throw the body a ton, led by Shawn Thornton’s BFF Alexei Emelin (he’ll miss Game 1 though). He, Petry & Weber hit & wear pucks whenever they can. Markov rounds out their top 4 as strictly a point producer with 36 points in 62 games. Rangers forwards will have to pick on their bottom pair while Kreider & Miller need to come out & be aggressors physically. There’s not much toughness in that top 9 for NY so the onus falls on these two. Montreal will undoubtedly try to bully Step, Zib, Hayes, Buch, etc. any time they’re down low. Without Kreids & JT setting the tone first, this is a defensive group that can manhandle them. Another one for Montreal.

FORWARDS

**Spoiler Alert** – we finally got an advantage for the Rangers! Hooray!

Only Ottawa lights the lamp less than the Canadiens as far as Eastern playoff teams are concerned. For most of the season, their offense revolved around lifelong Rangers fan Max Pacioretty (who took a stick to the face at practice this morning but should still play Game 1). Through February, Max’s 31 goals were second-best in the league. Since then though, the Habs captain hasn’t tallied a single power-play point & has buried just 4. Thanks to stellar D & goaltending it hasn’t mattered.

They’ve gotten timely goals from a pair of extremely unlikely sources. Paul Byron was a waiver pickup from Calgary and the speedster has gone on to score 22, including 6 game winners. Over Pacioretty’s cold streak, he’s led the Habs offensively & 21 year-old Finnish kid Artturi Lehkonen has been right behind him. Radulov, Galchenyuk, Danault & Gallagher are all skilled, mostly fast forwards capable of finishing as well. And let’s not forget this guy:

When he wasn’t getting ejected, Andrew Shaw scored in both games against the Rangers. He’s exactly the type of maniac wild card that can have a huge impact (for better or worse) over the course of a 7-game series. Remember Sean Avery? Shaw is a hard-nosed, talented kid who LOVES to hover the “scumbag” line. The ideal guy you’d love to have but despise if you don’t. Keep your head on a swivel boys – especially with Steve Ott cracking the lineup too.

If Hank can hold his own & his defense can simply play mediocre, the Blueshirts forwards can steal this series. I know the offense (outside of the PP) has gone cold of late. I know Carey Price is playing at his peak. I also know what I saw through the first 2/3 of the season. Line by line, the Rangers are better. Period. EIGHT forwards with 15+ (doesn’t include Zib who scored 14 in 56) more than makes up for the fact that they don’t have a go-to guy like Pacioretty. Montreal doesn’t have a playmaker than can sniff Zuccarello’s ability & they know all too well what Kreider’s capable of in the postseason.

The key to New York advancing may very well be in the hands of Kevin Hayes & JT Miller. A couple months ago these kids were 1-2 atop the Rangers scoring column. Lately though, they’re 1-2 in terms of biggest vanishing act. Perhaps we let a white-hot stretch cloud our judgement and anoint Miller the next great power forward. It almost seems like all the points got to his head & made him change his game to a more skilled genre – but that’s not what works for him. He’s another Kreider. He has to skate like a maniac. Hit like he used to. That’s what generates a lot of his offensive opportunities. Well, that and his linemate Hayes.

I love Kevin Hayes. And I hate him. No Ranger exemplifies “all or nothing” more than the kid outta BC. Through the team’s first 56 games, Hayes paced the Blueshirts in points per game (.82) & was a +23. Since then, he’s simply been abysmal. 2G, 5A, -13 (!!!) in 25 games. Only once in that span did he finish a game in the plus. His ice time has taken a nosedive and rightfully so since it’s just impossible for AV to trust him as much as he thought he could. Everybody slumps – but Hayes disappears completely & when he does, any semblance of team scoring balance is out the window. That third line lives & dies with him so it’s crucial for him to regain that playmaking touch. If he does, we’re moving on.

Overall, the truth is a Rangers victory would be a minor upset. I know that. Both team’s arrows are pointing in opposite directions and you always want to hit your stride in April like the Habs clearly have. If the Blueshirts refuse to defend, Montreal in 4 or 5 won’t blindside me in the least. These games project to be pretty low-scoring though & in coin flips, anything can happen. So I expect these teams to trade the first 4 games before NY silences the Bell Centre Game 5 & advances in 6. If Pacioretty can’t carry his squad, I simply don’t believe the Habs have the supplemental firepower to score timely goals ahead of the slew of Rangers who have done so already. There’s a ton of pressure on Montreal after missing out on the playoffs last year & no one’s gonna feel it more than Carey Price. Maybe it’s my homerism creeping in, but I’m betting that’ll be just enough to make him a mere mortal.

RANGERS IN 6