First-round preview: Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers

One of the best things about the NHL playoffs is the unpredictable. The Rangers last played the Canadiens in the playoffs in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. Chasing after a puck, Chris Kreider charged toward the net, bulldozed Carey Price and changed the complexion of the series. Price is indisputably the most valuable player on Montreal, and the Habs sputtered without him and lost.

Considering the Cup drought that has plagued the country of Canada since 1993, this was a dispiriting moment for Habs’ fans and those who wanted to see the streak end. And Kreider’s status as a marked man imbues this year’s series with an extra element of drama. A couple seasons have passed since that collision, but many of the characters are the same on both teams, and one guesses their fraught relationship will heat up as soon as Kreider takes his first shift.

Thirty-five months have produced some notable changes. For Montreal, Alexander Radulov, former star of the KHL, signed with the Canadiens this offseason and thrived this year in a tough market. Outside of Max Pacioretty, scoring is always a concern for the Canadiens, but Radulov knows how to engineer offense. Radulov and Pacioretty both excel at protecting the puck and getting into scoring areas, and when paired with center Phillip Danault, the scrappy former Blackhawk, the results have been substantial. The trio manufactured 20 goals and controlled 56.6 percent of shot attempts.

Montreal’s dominance in puck possession is another positive change from that 2013-14 team. The team that had their season derailed when Kreider injured Price was one of the worst at controlling shot attempts in the NHL; this season they have been one of the best. In addition to the imposing Pacioretty-Danault-Radulov line, two other forward lines – while not possessing the same potency and skill — can control territorial advantage and exert pressure on the opposing defense by winning races to the puck and retrieving the puck for second, third, and fourth shot attempts.

Broadening the lens to play outside even strength, the Canadiens’ power play was average this season, but if given the opportunity, Shea Weber was a weapon, registering 12 power-play goals. This isn’t the stodgy, insipid offense from seasons past. These Canadiens can trigger scoring in multiple ways and with more consistency.

The advantage of having Price cannot be overstated. Price will finish with a save percentage in the top five in the NHL among goalies who played 50 or more games and there is every reason to expect he will be spectacular in the playoffs. When he’s healthy, he can steal games. When he is not stealing games, he is still really, really good. Which puts the responsibility on the Canadiens’ players to score three goals and they’ll win. The best way for them to reach that end is by controlling the territorial game and producing speedy counterattacks off turnovers. The Rangers are vulnerable on both fronts.

The Rangers are a high-variance team in the playoffs for manifold reasons, but the one that smacks you over the head is the telegenic face of the franchise, Henrik Lundqvist, and whether he can elevate his play after an abysmal regular season. Lundqvist had a .910 save percentage, the lowest of his career, and was routinely outplayed by his backup Antti Raanta. That’s a big problem. In the NHL playoffs you don’t need to have the best goaltender to win or the hottest to win, but if your goaltender is below average you are likely doomed.

Another key difference from three years ago is the development of a pack of Americans in the Rangers’ success. Gone are Brad Richards and Derick Brassard. The Rick Nash prime is officially over. Instead, the core consists of J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and Derek Stepan. Kreider and Stepan were both part of the 2014 team, but Miller and Hayes are the youngest of the bunch and their prominence in becoming crucial players is still relatively new.

Usually what makes a player interesting is his breathtaking skill or overwhelming natural talent, but what makes the group of Americans interesting is their limitations. Miller was drafted the highest of the four and he was taken 15th overall. Kreider and Hayes were both taken later in the first round, and Stepan was a late second rounder. While forward nucleuses are sometimes built around players outside the top ten, it is unusual. These guys are more like dutiful practitioners instead of prophetic artists. And that characterization is emblematic of the Rangers’ forwards as a whole; the forwards are an ensemble of good-to-very-good scorers and passers. Unlike the Canadiens, who possess players of singular greatness like Price and Pacioretty, the Rangers’ success is propelled by their collection of players who can move the needle on a given night.

In an incredibly reductive sense, hockey can be binary: which players can steadily create a few scoring chances and move the needle, and which players are the net-zeroes (or worse)? This relates to how the Rangers are a top-five scoring team as well. The acquisition of Michael Grabner was an afterthought in the Blueshirts’ summer narrative. He would round out the bottom six and make them faster on the wings. He scored 27 goals this season and his line with Miller and Hayes combined for 19 goals at even strength while only allowing 10. The Rangers are winning with depth. So can the whole override the individuals?

It’s not just Lundy who is a concern. The Rangers’ defensive group has affected Rangers’ fans health with a proliferation of gnawed teeth and poor eating habits. Ryan McDonagh is still really good, and his submitting 40 points this year despite being saddled with Dan Girardi – a plodding stick figure who gets devoured by nearly all forwards – is an accomplishment that has resonance with all hockey fans. Brendan Smith will never be an unalloyed good, but he can skate well and will be a fascinating player to watch against Montreal when he is under duress from their forecheck.

From my standpoint, the Rangers never play with enough structure, and how they exit their own zone and reset in the neutral zone will dramatically impact this series. If they chase the puck too much and settle for whipping it into lonely areas with no intended target, instead of opting for direct passing, things could go south quickly and the series could be short. If the Rangers are scrambling in their own zone, unable to precipitate scoring chances except through breezy rush opportunities and sporadic territorial pressure, they will lose. There’s a reason they were in the bottom third of the league in possession metrics.

But if their defense is patient and they exert some pressure on the Canadiens’ defense, the Blueshirts are capable of winning. Lundqvist is the weaker goaltender in this series, so controlling the tempo and disrupting the Canadiens from their defensive posture is paramount. They don’t have a dynamic superstar to achieve that, but they have multitudes. From Mats Zuccarello to Pavel Buchnevich, the Rangers need to ignite scoring through the cycle. That means playmaking in the off-slot, lots of high-low interchange, utilizing the area behind the net, and the defense being active. The Rangers can pounce on the transition, but with the defense being flimsy, that needs to develop organically, not through cheating.

So how do I see this playing out? With the Kings disqualified from the postseason, the Canadiens are the second best team in the playoffs in possession metrics to the Bruins. They have better depth at forward, a healthy Price, and a defensive group that has done a good job thwarting the opposition all season. Yes, the Rangers’ forward depth is seductive – in that facet they have an edge over Montreal. But their breakouts short-circuit too often. There is a terrifying possibility the Rangers might be better off with Raanta in goal. Their defensive group can be feckless when attempting to regain possession and stanch an onslaught of shooting attempts. They are turnover-prone. Their offense has ridden a shooting percentage that is just a little too high considering they are facing Carey Price and will likely have to gut out some 2-1 wins.

The ugly truth is that the Rangers’ forwards aren’t dynamic enough to overcome the flaws of the team. The only player with the draft pedigree and a sliver of untapped potential appears to be Mika Zibanejad. But to unlock Zibanejad, the Rangers need to play in the offensive zone and allow him to utilize that ferocious shot. Sadly for Rangers fans, the Canadiens are primed to establish residency in the offensive zone and eek by with offense from a hounding forecheck, turnovers gifted to Habs’ players in ripe areas of the ice, and timely scoring from their marquee stars.

Canadiens in six

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