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Montreal Canadiens

2017 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers

USATSI_9986193_154158418_lowresIt’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the NHL playoffs are upon us. I’ll be looking at all the matchups, as usual. First up, the Montreal Canadiens face off against the New York Rangers.

The Habs tangled with the Blueshirts in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Montreal fans remember that series well, as a Game One injury to goalie Carey Price set things wrong from the jump. The Canadiens lost in six games and many still wonder what might have been.

Goaltending is the focus once more, with Price facing off against Henrik Lundqvist. Both netminders thrive in the post-season. Both netminders are capable of stealing games. Both netminders are looking to prove themselves.

But there’s more than that at play.

Offence

The Canadiens took the lead in the Atlantic Division with 103 points and scored 226 goals in the regular season, but their offence was behind the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Rangers out East.

And consistency was an issue, as the Habs went through some worrying stretches. They struggled so much that they made a coaching change, with Claude Julien relieving Michel Therrien after a dreadful run in January. The Canadiens won 16 of 24 games under the new boss, but scoring is an issue.

Max Pacioretty leads the way up front with 67 points in 81 games. His 35 goals are the most on the team. Paul Byron is second in goal-scoring with 22, but he’s the only other Hab to score more than 20 goals in the regular season. Alexander Radulov and 21-year-old Finnish winger Artturi Lehkonen had 18, while Alex Galchenyuk and Shea Weber had 17 goals.

The Rangers scored 30 more goals than the Canadiens and finished with 102 points, just one behind Montreal in the Eastern Conference. They get scoring from all corners of their roster and that’s impressive, particularly for a team without a dominant superstar.

That’s not to say that the Blueshirts walk all over the opposition – far from it. They allowed more shots against than they need to, but seven players hit the 40-point mark in the regular season and that’s worth a mention. They’ve also seen the emergence of some young guns.

Mats Zuccarello leads the team in points with 59 in 80 games, while J.T. Miller is second with 56 points in 82 games. Chris Kreider is top of the pops in goals with 28, while Michael Grabner has 27 and Rick Nash managed 23. Derek Stepan and Kevin Hayes had 17 goals, while Jimmy Vesey is listed with 16 goals in 80 games.

Defence

The Canadiens allowed just 200 goals in the regular season, which is where things start to reveal themselves. Only the Capitals and Blue Jackets were stingier teams out in the Eastern Conference. Price has a great deal to do with those defensive numbers, but the newly acquired Weber has shown himself as a solid roster addition.

While many are still reeling from the exit of blueliner P.K. Subban, Weber has carried himself well. The 31-year-old brings composure to the defensive zone, plus he’s accounted for 42 points. He’s clocked in a dozen goals on the power play alone and puts up major minutes, which means he’ll be front and centre in the playoffs and will draw the tough assignments.

Veteran defenceman Andrei Markov had 36 points in 62 games. He – and the team – benefitted greatly when he was paired with Weber, so look for more of the same in the post-season. Jeff Petry is just as important and his pairing with Nathan Beaulieu impressed down the stretch. Interestingly, Petry receives more passes in the defensive zone than any other Canadien. That shows that his teammates trust him.

The Rangers allowed 220 goals against and Lundqvist had what could be considered an off-year. He failed to chart a save percentage of at least .920 for the first time since the 2008-2009 season. At times, they looked positively porous and allowed a lot of shots through. And their meeting with the Penguins last post-season didn’t exactly showcase a defensive dynamo.

Ryan McDonagh puts up big minutes, averaging 24:21 a game during the regular season, and he’ll draw the top assignments against the Canadiens. The Minnesota native was drafted by the Habs in 2007 and will be called on in all game situations, plus he has a booming shot. New York will use him a lot, so it’s good that he got some rest to close out the regular season.

Rookie Brady Skjei, another Minnesota native, will make for an interesting X-factor in the series. He put up 39 points in 80 games, but his real area of expertise is shutdown hockey. He averages 17:28 of ice time a game and could be trusted with more. Veterans like Marc Staal, Kevin Klein and Dan Girardi know how this works by now and round out a proficient blueline.

Goaltending

Price is the name of the game in Montreal. If the 29-year-old succeeds between the pipes, the Habs will win. If he wavers or is injured or otherwise rattled by a pile of Rangers crashing the crease, the Habs will lose. That’s about it.

Price put up a 37-20-5 record in the regular season, with a .923 save percentage and a 2.23 goals against average. That’s just a hair better than his career average. He did dip to .899 in the last two and a half months under Therrien, but Julien’s arrival turned things around just in time.

Lundqvist is coming off an off year, but he has a tendency to come alive in the playoffs. The Rangers are hoping he will, but Antti Raanta will be waiting in the wings just in case. Lundqvist went 31-20-4 in the regular season, with a .910 save percentage and a 2.74 goals against average.

Conversely, Raanta was 16-8-2 with a 2.26 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. He posted four shutouts, while Lundqvist only picked up two. Does that mean there’s a goaltending controversy in New York? Not on your life. Lundqvist is the man until he loses the spot.

Who Will Win

While it’s tempting to lay back and hand this series to Montreal on account of Price edging out Lundqvist, there might be more to it. The Rangers have the experience factor on the blueline and can find the net with a more balanced forward group. And Montreal still looks weak down the middle.

But the Weber factor could be a big deal for the Canadiens, with his experience and determination going a long way to putting away the competition. Pair him with the best goaltender in the NHL and you’re looking at a recipe for success.

My call: Montreal in six.

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