For the seventh straight season, the New York Rangers qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which is the franchise’s longest streak since 1977-87. The Blueshirts, led by all-time wins leader Henrik Lundqvist, captain Ryan McDonagh and a group of talented position players including Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello and company, attempt to avoid another deflating early exit, removing the foul taste of last year’s opening round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Rangers will travel to Bell Centre for Game 1 of this year’s postseason to play an Original Six rival, the Montreal Canadiens. The last time the Rangers played the Canadiens in the playoffs was the 2013-14 Eastern Conference Final, which New York won in six games and was the last year the franchise reached the Stanley Cup Final (lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games).
Two of SBNY’s own (Joseph Calabrese and Michael Palmisano) answer five questions heading into the Rangers’ Eastern Conference First Round series against the Canadiens:
Are this year’s Rangers (48-28-6; 102 points) worse, equal to or better than last year’s group (46-27-9; 101 points) heading into this year’s playoffs?
JC: Those two records are ALMOST identical. Last year’s team started hot, cooled down, and ran into a smoking hot Penguins team in April. This year’s group started hot, cooled down, more significantly this time, but draws a slightly more generous matchup in the opening round. Offensively, on paper, this team is even, but slightly deeper. Defensively, there’s a slight drop off without Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein having a rough season. In net, despite Lundqvist’s struggles early on, they’re roughly the same.
MP: The Rangers are a much better team heading into this year’s playoffs. Ignore the fact that they are 3-4-3 in their last 10 games and focus on the most important part of their game right now: health. For the first time in the Alain Vigneault Era, they’re healthy at the right time and primed to make a run. Knowing for a better part of the last month that they would be the first Wild Card – and would be playing through the Atlantic opposed to the Metropolitan – it’s not hard to think they may have been a bit complacent with their play. The total team experience paired with the exciting young talent puts the Rangers in a very good place heading into this series.
In a matchup of two of the NHL’s elite goaltenders, should the Rangers be more concerned with Carey Price’s consistently stellar play against the team or Henrik Lundqvist’s play?
MP: To whoever posed this question (me), great job. I initially leaned toward Price’s career domination over the Rangers and how it would be typical to see a playoff scoring drought, however, I truly believe the offense is there to provide enough firepower to finally take down Price once and for all – without having to literally take him down. “SO DOES THIS MEAN YOU DON’T HAVE FAITH IN HANK?!” No, it means that I’d like to see playoff, not regular-season Hank. If we see vintage Henrik starting tonight, I think the Blueshirts will be in very good shape.
JC: Lundqvist has righted the ship during the second half of this season, and he’s never the reason for concern. In Price’s career, he’s 15-5-1 against the Rangers with a .940 save percentage and 1.82 goals-against average. The Rangers need to generate shot attempts and find ways to create traffic in Montreal’s zone to make Price feel uncomfortable in net. The last time these two teams played, Kreider skated in and injured Price, which led to backup Dustin Tokawski starting the remainder of the series.
What facet of the game is the most important for the Rangers to utilize and take advantage of in this series and (potentially) moving forward?
JC: For this series and moving forward, the Rangers’ best asset is their speed. Although the Canadiens boast several forwards who can skate and keep up with the Rangers’ pace of play, New York is a slightly deeper bunch. In last year’s playoffs, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust proved to be difference makers for the Penguins. The group of Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg, Brandon Pirri and Matt Puempel provide an advantage for New York against mostly any potential opponent.
MP: Special teams. The one consistent topic of conversation every year is how the Rangers seem to struggle scoring power play goals in the playoffs. It’s very hard to go far when you don’t take advantage of mistakes, so it is absolutely vital for the Rangers to get off to a hot start with their power play. The Rangers were in the top 10, scoring at a 20.2% clip this season. That’s real good. Conversely, the penalty kill was close to the lower third in the league at less than 80% success rate. Controlling special teams is key, especially when Montreal boasts Shea Weber and Andrei Markov, is key.
The Rangers defeated the Canadiens in the first round; this player was the series’ “x-factor…”
MP: Oh Captain, my Captain. The Rangers leader, both with the “C” on his sweater and with ice time, has arguably had his best season as a Ranger. With a career-high in assists (including 14 power play assists), Ryan McDonagh has been present both offensively and defensively. In order for the Rangers to be successful this postseason, their captain must continue his facilitating ways, as well as be the anchor on a questionable defensive front. Playing with a broken foot two years ago unfortunately made him ineffective and proved how much the team missed him.
JC: Kevin Hayes; the Rangers third line of J.T. Miller, Hayes and Michael Grabner were effective together nearly all season, although Miller and Grabner have seen their fair share of different linemates at times. Hayes is an assist machine, and the postseason is all about depth scoring. If Hayes has a strong series, it means the Rangers got secondary contributions from players they needed to contribute.
Which Rangers player needs to step up against Montreal? Who do the Rangers need to contain the most?
JC: The popular whipping boy is always Rick Nash, but he was excellent in last year’s series against Pittsburgh, and, for the most part, is an underrated playoff performer. The player(s) who need to step up for the Rangers are Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Sound hockey from both will go a long way to beating Montreal. The Rangers need to contain Shea Weber, which means limiting the amount of opportunities he has to drive possession and shoot from the point. Point shots always seem to hurt the Rangers.
MP: The Rangers roll out four lines and expect equal amount of efficiency from each. It’s important for Rick Nash to finally reach his playoff potential this season. It’s a lot easier for everyone else to score when they don’t think they have to be “the guy”; in other words, if Nash plays like the player he’s paid to be there, won’t be that pressure on everyone else to score. Keep in mind that this might be Nash’s last rodeo as a Ranger, so this series and postseason could define his tenure here in New York.
Having 12 power play goals and being a team +/- leader, the Rangers cannot allow Weber to beat them. Yes, the Canadiens can score through other avenues (Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk/Radulov), but whenever Weber is on the ice there, should be a conscious plan to shut him down. The Rangers top to bottom edge out Montreal’s forward depth, so ensuring scoring doesn’t come from their huge offseason pickup will be a huge part of this series.
Palmisano’s Final Thoughts:
For a team who gained one more point than they did last season the Rangers are being highly underrated in this series. The Metropolitan was the best division in all of the 4 major sports this year which explains why 48 wins and 102 points was only good enough for 4th place. Ironically enough the Rangers are better off playing through the Atlantic opposed through the Metro, and being the lower seed won’t bother them since they led the NHL with 27 road wins this year. Health, speed, and Hank are the keys to a Rangers Cup run that starts tonight.
Series prediction: Rangers in 5
Calabrese’s Final Thoughts:
The Canadiens are a tough matchup for the Rangers because everything the Blueshirts do well, they can do just as well. Montreal can play small, but they also loaded up on size and strength at the Trade Deadline by acquiring Steve Ott and Dwight King. Montreal is strong along the walls, but the Rangers are the better team down the middle. At this point, this is the one Eastern Conference series I’d call the total tossup. It’s hard to imagine this series not going the distance.
Series prediction: Rangers in 7