By Sean Hartnett
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Many are describing the Rangers’ first-round playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens as a toss-up. Neither team boasts a 70-point scorer, both were in the middle of the pack on special teams, and each possess a true franchise goaltender.
This series could come down to the hotter goalie and who wins the special teams battles. That said, let’s take a deeper look at the factors in play:
Shutting down the Rangers’ four speed-burning lines won’t be easy for the Habs. The up-and-coming trio of Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes has taken the focus off Rick Nash and, as a result, I’m expecting a big showing from the 6-foot-4 winger.
Though Nash logged his lowest points per game average (0.57) since his 2002-03 rookie season, the 32-year-old power forward looks reinvigorated ahead of the playoffs. Of late, he has made many long-distance carries, taking it upon himself to go through multiple defenders to create scoring chances. After hearing repeated criticisms about his postseason play, Nash should feel compelled to change the negative perception. It’s easy to forget that he has recorded 18 points in 24 games over the past two postseasons.
Michael Grabner, on the other hand, is a wild card. The speedy Austrian winger is a bit like the two-faced girl Jerry dated in Seinfeld episode “The Strike.” You don’t know which version of Grabner is going to show up — the 30 percent-shooting goal-getter of October through January or the player whose conversion rate fizzled to 4.2 percent in March.
Without a goal since St. Patrick’s Day, there were many instances where Grabner left fans wondering how he failed to convert breakaway chances and tap-ins around the crease. Even if the goals dry up for him over the next few weeks, what the Rangers will undoubtedly see is a solid penalty killer and a skater who forces opponents to back off due to his dangerous legs.
The Canadiens possess a similar high-octane talent in Paul Byron. The 27-year-old is a player to watch this series. Similar to a resurgent Grabner, Byron exploded for 22 goals this season and earned a nomination for the Masterton Trophy from the Montreal wing of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Montreal captain Max Pacioretty is always a handful on the power play and his seven game-winning goals were tied for 10th among NHL skaters. In addition, the gamble bringing in Alexander Radulov has paid off handsomely for the Habs. He’s been huge because of his ability to hold off defensemen with his massive strength and his energetic play. It might be sacrilegious to say, but Radulov has a bit of Jaromir Jagr in his game.
The Canadiens have been a much-improved defensive team since Claude Julien replaced Michel Therrien as head coach on Valentine’s Day. They haven’t been forced to defend for long stretches and, thus, have kept Carey Price’s workload to a minimum. Julien appears to be duplicating the blueprint that his Boston Bruins used to capture the 2011 Stanley Cup. Montreal has killed off 88.9 percent of opportunities on the PK since Julien took over.
The Rangers bring back many of the same faces from their first-round exit against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring. Veteran duo Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have logged a lot of hard miles and the Rangers are pinning their hopes on both playing much better this postseason.
Captain Ryan McDonagh told WFAN.com that he’s fully healthy following Sunday’s regular season finale at The Garden. An undisclosed injury cost the all-situation, minute-eating defenseman four of the final five regular season games. He appeared to injure his left hand while attempting to catch a clearing attempt on March 17, and then blocked a shot with the same hand five days later.
“Yup, I’m good to go,” McDonagh said. “You do the same kind of routine. It wasn’t too long of a break that it felt odd or different in any aspect.”
The biggest difference on the blue line for the Blueshirts has been thriving rookie Brady Skjei. His 39 points are the most by a Rangers rookie defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1988-89. He was also the first NHL defenseman to record at least 27 even-strength assists in his rookie season since Larry Murphy did it with the Los Angeles Kings in 1980-81.
Bell Centre has long been a difficult building for Henrik Lundqvist. The 35-year-old netminder is 4-9-2 with a 3.87 goals-against average and a .877 save percentage in Montreal during the regular season.
Lundqvist was pulled in his last playoff appearance at Bell Centre after surrendering four goals on 19 shots against in Game 5 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. Of course, the Rangers had the last laugh that series as they ended up marching to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Canadiens’ scoring depth isn’t as strong compared to past postseasons, but Price is unquestionably an all-world goaltender at the peak of his powers. Not only can he steal games, he also has what it takes to steal a series. He posted a .941 save percentage in 11 March games.
RANGERS X-FACTOR: PAVEL BUCHNEVICH
The more head coach Alain Vigneault puts his trust in rookie winger Pavel Buchnevich, the better. While the 21-year-old has much to learn on the defensive side of the puck, he can be an absolute game-changer if he’s given the chance.
His outstanding array of one-on-one moves, silky hands, powerful shot, and speed are the ingredients of an eventual star. What made the Rangers so difficult to contain in the early months of the season was their quickness and skill across four lines. Vigneault might be tempted to go with a veteran face he trusts in Tanner Glass on the fourth line, but Buchnevich can be a difference-maker even in limited minutes.
CANADIENS X-FACTOR: SHEA WEBER
Weber missed the final four regular season games due to a lower-body injury. Assuming he’s fully healthy, the Rangers absolutely must keep penalties to a minimum. Weber led NHL defensemen with 12 power-play goals, thanks largely to his blistering slap shot, which can create a lot of second-chance opportunities even if it’s not on target.
The Rangers finished the final two months of the regular season 8-7-4. While you typically toss regular season trends out the window once the “second season” stars, the drop-off in the Blueshirts’ play at home should be a big concern. Their home power play ranked 23rd overall at 17.2 percent and their penalty killing was 25th at 76.9 percent. You can’t win the Cup without a strong penalty kill and that’s going to need to improve under postseason pressure.
Lundqvist is still great despite finishing the regular season as a sub-.920 netminder for the first time since 2009, but I see Price being a roadblock for the Rangers, who struggle to score when it matters. Price was a .922 goalie against the Blueshirts this season and won all three regular season meetings. I see his success against the Rangers continuing and the Habs advancing in six games.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey