‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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There’s very little separating the Rangers and Canadiens ahead of what should be a hard-fought, low-scoring series. Both teams are blessed with athletic skaters, stingy blue-liners, elite goaltenders and strong top-to-bottom depth.
Goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price have won at every level. The only thing each is missing from their medal collections is a Stanley Cup ring. They’re both outstanding netminders, but Lundqvist is the best goalie on the planet, and he’s playing the most lights-out hockey of his nine-year career. In his last three games, Lundqvist is 3-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .971 save percentage.
LUNDQVIST MUST KEEP HABS’ ELECTRIC POWER PLAY QUIET
Shutting down the Canadiens’ 26.3 percent power play will be a tremendous test for Lundqvist. P.K. Subban and Thomas Vanek are tied for the playoff lead with three power-play goals. Subban leads all playoff participants with seven power-play points. Clutch winger Max Pacioretty scored ten power-play goals during the regular season. The New Canaan, Conn. native led the league with 11 game-winning goals and his 39 regular-season goals trailed only Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski.
Pacioretty is just one of many athletic Montreal forwards who possesses a knack for lighting the lamp with the man advantage. Shifty winger Brendan Gallagher scored eight power-play goals during the regular season.
Subban and veteran blue-liner Andrei Markov are both excellent skaters who can move the puck quickly up ice. Both Subban and Markov pack powerful shots from the point and are outstanding power-play quarterbacks.
How Lundqvist fares against the Habs’ surging power play could decide this series. He is surrounded by two pairings of shutdown defensemen in McDonagh-Girardi and Staal-Stralman, and a number of terrific penalty-killing forwards including Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis.
Lundqvist has a 4-5-2 career record at Bell Centre, and is 13-11-2 (one no-decision) with a 2.85 GAA and .897 save percentage in 27 career games against the Canadiens.
MCDONAGH TRADE STILL HAUNTS CANADIENS FANS
Back in 2009, the Habs and Rangers completed a six-player trade that sent former first-round pick Ryan McDonagh to New York for playmaking center Scott Gomez. After a strong 60-point campaign in his first season in Montreal, Gomez’s career suddenly took a sharp decline. His $7.35 million annual cap hit became an albatross as Gomez went through an infamous 60-game goalless drought. Gomez was bought out by the Canadiens in January 2013.
The trade remains the greatest masterstroke of Rangers general manager Glen Sather. McDonagh has developed into an elite two-way defenseman. Affectionately nicknamed “Mac Truck,” McDonagh leads Rangers skaters with 24:56 total ice time per game this playoffs. His offensive game has flourished under Alain Vigneault, who has allowed McDonagh the freedom to join the rush unlike previous head coach John Tortorella. McDonagh set regular-season career highs with 14 goals, 29 assists and 43 points.
Imagine how good the Habs would be today had they kept McDonagh around. Sather stealing McDonagh from the Habs has continued to haunt Canadiens fans. McDonagh will haunt them more than ever during these playoffs when he’s shutting down Montreal’s top forwards.
PRUST TO FACE FORMER RANGERS TEAMMATES
Brandon Prust was a very popular figure in the Rangers’ locker room and was beloved by fans during his three-year stay in New York. You can bet that Prust will be fired up to prove Sather wrong for allowing him to leave via unrestricted free agency. After Sather said “I’m not married to him” at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Prust took to Twitter to hit back.
Initially, the Rangers really missed Prust. His void was a difficult one to fill during the final two years of the Tortorella era. The Rangers did not miss Prust as much this season due to the depth that Sather has assembled. On this current Rangers team, Prust would be playing the role of Derek Dorsett or Dan Carcillo. Dorsett has won the job to remain on the right wing on a highly effective Rangers fourth line. He has done a solid job of filling Prust’s in-your-face, checking-line role.
Prust is an aggressive, energetic player. Many Rangers fans remember him fondly, though that might change once Prust launches himself to crush one of the Blueshirts with a monstrous hit.
KEY PLAYER FOR RANGERS: RICK NASH
The Rangers have gotten past the Flyers and Penguins with little productivity from star winger Rick Nash. Through 14 games this playoffs, Nash is yet to score a goal despite leading all playoff skaters with 52 shots on goal.
Eventually, that luck has to change.
The Rangers are firing on all cylinders, aside from Nash. He’s done some positive things in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill, but Nash is expected to light the lamp with regularity. If Nash can get back to dominating games with his strength, athleticism and one-on-one moves, the Blueshirts will be very hard to beat.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE HABS: P.K. SUBBAN
Some call Subban brash and cocky, while others call him a charismatic individual whose expressive nature pumps belief into the Habs and their fans. Either way, there’s no mistaking the enormous talent of the 2013 Norris Trophy winner.
Having just turned 25, Subban might be scraping the surface of his full potential. He’s only going to get better as his experience grows. Subban has a cannon shot that few in this league can rival. He has scored three power-play goals during these playoffs. Through 11 playoff games, Subban has 12 points. He can quarterback a power play, has jet-like acceleration and can throw some tremendous hits. There isn’t very much that Subban can’t do.
Subban is also an in-your-face individual who enjoys mixing it up and getting under the skin of opponents. He wants to take center stage this series. Subban likes to make bold statements through the media — nothing about this guy is shy.
X-FACTOR FOR THE RANGERS: CHRIS KREIDER
Chris Kreider, who returned in Game 4 against the Penguins, made a huge difference for the Rangers once his broken hand recovered. Like any player returning from a long-term injury, Kreider needed to feel his way through Game 4.
After that, Kreider took off. He got right back to being the player who takes off to beat better-positioned opponents in puck races.
“He’s got that skating (ability) and that stride that no one has,” Brassard said in January. “He’s a big body that uses his speed really well. The guy is a machine. The best for Chris is ahead of him. He’s really, really important for our team. There’s not a lot of guys that can play his style of game. We’re really lucky to have him around.”
Remember, this is a player who had fully established himself as a serious Calder Trophy candidate at the halfway point of season.
X-FACTOR FOR HABS: DANNY BRIERE
36-year-old forward Danny Briere doesn’t get huge minutes at even strength — or on the power play, for that matter — but he makes the most of his minutes. Briere is a clever player, especially when working behind the opposing goalie’s net. At times, he appears to be one step ahead of everyone on the ice due to his quick-thinking and creativity.
Briere has registered 115 points in 118 career playoff games. He has collected seven points in five career Game 7s. Montreal head coach Michel Therrien would be wise to figure out ways to increase Briere’s minutes. He’s only averaging 10:10 in total ice time during the playoffs, yet he has six points in 10 games.
PREDICTION: RANGERS ELIMINATE THE HABS IN SIX, ADVANCE TO FIRST STANLEY CUP FINALS SINCE 1994
Price won the gold medal over Lundqvist at the Sochi Olympics. This time, Lundqvist will get the better of Price and lead the Blueshirts to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since that magical year of 1994.
The guts and resiliency of the Rangers has been tested at every turn throughout the playoffs. They’re passing every test. They’ve rallied around St. Louis during the most difficult period of his life following the recent passing of his mother, France. Every teammate has each other’s back; they’re all pulling hard for one another.
This group of Blueshirts seems to have a “team of destiny” aura surrounding them. 1994 repeating itself 20 years later in 2014 isn’t some kind of far-fetched dream that is exclusively held by the most optimistic of Rangers fans. This team has proved to the hockey world that they’re for real.
The Rangers are a much changed team due to the inspiration of St. Louis, Brad Richards embracing the role of team leader, the emergence of the Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello line and the positive approach and strategic intellect of Vigneault.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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