Round Three of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs gets underway Saturday afternoon at 1:00 pm EST. The New York Rangers will meet the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals, and earn the right to play for the Stanley Cup. This will be the first time the two Original Six teams have met in the playoffs, since the first round of the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals. Oddly enough, both teams have met in the Eastern Conference Final in 1986, where the Canadiens bested the Rangers in five games.
Both teams are coming off emotional charged playoff wins from round two, where they faced their own adversity in the forms of a departed family member to fans’ ignorance. Now, the Rangers and Canadiens find themselves one round closer to their ultimate goal.
New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens Forwards:
The Montreal Canadiens are a quick puck moving team that depends on their skill and speed. The team’s youth have become the offensively leaders. Their most offensive forward is 25 years old centerman Lars Eller. Through 11 playoff games this season, he leads all Canadien forwards with nine points, four goals and five assists. He has a +3 rating and averages 16:49 minutes of time on ice per game.
Followed right behind him is the second year forward Brendan Gallagher. Thus far, his playoff stats are identical to Eller’s, with the exception of penalty minutes. Gallagher has served only two minutes, while Eller has been in the penalty box for 10 minutes.
The much travelled Tomas Vanek leads the Canadiens with five goals. Montreal is the third team for the left winger this season, with the others being the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders. The 30 year old Austrian played an important role in game six against the Boston Bruins, where he scored two goals and was a +1. Not a consistent scorer, he always poses a threat when he touches the ice.
Currently, left winger Max Pacioretty has the hot hand heading into the series. He has two goals and four points in his past three games. For the playoffs, he has seven points and averages a little under 19:00 minutes of ice time per game. He currently is fifth in scoring on the team.
To go with their youth, the Canadiens have veteran leadership to help lead the young guns. Their captain, right winger Brian Gionta, has 65 points in over 100 playoff games. Alongside, former Philadelphia Flyer and Sabres forward Daniel Briere has 118 playoff games, compiling 115 points. That’s an average of .974 points per game. This year, he has two goals and six points in 10 playoff games. He is a +3 with four penalty minutes. The 36 year old averages a little over 10:00 minutes of ice time per game. Despite his lack of playing time, he still ranks in the top 10 for Canadien scoring. His role has changed, but his veteran leadership and experience have made him a valuable player in the locker room.
For the New York Rangers, the veterans lead the team. Brad Richards the offensive leader in points with nine. He has four goals, two of which have been on the power play. Again, again, he is making fans forget about his dismal playoff appearance, or lack thereof, last year. He became an outspoken supporter of fellow teammate Rick Nash, after game four, where the fans booed him. He is the leader we have all wanted and the team will need him now, more than ever.
Without question, the story of round two and the inspiration for the team had to be Martin St. Louis. By now, you have heard his inspirational story of the unfortunate passing of his mother, France. Despite his grief and pain, he returned to the Rangers’ locker room in game five. Even though he did not register a point in that game, he showed the level of dedication unseen by the Rangers this season. The team rallied around the elder statesman and showed everyone that the Rangers were not through. Just like Richards, the team will look to him for guidance and experience.
The offensive production of the third line is finally garnering attention, outside of the Rangers’ team and fanbase. The line of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard, and Mats Zuccarellohas, by far, been the most consistent for the Rangers all playoff long. They are a combined 23 points, 10 goals and 13 assists, with a +10 through 14 playoff games this season. They are ranked third through fifth for the team lead in individual scoring.
A significant boost to the Rangers lineup has been the return of Chris Kreider. In game four of the second round, he made his presence known and made the fans remember why we missed him. His physicality, speed, relentless forecheck, and attitude have made him standout as a force to be reckon with. No longer the young, brash forward out of Boston College, who burst onto the scene during the 2012 playoffs, Kreider has become a staple on the first line and valuable piece for the Rangers. He, along with the previous mentioned players, will be leaned upon to help the Blueshirts overcome the Canadiens and get over the playoff hump.
One of those players is Rick Nash. Through 14 playoff games, he has five points, all of which are assists. Even though he is lacking in the scoring department, Nash has been making up for in his defense. I am not sure if you could call it a metamorphosis, but Nash is becoming a good defensive forward. Through 14 playoff games, this season, he has 21 hits and 12 blocked shots. Of course, he was brought to the Rangers for his scoring ability. I am not excusing him from the lack of goals. However, if he can disrupt his opponent and make plays in the defensive zone, I will take that.
New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens on Defense:
Montreal’s defense is undoubtedly led by P. K. Subban. The team’s heart and soul rests with him, and he does not shy away from the spotlight. The former Norris Trophy winner, from last year, leads the Canadiens in offensive production these playoffs. Through 11 playoff games, Subban has eight goals and 12 points. He leads the team with eight assists, 26:45 minutes of ice time per game, and power play goals with three. Booed everytime he touches the puck, outside of Montreal, Subban is paid the ultimate compliment.
His defensive partner, Andrei Markov, is second to Subban with five points; all being assists. Also, he is second in ice time, averaging 26:26 minutes per game. Mike Weaver, the Canadiens trade acquisition from the Florida Panthers, leads all players with a +7 rating.
Dan Girardi is tied for all Rangers defensemen with one goal. He, and Ryan McDonagh, are -5 in goal differential. Both were susceptible to the speed rushes of the Penguins forwards. This will play an important role with the Canadiens, as their team is smaller, yet quicker.
Overlooked have been the contributions of Marc Staal and John Moore. Staal made life difficult for Sidney Crosby and was even called a head hunter by the some in Pittsburgh media and fanbase. He is emerging into the shutdown defenseman we have been waiting for. For the playoffs, he has one goal and three points, with a +6 rating.
John Moore has started to find his two-way play. Though he has no points in the playoffs, his defensive abilities have started to grow. He has become more responsible in the defensive zone: locking players up against the boards and his hustle to the puck. He also contributes in the offensive side, by utilizing his speed and willingness to take carry the puck in deep on the goalie.
In an Olympic rematch from Sochi earlier this year, Carey Price will lead Montreal on the ice. He brings a record of 8-3, save percentage of .926, goals against average of 2.15, and one shutout. In the first round, he helped spearhead a four game sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the second round against the Boston Bruins, he ran into a much better and formidable opponent. In the playoff series, Price was 4-3, 2.14 goals against average, and one shutout. In his three losses, Price gave up more than 4 goals twice. What was a weakness for Fleury is an asset for Price. Whenever he is in net, there is a cool and calm demeanor. He does not appear to get rattled and is able to shake off the previous goal given up.
Much like the Rangers, the Canadiens depend heavily on their goalie. He and Subban are the faces of the Montreal franchise. The team from the north had been in search of a consistent and dominating goalie, since the days of Patrick Roy. They may have it in Price, only time will tell. However, for now, Price is the goalie to beat.
To counter, the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist. Last series, he lived up to his nickname as the King. In elimination games, he is a remarkable 9-2 since the 2012 playoffs. He has won four of five game 7’s with a .963 save percentage. They will need that again if the team wants to advance. He brings a record of 8-6, with a 1.99 goals against average and a save percentage of .931. Just like with Price, he thrives on his mental game. He is able to forget the previous goal and concentrate on the present. There is not much to say about Lundqvist.
We know who he is and what he symbolizes. He is the backbone and lifeline for the Rangers.
The Montreal Canadien’s special teams are in opposite ends of each other. Being short handed is not one of the team’s strong points. Through 11 playoff games, the team is at 80.0% for the penalty kill. Of the 16 playoff teams this season, Montreal is ranked 11th, giving up five power play goals in 25 short handed opportunities. Where they lack being down a man, they make up for with the man advantage.
The Canadien power play is ranked fourth in the playoffs with 26.3% success rate. They are only behind three teams: the Flyers, Lightning, and Bruins; all of whom have been eliminated from the post season. In 38 power play opportunities, they have capitalized 10 times. That’s only two goals behind the Anaheim Ducks for the lead in power play goals.
For the Rangers, we all know their story. Special teams is something to be desired. The power play has been missing for most of the playoffs this season. They are 13th in the playoffs with the man-advantage. They are six for 55 with power play opportunities, which is a 10.9% success rate.
However, where the Canadiens thrive on the power play, the Rangers stifle their opponents on the penalty kill. They are seven for 41 being shorthanded, which is a 82.9%. That is good for ninth, among this year’s playoff teams.
Of the Montreal Canadien’s roster, two former Rangers will be facing their old team. Forward Dale Weise, a former fourth round pick of the New York Rangers in 2008, will be ready to go. Entering the series with his former team, he has three goals and five points, with a +5 rating. Recently, he made a name for himself, by standing up to Bruins tough guy Milan Lucic. A heated exchange between the two had brewed. It carried over to the traditional handshake line between the teams. Mostly, seeing playing time with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League, Weise was picked up by the Vancouver Canucks after he was waived by the Rangers. After playing 44 games with the Canucks this season, he was traded to Montreal in exchange for defenseman Raphael Diaz, who is now a New York Ranger.
The other former Ranger, and perhaps best known among the current Ranger fanbase, is Brandon Prust. Prusty, as was his nickname in New York, spent over two years with the Blueshirts. He was part of a trade from Calgary during the 2009-2010 season. In my opinion, he was a key foundation in forming the Rangers’ identity: a tough, hand nosed, workman-like team. After the 2012 season, he signed with Montreal for four years. In this season’s playoffs, Prust has one goal and six points, -3 rating, and six minutes of penalty minutes. They will bring the physical element to the Rangers and may make things difficult.
For the Rangers, two former Canadien players will be making their homecoming to the Belle Center in Montreal. Raphael Diaz was a undrafted defenseman for the Candiaens. He played 69 games, tallying one goal and 24 assists, before being traded to the Canucks for Weise. The other former Canadien is Benoit Pouliot. He played 88 games, contributing 28 goals and 26 assists.
As in the previous series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that makes less mistakes will win the series. Montreal is a smaller team. However, they make up for it with quick strikes and constant pressure.
There can be no letup against this team. If the Rangers come out flat, as they have been known to do, then this will not be a pretty series. The coaching staff should concentrate on keeping the puck away from Subban because of his “bomb of a shot” from the blue line.
The Rangers will need to play their brand of hockey: puck containment, quick and precise passes, suffocating defense with block shots, and keep the crease clear for Lundqvist.
We saw what the Rangers are capable of doing when the chips are down. There is no quit in this team. But they will need to put it all on the line against a Montreal team that has all the confidence in the world. They have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Strap yourselves in, cause we should be in for a quite a series.
New York Rangers in seven games and Eastern Conference Champions.