By Rick Carpiniello
This is impossible to imagine. The Rangers have won three seven-game series in which Rick Nash has not scored a single goal (his only goal in 26 playoff games in Game 2 vs. Boston last spring). This is also impossible to imagine: The Rangers continuing to get by without goals from Nash.
Pretty much every forward on both teams have contributed, even the non-offensive guys, offensively in these playoffs. In fact, they are quite similar. Speed, not a lot of size, depth. Montreal’s fourth line of ex-Rangers Brandon Prust and Dale Weise, on either side of Daniel Briere (who was scratched for Game 5 vs. Boston) is similar to the Rangers’ fourth of Dominic Moore between Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett (or Dan Carcillo).
The Rangers’ best line – all year, really — was Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot, and their top line of Nash and Derek Stepan was bolstered greatly with the return from injury of size, speed, strength, shot and net presence of Chris Kreider. He’s a big player for the Rangers now. That return bumped Martin St. Louis down to an effective line with Carl Hagelin and Brad Richards.
The Habs got offense from up and down, too. Ex-Islander Thomas Vanek is explosive, Max Pacioretty can score and play a physical game, and Lars Eller was probably the best Habs skater other than defenseman P.K. Subban vs. Boston, though Brendan Gallagher, David Desharnais, Tomas Plekanec and Rene Bourque were a handful, too. Alex Galchenyuk (knee) could also return in this series.
The Rangers, 1-through-6, are better defensively. The Habs are better offensively. Subban is the most dangerous player on either defense, and can be a distraction as well. He is paired with defense-minded Josh Gorges. Andrei Markov can also fire it, and he and Alex Emelin are kind of a shutdown pair. Nathan Beaulieu and Mike Weaver will probably be the third pair, though slow-footed, hard-hitting Douglas Murray and/or veteran Francis Bouillon could play.
But the Rangers’ big three of ex-Habs prospect Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are just so good defensively and in this system, and Anton Stralman has had a terrific postseason. Kevin Klein and John Moore have become as reliable a third-pair as there is in the league.
We all know that Henrik Lundqvist has struggled mightily in his career, or at least the last several years, in Montreal, and that Carey Price has just eaten the Rangers alive in home games.
This Lundqvist has to be the Lundqvist from the last three games of the Pittsburgh series and not the guy his last two coaches wouldn’t let play when the Rangers visited the Habs.
Price, coming off a gold medal (in which he beat Lundqvist and Sweden) for Canada in Sochi, had a stellar second half and could get as hot as Lundqvist.
We all know that the Rangers had that remarkably bad 0-for-36 power-play drought vs. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But the Rangers’ power play won Game 1 against the Flyers and Game 5 against the Penguins, and Richards’ PPG won Game 7 in Pittsburgh Tuesday. So you never know.
The Rangers’ penalty killers shut down Pittsburgh’s power play, and a collection of some of the best talent in the league, which was 1 for 20. The Habs will give up a power-play goal once in a while, but they will score some, too, with Subban and Markov firing away, and Pacioretty and Vanek sniping in close. Montreal is 10 for 38 on the power play in these playoffs.
Quebec native Alain Vigneault got his first NHL head-coaching job in Montreal. While there, he recommended the team hire Michel Therrien, a junior-hockey rival, as the Canadiens’ minor-league coach.
They are similar coaches with similar personalities and styles, both well respected by their players. Really, like most of the other categories in these matchups, it’s almost a mirror image on the benches, too. Something to watch: Rumors that Rangers assistant Ulf Samuelsson will leave to become head coach of Carolina, with his buddy Ron Francis the new GM there.
PREDICTION: Rangers in six.
Photo by Getty Images.