By Allan Muir
Montreal wins series, 2-1
Oct. 28: Canadiens 2, Rangers 0
Nov. 16: Rangers 1, Canadiens 0
April 12: Canadiens 1, Rangers 0 (OT)
Canadiens: C Alex Galchenyuk (day-to-day with lower body injury; should return in this series)
Keys to a Canadiens victory
If Montreal has proved anything through the first two rounds, it's that the Habs know how to stay out of trouble. They've played 703 minutes so far this spring and trailed for just over 61 of them. That success starts with netminder Carey Price, who is building a reputation for big game play on a foundation he laid at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. His stellar numbers in the playoffs (2.15 goals-against average, .926 save percentage) don't reflect his effectiveness in key moments. He's not just making stops--he's making them when they matter most. He's the biggest reason why Boston's power play failed so dismally in that series.
Montreal's defense is a bit slow on the deep end, but the Blueshirts don't have anyone that can match the speed, passion and explosiveness of P.K. Subban. He dominated the early games in the Boston series with his playmaking and heavy shot from the point, but was slowed later on as the toll of the Bruins' constant punishment finally caught up to him. New York's a much less physical team, though. If they can't make him pay a price, he could take over the series.
Subban's transition skills have helped key a Montreal offense that ranks first with 3.27 goals per game, well above the 2.55 that the Habs averaged in the regular season. They're getting production from all four lines, with Rene Bourque (four goals) and Dale Weise (three) among the surprise contributors. Max Pacioretty struggled early on, but put up four points over the last three games against Boston and seems to have his jump back. If Thomas Vanek shows up--no sure thing, unfortunately--he can add a quick strike dimension to both five-on-fave and the power play that New York can't match.
Keys to a Rangers victory
There's no overstating the importance of Henrik Lundqvist to New York's chances...or the history he has to overcome if he's to lead the Rangers to victory. He's coming into this series red hot, having stopped 102 of the final 105 shots he faced against the Penguins, but he's 4-5-2 with an .876 save percentage at the Bell Centre and it's probably no accident that he was passed over for both starts there this season. The Rangers are just 1-7-2 and have been shut out five times in their last 10 visits to Montreal. That suggests there won't be much margin for error, and that Lundqvist will have to be sharp.
Lundqvist can count on support from a defense that leads the playoffs with 245 blocked shots. The blueline corps, led by Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman, is deeper than Montreal's, and while the top pair of McDonagh and Girardi have struggled at times, they rounded into form during the last three games of the Pittsburgh series.
It's not news that the Rangers' top forwards are struggling--Rick Nash has yet to score, Derek Stepan has been invisible, and Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis have been inconsistent. Their play has forced New York to manufacture offense with will instead of skill. The third line of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot is coming off a terrific series in which they combined for six goals and 13 points. Through the first two rounds, New York's bottom six forwards have overachieved to the tune of 14 goals and 32 points in 14 games. They're generating the sort of greasy goals that will be currency against the Habs, and if they can take advantage of Montreal's second and third D pairs, that creates a huge edge for the Blueshirts.
If I'm using my head, I say Montreal in six. But hockey isn't all logic and numbers, and that's why I have to pick the Rangers. New York looked dead in the water after Game 4 of the Pittsburgh series, but everything changed after the passing of St. Louis' mother. If they lacked unity or focus or identity before that moment, that's not a problem now. The Rangers found themselves in that tragedy and if they aren't a team of destiny they at least believe they are. That confidence, and the goaltending of Lundqvist, give them the edge they need to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Rangers in 7.
(All times Eastern; * if necessary)
Game 1: May 17, @ Montreal; 1:00 pm ET (NBC, CBC, RDS)
Game 2: Mon. May 19 at MTL, 8pm (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)
Game 3: Thurs. May 22 at NYR, 8pm (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)
Game 4: Sun. May 25 at NYR, 8pm (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)
Game 5*: Tues. May 27 at MTL, 8pm (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)
Game 6*: Thurs. May 29 at NYR, 8pm (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)
Game 7*: Sat. May 31 at MTL, 8pm (NBCSN, CBC, RDS)