Here’s one thing to count on: The Rangers-Canadiens first-round series that begins Wednesday will have a long way to go to match the drama, twists and turns of the Eastern Conference finals in May 2014.
Think about it:
Carey Price was knocked out for the series on a controversial play when Chris Kreider collided with the goalie in Game 1, the entire Rangers team attended the funeral for Marty St. Louis’ mother the next day, and the Rangers won Game 2 behind 40 saves from Henrik Lundqvist to sweep the visit to Bell Centre. In Game 3, former Ranger Brandon Prust’s hit broke Derek Stepan’s jaw and Dan Carcillo, trying to retaliate, was suspended for making contact with an official. Oh, and the Canadiens won in overtime.
On the day off, Montreal coach Michel Therrien (who was fired this past February) ordered three Rangers staffers out of the Habs’ practice, citing a gentleman’s agreement not to spy. In Game 4, St. Louis beat Dustin Tokarski in overtime to give the Blueshirts a 3-1 series lead. The Canadiens responded in Game 5 by chasing Lundqvist with four goals on 19 shots. Stepan returned wearing a protective mask and scored twice in the 7-4 loss. In Game 6, Dominic Moore, who had not played in the 2012-13 season in order to care for his wife, Katie, who died of liver cancer, scored the only goal as the Rangers advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.
Many of the notable figures from three years ago — on both teams — are not there anymore: St. Louis, Brad Richards, Derick Brassard, Carl Hagelin, Moore, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and Cam Talbot. Therrien was fired and replaced by former Bruins coach Claude Julien; defenseman P.K. Subban was traded to Nashville for Shea Weber, and Lars Eller, Thomas Vanek, Daniel Briere, Brian Gionta, Dale Weise, Tokarski and Prust are elsewhere.
The Rangers have three new defensemen (Brady Skjei, Nick Holden and Brendan Smith) in their top six, and are younger and quicker up front with Mika Zibanejad, Michael Grabner, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich. Note: Kevin Hayes (17-32-49) and Jesper Fast did not play in the 2014 series and J.T. Miller skated in only one game. The Canadiens have new blood, as well.
Stepan has turned the page on 2014 and referred to this season’s games. “You look at the three games we lost [to the Canadiens],” Stepan said. “We lost one in a shootout. We lost one in Montreal where we gave up, I think it was, two goals in a span of 50 seconds [actually, it was three in 62] . . . I think we’re two evenly matched teams. It’s going to be a heck of a series. The two buildings are phenomenal buildings to play in the playoffs. You’re going to see physical, speed, goaltending. You’re going to see it all.”
RANGERS VS. CANADIENS
Canadiens 47-26-9, 103 points, first place, Atlantic Division
Rangers 47-28-6, 100 points, first wild card in the East
A healthy Price (37-20-5, 2.23 GAA, .923 save percentage) statistically was better than Lundqvist (31-20-4, .910, 2.74) during the regular season, but had some midyear lapses. Lundqvist, at age 35, remains tremendously motivated. Bell Centre has not been a friendly place for the King (4-9-2, 3.87 GAA, .877) during his career in the regular season. He was 2-1, 2.82, .915 in Montreal in the 2014 Eastern finals, including the four goals he allowed in Game 5.
The Rangers have scored 253 goals, the Canadiens 223. Max Pacioretty leads both teams with 35, but the Habs have only one other player with more than 20, Paul Byron (22). Eight others, including defenseman Shea Weber, Alex Radulov and Alex Galchenyuk have more than 10. The Blueshirts have four 20-plus goal scorers (Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller), and six with more than 10.
This could be the deciding factor, because the teams are pretty even, with little difference in power-play efficiency (each at about 20 percent) and penalty-killing (81 percent for the Canadiens, 79.5 for the Rangers).
Weber and McDonagh, the workhorses, will be coming off some rest for lower-body injuries. Who rebounds faster? If the Rangers succumb to the forecheck and are unable to move the puck quickly out of their zone, it spells trouble.
The Rangers lead the NHL in road wins, but Bell Centre is a bear. Conversely, they have not played well at home, especially in late February and March and are 20-16-4 . . . Under Julien, the Habs are 15-6-1. “They’re a well-coached team,” Nash said. “They’re going to play a good system. They’ve got a lot of speed, a lot of skill, some heavy guys on the back end and great goaltending. We’re going to have our hands full.”
Since 1930, the teams have met 15 times in post-season series. It is the most the Rangers have faced any opponent. The Rangers are 8-7.
2014 Conference Finals. Rangers in six
1996 Conference Quarterfinals. Rangers in six
1986 Conference Finals. Canadiens in five
1979 Final. Canadiens in five
1974 Quarterfinals. Rangers in six
1972 Quarterfinals. Rangers in six
1969 Quarterfinals. Canadiens in four
1967 Quarterfinals. Canadiens in four
1957 Semifinals. Canadiens in five
1956 Semifinals. Canadiens in five
1950 Semifinals. Rangers in five
1935 Quarterfinals. Rangers win total goals 6-5
1933 Quarterfinals. Rangers win, total goals 8-5
1932 Semifinals. Rangers win 3-1
1930 Semifinals. Canadiens win 2-0