It wouldn’t be farfetched to envision a tight, low-scoring game for the Rangers when the Canadiens come to Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
After all, in seven of the last eight games, the Blueshirts have scored two goals or fewer and are 4-4. The Canadiens have potted just 16 goals in their last nine games, (5-4), but have won four in a row. Throw in the presence of two goaltenders who have been lights-out recently, Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price, and one or two plays could be the difference.
Strangely, neither team added offense before the trade deadline: Montreal went for size and truculence, acquiring forwards Dwight King and Steve Ott and defensemen Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson.
Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton, preferring not to trade a first-round pick and more to St. Louis for Kevin Shattenkirk, opted for defenseman Brendan Smith, who debuted in Thursday’s 2-1 win in Boston, and didn’t improve the power play, which was 0-for-3 against the Bruins and sank to 0-for-18. Head coach Alain Vigneault and associate coach Scott Arniel presumably will experiment with some new combinations.
Both Pavel Buchnevich, who scored on a rocket past Tuukka Rask in Boston after a two-goal game with Hartford, and the potential return of Michael Grabner (day to day, hip), with a team-leading 26 goals, could help both five-on-five and five-on-four. If each dresses Saturday, two forwards will sit, presumably Matt Puempel and Brandon Pirri.
And Smith, 28, should feel more comfortable. “It’s kind of tough to learn a system in a couple of days, and there’s a couple bugaboos I want to get out of my game,” he said Thursday. “I love the speed — and we were missing Grabner — we can turn it on like that.”
The Rangers have dropped the first two meetings with the Habs: 5-4 on Jan. 14 at Bell Centre and 3-2 on Feb. 21 in New York. Rick Nash, who was among the forwards laboring against the Bruins, had two of the six goals; Oscar Lindberg, J.T. Miller, Derek Stepan and Pirri were the other scorers.
At any rate, with 18 games remaining, the stretch run is here.
Four Metropolitan Division clubs — Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus and the Rangers — sit atop the entire Eastern Conference and have leads in the first tiebreaker: regulation and overtime wins.
March was not particularly kind to the Blueshirts last season (6-5-3), although this year, sticking in the first wild-card slot and crossing over to play the No. 1 finisher in the Atlantic Division in the first round may make advancing a little easier.