GREENBURGH, N.Y. — In a preview of what could be a first-round matchup in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the slipping Montreal Canadiens — trying to regroup under new coach Claude Julien — will visit Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
“I know Claude real well,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “His teams are going to be well-structured, he’s had a couple practices coming in and there should be a real sense of urgency on their part.”
The Rangers were hovering around .500 at the Garden in late January, but five consecutive wins have lifted their home record to 18-11-1.
In the only other game between the teams — on Jan. 14, before Julien, who was fired by the Bruins on Feb. 7, took over the Canadiens — Montreal won, 5-4, at Bell Centre. Henrik Lundqvist, who will start Tuesday night, allowed five goals on 22 shots in relief of Antti Raanta, who left with a lower-body injury after making 10 saves in the first period.
Lundqvist has since found his “A’’ game, and the defense, including rookie Brady Skjei, is tightening.
“The number of times he went back for pucks [in Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the Capitals] and was able to beat the forecheck, it makes such a huge difference,” Vigneault said of Skjei. “Instead of playing 20 to 25 seconds defending, the puck’s out, we’re transitioning and going to the other end. Him and Mac [Ryan McDonagh] right now, both of them have that ability, or to skate away from the pressure. It makes it a lot easier on our game.”
Skjei, who also is contributing offensively with a goal and nine assists in his last 13 games, said Monday: “I’m playing with a little more confidence. When I’m playing good, I hold on to the puck.”
The Canadiens (2-7-1 in the last 10) are in first place in the Atlantic Division. In the current standings, Montreal would play the first wild card in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers.
But much can change. The Blueshirts, with 77 points, are only three out of second place in the Metropolitan Division, and the Ottawa Senators are only two points behind the Canadiens with two games in hand.
Notes & quotes: Derek Stepan (sore hip) took a maintenance day but Vigneault called him “probable” for Tuesday . . . Jesper Fast, who wears No. 19, which is to be retired next season to honor Hall of Fame center Jean Ratelle, wore 17 and 18 in Sweden. “Maybe I’ll ask for 17,” Fast said. Marc Staal wears 18 . . . Rookie Pavel Buchnevich, a healthy scratch against the Islanders, had three shots in 10:46 Sunday and was more engaged. “Involved, assertive, competitive,” Vigneault said. “He’s just got to get more experience, get a little stronger and be more effective in those one-on-ones.”