On paper and on the ice, the Eastern Conference finals feature two teams close to dead even, and several Rangers suggested that the teams are very similar. The Canadiens (8-3 in the playoffs) and the Rangers (8-6) each like a fast pace, have high-quality goaltending if not the most consistent offenses, and were underdogs in the second round.
Henrik Lundqvist, (1.99, .931 in the playoffs) has been stellar in big games, but he will need to exorcise his demons at Bell Centre, where he has struggled. Lundqvist has been sharp the last two weeks, but if he is shaky, Cam Talbot, who played both games in Montreal during the season, could relieve him and give the Rangers a different look. At 26, Carey Price (2.15, .926 in the playoffs) had the season of his career (2.32, .927, six shutouts). He surrendered one goal against the Bruins in Games 6 and 7.
Montreal has scored 36 goals in 11 playoff games, although 16 came in the four-game dispatching of the Lightning, who had Anders Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis in net, not Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, who was injured. The Rangers scored 34 in 14 games. P.K. Subban, cocky and confident, is the defending Norris Trophy winner, the best offensive blueliner on either team and at 4-8-12, the leading scorer overall. Lars Eller (4-5-9), Brendan Gallagher (4-5-9) and Thomas Vanek (5-3-8) have been the top forwards. For the Rangers, it's been Brad Richards (4-5-9), Martin St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot, all 3-5-8. The Rangers may be a tad deeper in the top nine. The X-factors? Rick Nash (no goals in 14 games) and Chris Kreider, who has played just three games after sitting out with a broken left hand.
After P.K. Subban and Alexei Emelin, four of the six other blueliners are 34 or older (Markov, Weaver, Murray, Bouillon) and could be tested by the Rangers' forecheck. Figure Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi to be dispatched against Montreal's top line, with Max Pacioretty (39 goals), and Marc Staal and underrated Anton Stralman against Tomas Plekanec and Thomas Vanek. Also expect the Rangers to try to rattle Subban as often as they can.
Five-on-five, there's little difference statistically. On the power play, however, the Canadiens have been deadly (10-for-38, 26.3) and the Rangers sluggish (6-for-55, 10.9). The Blueshirts' penalty-kill stifled the Penguins, but Montreal is quicker in entries and unafraid to shoot. The Rangers' power play needs to be more consistent.
Alain Vigneault, always prepared, was behind the bench in Montreal from 1997-2000, and is very close with Michel Therrien, whom he recommended as coach of the Canadiens' AHL team. "I've got nothing but positive memories of my time there," Vigneault said. "I'm here today because I started there." He has more postseason experience than Therrien, and the team has really responded to his style.
PREDICTION: If Nash gets on the scoresheet and Lundqvist overcomes his Bell Centre history, Rangers in 7.