(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
It wasn't supposed to be these two.
The Montreal Canadiens were supposed to be done two rounds ago. There weren't many pundits that thought they'd get by the Tampa Bay Lightning. But they did, and in short order too, breezing past the Bolts like they'd pick the two kindergartners that think they can hang with the big kids in a game of red rover.
Then they were expected to lose to the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins. That didn't happen either. Now they're four wins away from the Stanley Cup Final.
As for the Rangers, well, they barely survived October. They began this season abysmally, with just two wins in their first eight, with some calling for Alain Vigneault's head before Veterans Day. Remember the 9-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, three games into the season, when Larry Brooks had this to say?
When Tortorella left — when, as he said a couple of weeks ago, he was told to leave — he took almost all of the Rangers’ identity with him.
Rangers: shot-blocking. Rangers: the maniac behind the bench whose interaction with the media devolved into spectacle.
Now, there is a vacuum. Nothingness.
Now, there is a berth in the Eastern Conference Final.
Neither team was supposed to be here. But soon, one of them will be in the Stanley Cup Final.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Montreal Canadiens (3)
May 17: New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens, 1 p.m. ET.
May 19: New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET.
May 22: Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers, 8 p.m. ET.
May 25: Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers, 8 p.m. ET.
*May 27: New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET.
*May 29: Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers, 8 p.m. ET.
*May 31: New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET.
Both Montreal and New York come into the East Final without a single forward in the top 15 for NHL playoff scoring, which is especially impressive in Montreal's case, since they're the highest-scoring team in the postseason at 3.27 goals per game. (Hurting their chances at a scoring leader: they swept a series, which cut down on their chances to rack up the points.)
The Canadiens' scoring is coming from everywhere. They don't even have a first line, really. I guess you could say it's Max Pacioretty's line, with David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, but it seems weird to consider a trio that includes Thomas Vanek a second line. Vanek tends to skate with Michael Bournival and Tomas Plekanec. But occasionally these lines get blended.
The Canadiens are in the third round because this isn't it for offensive weapons. Line three, with Lars Eller, Rene Bourque, and captain Brian Gionta has been dangerous all playoffs, and line four, with proven playoff-performer Daniel Briere, Brandon Prust, and defender of the handshake line Dale Weise, has pitched in with some timely scoring. This is a team that's rolling four lines and getting production from each. You don't lose when that happens.
But the Rangers roll four as well, and they too have eschewed the loaded first line format. Rick Nash and Chris Krieder roll between Derek Stepan on what you might call their first line, but are we honestly going to say that a line that features the duo of Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis (with the speedy Carl Hagelin on their left) is the second line? It's just two good lines.
Derick Brassard, Benoit Pouliot, and Mats Zuccarrello give the Rangers a speedy, skilled third line, and they too have gotten some timely contributions from the fourth platoon, with Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and Derek Dorsett.
All of this is to say that these two teams are deep, and the scoring could come from just about anywhere.
The Canadiens boast the best defenseman in this series, without a doubt. P.K. Subban is one of the best blueliners in the world. The Canadiens may not have a forward in the top-15 in playoff scoring, but Subban's sitting sixth, with 12 points in 11 games. He can do it all, and he'll have to for the Canadiens to get into the playoffs.
Subban plays with Josh Gorges, and they have license to attack, since Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov tend to get the tougher assignments. Behind those two, Mike Weaver and Nathan Beaulieu do a serviceable job playing clean-up, and they'll continue to do so unless Michel Therrien forgets that he's not supposed to play Douglas Murray and does so.
The Rangers are led by one of hockey's best pairings in Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. Expect them to see a lot of minutes against Max Pacioretty's line. As for Thomas Vanek's line, they'll likely see a lot of Anton Stralman and Marc Staal, the latter of whom has developed some serious edge over the years. Keep an eye out for that.
I'm tipping the scales towards the Canadiens here, although I don't feel good about it. They're the better defensive team. Of that there's no question. But they don't have P.K. Subban.
It's Carey Price versus Henrik Lundqvist. Remember this from the Olympics?
It's different this time around. Lundqvist's team isn't barred from using their best center because he took an allergy supplement, for one thing. For another, Price's team isn't so stacked they can look at P.K. Subban and think, nah.
This is a coin toss. These are two of the best goalies in the world, and both have proven themselves capable of stealing a series. Neither club is here if not for the guy in the net, and one suspect that the team in the Final will enter with their goaltender dominating the Conn Smythe chatter..
Two teams that found themselves against the ropes and managed to come back. The Canadiens were down 3-2 to Boston. They won. The Rangers were down 3-1 to Pittsburgh. They won. No one's coasting here. No one's been sitting around, waiting a week to play. Tough to say either club has the edge.
Not much of a difference here. Michel Therrien and Alain Vigneault started together in Montreal, and they coach basically the same system. As Vigneault explained when Therrien was coaching the Penguins and he was coaching the Canucks, they effectively developed the system together.
As for experience, neither has ever won a Cup, but both have gotten there and fallen short, so they know what it takes to win a Conference Final, at the very least.
Both of these clubs are killing penalties around 80%. That could be a little better. But you have to like Montreal's chances to improve their mark over New York's. After all, the Canadiens get to defend the Rangers powerplay.
The blueshirts have been abysmal in these playoffs with the man advantage. They're converting at 10.9%, having scored just 6 times in a playoff-high 55 opportunities. Get that thing turned around and their chances improve drastically.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, have 10 goals on 38 opportunities. Probably helps that they have Subban back there.
SERIES SLOW JAM
After all the reasons why (these two teams weren't supposed to be here), all of the reasons are a lie.
Players to watch.
SWIPE LEFT ON... Rick Nash. He's so, so, so unbelievably due to score a goal. 14 games. 0 goals. But if he goes another round without one, not only are the Rangers not going to the Final, but he'll be blamed for that.
SWIPE RIGHT ON... Dale Weise. Waived by the Rangers three years ago, Weise returns hot. He's scored three big goals for the Canadiens from the fourth line. He's probably the last guy the Rangers are worried about, but that's why he's been so dangerous in this postseason.
I've given the edge to the Canadiens in almost every area, but only because I had to. These two teams are pretty evenly matched.
The difference, though, is Subban. It's amazing to say for someone that won a Norris Trophy last year, but he's having a breakout right now, and I'm not sure that the Rangers have an answer for him. He's a difference-maker, and he'll be the difference.
Canadiens in 7.