The Montreal Canadiens are less than three days removed from a substantial achievement.
After a convincing Round 1 victory, Round 2 was supposed to the end of the line for this year's Habs. The Boston Bruins, as President's Trophy winners, were one of the league's most dominant regular season teams, and dispatched the supposed dark horse Red Wings with ease. They have a centre, defenceman, and goalie who are each among the league's best at their position, and the pundits made it clear who was the favourite going into the series. Nevertheless, the Canadiens mustered their motivation, executed a strategy that effectively countered Boston's, and enjoyed some outstanding goaltending from Carey Price. After a grueling, emotional, seven-game series, the Canadiens emerged victorious.
Starting this afternoon, the Canadiens will find themselves at the outset of a brand-new series. Facing a new, and similarly difficult opponent, the Canadiens will need to regroup, and quickly, if they wish to take Game 1 for a third consecutive series.
The Canadiens won two of the only three games they played against the Rangers this season, and each was a low-scoring contest.
The first game of the series was a 2-0 Carey Price shutout in New York, in which the game winner was an impressive rush that culminated in a Tomas Plekanec goal:
The Canadiens outscored the Rangers 3-1 over the course of their season series, and only one of those four goals was scored at even strength. It's worth noting that, in each of the three games, the Rangers came out with a significant advantage in shot attempts, despite their disadvantage in the goal column. This phenomenon is likely a microcosm of the regular season at large, where the the Rangers were a top-5 possession team and the Habs languished toward the league's basement.
Of course, things have changed significantly since the first two match-ups of the season series, which took place in October and November. Both teams have acquired significant offensive difference-makers in Martin St. Louis and Thomas Vanek, respectively, and the Canadiens have significantly adjusted their systems since the playoffs have begun. The Rangers have been consistently strong all season long, but once one factors in the Habs' adjustments to tactics and talent, these two teams seems likely to find themselves close to even in terms of both goals and territorial play.
As the hockey world has quickly taken note of, this series will showcase two goalies who can each stake their claim to the title of the world's best player at their position. Lundqvist is currently leading the league in playoff save percentage, and has been widely considered the league's best goaltender of the last five years. Carey Price, meanwhile, is sitting in fourth place, but since two so-so games to start the series against the Lightning, Price has been lights out. Carey was impenetrable against the Bruins, and held the Habs in their second round series while they took two games to find their legs.
Price managed a shutout against the Rangers in the regular season, while allowing only a single goal on 75 Ranger shots. Lundqvist's back-up, Cam Talbot, started two of the MTL-NYR contests this season, but Lundqvist drew in for the team's season finale clash. Lundqvist held the Habs scoreless through regulation, before eventually conceding a penalty shot winner to Brian Gionta:
Price and Lundqvist have already faced each other in a high-stakes clash in 2014, as they were their country's starter during the gold medal game at the Sochi Olympic Games. Each goalie is more than capable of stealing a game, or the series, if they play up to the top of their considerable talents.
The Canadiens absolutely dominated the bottom of the Bruins' lineup, and never was this more evident than in Games 6 and 7. The Canadiens' Dale Weise got the first goal of Game 7 with the Bruins' fourth trio on the ice, and Daniel Briere sealed it up when he banked in the insurance marker as the the Bruins tried to engineer a come back. The ability to roll four skilled lines has proved hugely advantageous in Rounds 1 and 2, and this afternoon, we'll get a glimpse at whether we should expect the Rangers fourth line of Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle, and Derek Dorsett to be similarly vulnerable.
Like Michel Therrien, Alain Vigneault likes to roll four lines, and even the fourth line's weakest link (Dorsett) probably has more to offer than Thornton does. Given Vigneault's propensity to bury his fourth group in the defensive zone against opponent's bottom sixers, it should become apparent early if the Habs fourth line skill can again create an offensive difference.
Outside of the matchup in the bottom six, these two teams match-up well against each other. Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Brendan Gallagher will look to put pressure on the Blueshirts' top pair of Girardi and Staal, while P.K. Subban will likely see lots of Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards as Therrien tries to lock down the Rangers' top weapons. While both teams have a solid, balanced defensive corps, the Canadiens may have an advantage in terms of offensive capability on the back-end. With Nathan Beaulieu suiting up alongside Mike Weaver, each Habs pair has an offensive catalyst whose ability to create from his own zone outstrips the talents of any Rangers' counterpart. Like the fourth lines, this may become another crucial match-up that can work in Montreal's favour.
The Canadiens have started quickly in each of their two series in 2014, stealing Game 1 from their opponent and immediately putting themselves in control of the series. An early victory in the quarterfinals translated into an eventual series sweep, and in Round 2, another series-opening win allowed the Habs to immediately divest the Bruins of home-ice advantage.
This afternoon, starting a series with home ice should allow the Canadiens the chance to set the tone for match-ups and motivation and put them in the favourable position of leading another series. With the Conference Finals about to be underway, the Habs must be prepared to hold home ice advantage the same way their previous opponents could not.