Battling for the 15th time in playoff history, but only the third since they met in the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals, the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens begin the Eastern Conference Finals in Game One Saturday afternoon at Bell Centre.
The all-time series is split 7-7, which New York evened in the most recent clash in the 1996 conference quarters 4-2. It’s the second trip for the Rangers to the conference finals in the last three seasons, and the Canadiens second since 2010. New York hopes to make the Cup Finals for the first time since winning it all in 1994, and Montreal aims for its first trip and win since 1993.
If the regular season series serves as a prediction, it could be a long, grinding series for both teams. Montreal took the season series 2-1, but only four total goals were scored in the three games and New York claimed just one.
Both squads are coming off riveting seven-game series during which they defeated the two teams most favored to reach the conference finals. Led by goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s 35-save performance in Game Seven and the emotional boost provided by the sudden death of right winger Martin St. Louis’s mother, the Rangers ousted Pittsburgh with three straight victories and overcame a 3-1 series deficit.
Montreal struck down defending East champion Boston despite facing a 3-2 series hole. The ripped off two straight wins with keeper Carey Price saving 55 of 56 shots attempted by the Bruins. While he’s three spots behind Lundqvist in save percentage this postseason, Price counts one shutout compared to none for Lundqvuist thus far.
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The series will likely come down to Lundqvist and the Rangers fourth ranked defense trying to best the Canadiens playoff-best scoring at 3.27 goals per game.
New York’s top defenders thus far in the postseason have been Anton Stralman and Kevin Klein, with each posting a team-leading plus-minus of plus-7, followed by Marc Staal at plus-6.
That corps will have to limit the playmaking of Montreal points and assist leader P.K. Subban. Notching 12 total points, mostly from his eight assists, Subban is Montreal’s top playmaker and will look to feed left wing Thomas Vanek and center Lars Eller while trying to help left wing Max Pacioretty re-discover his regular season form.
Pacioretty led the Canadiens with 39 goals and 60 total points in the regular season, but has totaled three goals in 11 starts this postseason. Still two of those scores came in Game Six and Seven of the Boston series, so the 25-year-old may have found his postseason groove.
To the credit of the Rangers attack, they’re a team that knows how to share the puck. Six players have tallied five assists in the postseason, with center Brad Richards, left wing Carl Hagelin and center Derick Brassard benefiting the most with four goals apiece.
Betting Odds: Montreal is a slight series favorite at -115 compared to -105 for New York according to Bovada.lv.
Series Prediction: Boasting the better offense of the two, Montreal takes it in six games.