Eastern Conference Final
(A3) Montreal Canadiens vs. (M2) New York Rangers
Season series: Canadiens won 2-1
They have a history: Besides being two of the NHL’s legendary Original Six, there are some incredible narratives at play in this series. New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault coached the Montreal Canadiens for three-plus seasons in the late 1990s before being fired midseason in 2000. He was then replaced by current Habs coach Michel Therrien. The Canadiens have dispatched of the Rangers en route to the Stanley Cup six times in the organization’s remarkable history, most recently in 1986. Still, in 14 all-time head-to-head series, the teams are dead even at 7-7. Their last playoff meeting was a first-rounder won by the Rangers in 1996.
For the Canadiens to win: Le Bleu Blanc Rouge must use its speed to wreak havoc on the Rangers, same as the team did to the Boston Bruins. After a slump at the beginning of the post-season resulted in his reuniting with regular linemates Brendan Gallagher and David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty came alive in Round 2, posting four points in the Canadiens’ final three games against Boston — including the winning goal in Game 7 — and that line will must stay hot and complement the timely contribution Montreal has received from its depth forwards.
Best Canadiens storyline: Pernell Karl Subban has been a lightning rod for much of his five-year NHL career, and that hasn’t changed this post-season. Subban offered strong words after Montreal’s seven-game series win over the Bruins, telling Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, “I feel bad for any team that has to come into our building and our city.” Montreal’s run has had much to do with words — retaliating to them, ignoring them, and backing them up.
Leading scorer: P.K. Subban, 12 points (four goals, eight assists)
Game 1 starter: Carey Price, 8-3, 2.15 GAA, .926 save percentage
For the Rangers to win: Henrik Lundqvist must remain The King. He stole two games in the Rangers’ come-from-behind, seven-game series victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, posting a .971 save percentage in New York’s final three wins. Lundqvist has struggled in Montreal throughout his career. He once blew a 5-0 lead at Bell Centre, he sports a 4-5-2 career record in the hostile building, and he’s not even played in Montreal since Jan. 15, 2012. The goaltender will have to exorcise those demons for the Rangers to win.
Best Rangers storyline: While the Rangers’ third line is leading them offensively, and Rick Nash’s stunning goal drought still lingers, the resurgence of Brad Richards this post-season has been one of the less-heralded stories. A year after being demoted to healthy-scratch status by former coach John Tortorella, Richards leads the team with nine points and two game-winning goals this post-season, including the winner in the Rangers’ Game 7 victory over Pittsburgh.
Leading scorer: Brad Richards, nine points (four goals, five assists)
Game 1 starter: Henrik Lundqvist (8-6, 1.99 GAA, .931 save percentage)
Matchup to watch: Price vs. Lundqvist. These are unquestionably two of the East’s three best netminders — and arguably the NHL’s two best. They met in the gold medal game in Sochi, with Price’s Team Canada gaining a 3-0 win over Lundqvist’s Sweden. Both Lundqvist and Price stole series for their respective teams against higher-seeded opponents to get this far. Whomever has the most in the tank should backstop his club to the Prince of Wales Trophy.
Big question: When will Nash score? He leads the Rangers with 52 shots on goal and has come stunningly close to cashing in, yet his goal drought has reached 14 games this post-season, and he has just one goal in 26 career playoff games as a Ranger. New York brought the gifted power forward in after falling in the East final against the New Jersey Devils two seasons ago in an effort get it over the hump. Can he deliver?
Best bet: Canadiens in six.