by Blain Potvin, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As the NHL Regular Season comes to a close, Claude Julien can properly rest and prepare his roster as the first round matchup for the Canadiens is already set. The Habs have earned the right to host the top wild card seed, the New York Rangers.

The Rangers may feel like they have dodged a bullet by securing the top wild card position to face the Atlantic Division Champions, the Montreal Canadiens. However, that spot holds a double edged sword as the Rangers have had difficulty with the Canadiens this season.

That said, this matchup could feature the best hockey in the first round. The Canadiens have a fast, strong, team that can grind out wins. The Rangers have an extremely fast squad that use that speed to force their opposition into errors. Most of all, this matchup provides one of the best goaltending duels that will be seen in the playoffs: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price.

Both squads have had ups and downs in their playoff-worthy seasons. Both teams had stretches where they seemed unstoppable, while suffering though others where fans questioned if their heroes would make it to the NHL playoffs. Yet, both are now in secured positions and are playing some of their best hockey, teeing up to what can shape into an epic first round matchup.

Offensively, both teams have the ability to score, however, the Rangers hold a significant advantage. New York has scored 249 goals in 80 games for an average of 3.11 goals for per game. That’s good enough for fourth in the NHL. Meanwhile, Montreal has scored 218 goals in 80 games for an average of 2.73 goals per game. The Canadiens currently hold the 16th best offence in the NHL.

Defensively the Canadiens hold the significant edge. Currently, the Canadiens are tied for the league’s third best defense, having allowed only 192 goals in 80 games for an average of 2.40 goals against per game. The Rangers, despite their star goaltender and speed advantage, sit 13th in the NHL as having allowed 211 GA over 80 games for an average of 2.64 goals per game.

Special teams play a key factor in any post season matchup. These two teams sit in the bottom third of the league with respect to power-play opportunities. The Rangers have enjoyed 230 power-play chances while the Canadiens have 224. In terms of production, the Rangers hold a slight edge with a 20.0 percent efficiency to Montreal’s 19.6 percent.

The Canadiens have an edge in penalty-killing effectiveness at 81.0 per cent to the Rangers  79.5 percent.

In my opinion, the deciding factor in this series will be goaltending. In Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers boast a perennial All-Star and Olympian. Lundqvist resurrected his game back since the All-Star break and is looking to be at his peak. That said, he has pedestrian career stats against the Canadiens.

Lundqvist holds a losing record, a 2.87 goals against average with an .898 save percentage. His difficulties against the Canadiens are well known, yet he was able to win when it counted, and carried the Rangers to the 2015 Cup Final with a six game win over the Canadiens.

However, that series lacked one key player, Carey Price. He was missing from that series after famously being taken out by a player known to recklessly crash the net and injure goaltenders, Chris Kreider.

Carey Price has a 15-5-1 career record vs the Rangers with a .940 save percentage and a 1.82 goals against average. Yet, since that chance encounter with Kreider, Price has seemed more motivated when playing the Blueshirts.

In the games since that infamous collision, Price holds an 11-1 record with a .968 save percentage and a 0.98 goals against average. Price also has experience head-to-head vs Lundqvist in elimination games winning Olympic Gold vs the Swedes at the 2014 Sochi games.

The winner of this series will be expected to be the favourites to make the Eastern Conference Final. The next round would seemingly be against teams less difficult than in the first round.

Both the Rangers and Canadiens have strong cases to claim they matchup well with each other. One has a strong offence, and the other, a tough defence. Special teams are very slightly slanted to the Canadiens.

All that said, there are two intangible factors in this series. Claude Julien, with a Stanley Cup ring, has the experience giving him a slight edge over Alain Vigneault. The larger, and deciding, intangible will be a healthy and highly motivated Carey Price.

Edited by Donna Sim

EDIT :

BROADCAST SCHEDULE
G1 Wed., April 12 New York Rangers @ Montreal, 7 p.m. ET CBC
G2 Fri., April 14 New York Rangers @ Montreal, 7 p.m. ET CBC
G3 Sun., April 16 Montreal @ New York Rangers, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT SN
G4 Tues., April 18 Montreal @ New York Rangers, 7 p.m. ET CBC
G5* Thurs., April 20 New York Rangers @ Montreal, TBD
G6* Sat., April 22 Montreal @ New York Rangers, TBD
G7* Mon., April 24 New York Rangers @ Montreal, TBD