If the National Hockey League season ended today, the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers would face off in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That makes for an intriguing storyline, even five weeks ahead of the playoffs, as the Canadiens (36-21-8) begin a four-game road trip with a Saturday night clash against the Rangers (41-21-2) at Madison Square Garden.
“(The Canadiens) are always a tough opponent for us, we’ve had our share of trouble against them over the years,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “At the same time, we are playing some very good hockey and look forward to the challenge.”
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Saturday’s contest marks the third and final meeting this season between the pair of Original Six foes, with the Canadiens seeking a sweep of the season series. The Canadiens skated to a 5-4 home-ice win over the Rangers on Jan. 14 and a 3-2 shootout victory in New York on Feb. 21.
Last year, Montreal took two of three from New York; and the Canadiens have not lost to the Rangers at The Garden since Nov. 23, 2014.
Of course, the Rangers did defeat the Canadiens in the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, the most recent time the teams met in the post-season.
As for the playoffs this year, both teams bolstered their respective rosters for the stretch run, whether they meet one another or not.
The Rangers, currently sitting in the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, acquired defenseman Brendan Smith from the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday in exchange for a pair of draft picks. He played nearly 21 minutes on the top pairing alongside Ryan McDonagh in his Rangers debut Thursday, a 2-1 road victory over the Boston Bruins.
“Obviously, there were some errors out there that I’ll want to correct,” Smith said to the New York Post. “But I thought it got better as it went along. I’ll try and build on this and get better.”
With defensemen Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein sidelined with injuries, Smith will continue to play valuable minutes, including in his MSG debut on Saturday.
The Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens, meanwhile, added four players to their roster before the trade deadline Wednesday. Defenseman Jordie Been has appeared in two games already with the Canadiens, and winger Dwight King made his Habs debut in Thursday’s emotional 2-1 come-from-behind victory over P.K. Subban and the Nashville Predators.
Both defenseman Brandon Davidson and forward Steve Ott have yet to play for Montreal since being picked up earlier in the week in separate deals.
With the Canadiens embarking on a four-game trip that will last more than a week, the newcomers will have time to bond with their new teammates.
“With so many new faces on the team, this trip is a chance for us to get stronger together,” Montreal coach Claude Julien said on the team’s web site. “It’s something you see often at the beginning of the season, but with the number of changes made to this club recently — the addition of myself included — we have a chance now to come back to Montreal a tighter-knit group.”
The Canadiens, who are 5-2-0 since Julien replaced Michel Therrien behind the bench, come into play Saturday on a four-game winning streak. All four of those wins have come by a single goal, with three straight being secured in overtime, two on game-winning goals from Alex Galchenyuk.
Thursday at the Bell Centre, Montreal erased a 1-0 deficit in the third period, tying the game on Brendan Gallagher’s seventh goal before winning it with nine seconds remaining in regulation on a Paul Byron breakaway.
“It was a little close there, almost went to another overtime,” Byron said to reporters after the victory. “This time of the year every point is hard to get, every game is a tight playoff game. You’ve just got to keep digging.”