Possible playoff preview when Canadiens visit Rangers

When the Montreal Canadiens visit the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, it could be a preview of a first-round series in this season’s playoffs.

Despite the teams playing in different divisions and the Rangers having a better record than the Canadiens, the teams are on a collision course with Montreal leading its division and New York in the top wild-card spot.

The Rangers can still gain ground in the Metropolitan and the Canadiens have to right their ship but this matchup is looming for mid-April.

This will mark new coach Claude Julien’s second game behind the bench for the Canadiens after he was hired to replace Michel Therrien last week. Despite the change, Montreal dropped Julien’s debut 3-1 to the Winnipeg Jets on home ice.

“There was a lot of nervousness in the group,” Julien said to the Montreal Gazette. “There seemed to be a lack of confidence. They were working with a new system and there were things that need to be cleaned up in between.”

With a new coach comes a new system that must be learned, but with Julien’s hiring occurring during the bye week, there wasn’t much time for players to get familiar with it.

“Four days off and one practice and then an afternoon game without a morning skate is not ideal, but you can’t use it as an excuse,” defenseman Jeff Petry told the Montreal Gazette. “We’re all professionals and we have to show up and play.”

The Canadiens have lost seven of eight, with their one win coming in overtime against the Arizona Coyotes, the NHL’s second-worst team.

The one positive to come from the loss to the Jets was the play of Carey Price, who stopped 31 of 33 shots, giving him a save percentage in a game better than .913 for the first time since Jan. 31.

“Personally, I felt a lot better,” Price said to the Montreal Gazette. “It’s always good to get some rest and get refocused.”

This will be the second straight game in which the Rangers will face a team playing its second game after a bye. The Capitals were playing the second half of a back-to-back less than 24 hours after their previous game while the Canadiens will have two days between games.

Montreal should be better prepared than in its previous game, but the Rangers’ recipe for winning seven of their past eight doesn’t change — just give Henrik Lundqvist some help in net.

“I think if we are not giving those Grade A looks right in the slot, or with guys in front of him, he’s going to see them and he’s going to save most of those,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “Just being accountable in our own end, a lot of talk, getting sticks, moving guys out of the way, and listening to (Lundqvist).”

With the Rangers cleaning up their play in front of Lundqvist, the goaltender has been enjoying his best streak of the season. His save percentage for the season (.912) is still his lowest since his rookie season, but he is 6-1-0 in his past seven starts with a .941 save percentage.

If the Rangers are to climb the standings and get out of a wild-card spot to earn home ice in the first round of the playoffs, they’ll need Lundqvist to play at a similar level over the final two months.

“I think the last few weeks I changed a couple things — the way I focus and my approach to the game,” Lundqvist said. “I try to be a little more aggressive and it’s paid off. It’s not a big difference, but its small things here and there you try to adjust to the game a little bit. I started to feel pretty good. Also, the way we’re playing in front of me is helping me.

“When we do give up chances I still feel like we’re in pretty good position to get to rebounds and stuff like that.”