MONTREAL — For the second time in three years, the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers will square off in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When the first-round Eastern Conference playoff series starts Wednesday at the Bell Centre, Montreal will be looking to script a different ending.
The Original Six opponents met in the Eastern Conference Final in the spring of 2014, a series that saw the Canadiens lose goaltender Carey Price in Game 1 in a collision with Rangers winger Chris Kreider.
Montreal twice fell into a two-game deficit before New York ultimately eliminated them in Game 6.
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Things have changed since then. Price has overcome the knee injuries that sidelined him in that series and for all but 12 games last season.
Only eight players on Montreal’s current roster were a part of that series. The Rangers have 10 previous participants.
The Canadiens are less reliant on Price than they were then, and New York boasts a deeper crop of forwards.
The Montreal fan base, known for its long memories, will almost certainly let Kreider know they haven’t forgotten. The winger, however, is focused on this year.
“It was a long time ago,” he said. “I’m just focused on this series and Game 1.
“My game doesn’t change. It hasn’t changed,” added Kreider, who set career highs in goals and points this season. “For me to be effective, I need to go to the crease. That’s where I’m going to score goals. I don’t have a big one-timer, I’m not scoring from distance, so I need to be a big body and get to the top of the paint and try to bang stuff home.”
One of the biggest differences between the two series is behind Montreal’s bench. The start of the playoffs comes two days shy of Claude Julien’s two-month anniversary as Canadiens head coach.
Julien tweaked the club’s system en route to a 16-7-1 record under his watch, a run that included allowing half-a-goal fewer per game and fewer penalties taken after being one of the most penalized teams under Michel Therrien.
The Canadiens won all three meetings against the Rangers, two of which came under Julien. But the team knows that it’s a clean slate on both sides for Game 1.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Habs defenseman Shea Weber, who will return after missing the final four games of the regular season with an injury. “Once the playoffs start, it’s been proven in the past that an eighth seed can win. It doesn’t really matter where you finish or what your record was against a team.
“A lot goes into winning the Cup and obviously we’ve got to start with the series against the Rangers and try and build our way up against them.”
New York boasted the fourth-highest scoring offense in the regular season, averaging 3.05 goals-per-game, including nine double-digit goal-scorers. Kreider led the way with 28, followed by Michael Grabner’s 27 and Rick Nash with 23.
“If you look at the series, it’s going to be a goaltending matchup,” center Derek Stepan, who was tops on the Rangers with three points in the season series against Montreal, told the team’s website. “It’s two of the best in the world going at it.
“It’s going to be something as the series goes on we’re going to have to find ways to get pucks past him because (Carey Price) is so good. If he can see it, he’s going to save it, and sometimes when he can’t see it he’s going to save it, so we’re going to have to be real sharp with the puck when we get our scoring chances and find ways to maybe get some bounces by him.”
One of the highest scoring attacks in the NHL in the first half of the season, the Canadiens finished in the middle of the pack, averaging 2.72 goals-per-game. And while they know they boast one of the game’s best in Price, their coach emphasized the importance of run support.
“He’s a goalie who can give us a chance to win every night,” Julien said. “When you have a goalie of that caliber, your team already has confidence. But you have to take advantage of it. If you don’t score at the other end of the rink, even if he stops everything, it doesn’t mean anything.”