A Matchup Made in Hockey Heaven

For starters, they don’t like each other.

Call it a grudge series; call it a chance for retribution, call it a war game on ice. Call it what you will.

When it comes to the playoffs, for three years the Canadiens have been aching to get back at the Rangers. Not that the Blueshirts have any warm feelings for the Habs. Not one bit.

Specifically, this latest edition of the Montreal-New York rivalry is rooted in the May 17, 2014 playoffs when Rangers forward Chris Kreider accidentally torpedoed Canadiens goalie Carey Price.

It happened in the second period of Game 1. Kreider’s direct hit not only sunk Price for the rest of the match but the ace puck-stopper never returned for the series.

Minus their superstar, Montreal exited the Conference Final faster than you can say, ‘Shea Weber.’

Meanwhile, fans throughout Quebec Province have been hissing and moaning about Kreider’s indiscreet crease-crossing ever since.

Rangers Kreider Canadiens Price Away 051714 Getty

Already anti-Kreider warnings are being seen and heard. Fanning the flames, The Montreal Gazette printed a picture of Kreider’s Price blast. There even was a warning from Gazette columnist Brendan Kelly.

“The first time Kreider runs Price,” wrote Kelly, “the Canadiens have to make clear there’s a price to pay for hitting Price and it’s a price that’s going to hurt.”

With these two evenly-matched teams ready to go head-to-head — not to mention body-to-body — on Wednesday night at Bell Centre, the possibilities of superheated hockey are listed as somewhere between very hot and white heat.

As for non-analytics, comparing these Original Six sextets is something like rating Macintosh Apples with the Granny Smith variety since they are so much alike.

With some exceptions, goaltending tends to be excellent at both ends. Each outfit boasts experienced defensemen and top-flight forwards are sprinkled over the respective rosters.

But somebody has to win and with that in mind, The Maven offers the following analysis of a series that threatens to go the limit. So, here goes:

GOALTENDING: No Ranger is more motivated than Henrik Lundqvist. Period! What remains to be seen is how well he has rebounded from the spate of injuries that sidelined him this season. King Henrik in mint condition tilts the series in the Blueshirts favor; provided that he gets help from his friends, alias defensemen.

Depending on whom you talk to, Montreal’s Carey Price either is the NHL’s best goaltender or is subject to crease cramps when the chips are down. His value to the Canadiens is exactly the same as Lundqvist’s to the Rangers. It’s safe to say that a sidebar to this series could be called “The Battle of the Goalies.”

VERDICT: A draw.

DEFENSE: The Blueshirts backliners have been a debatable subject all season — and for good reason. Captain Ryan McDonagh and rookie Brady Skjei have won critical acclaim while Nick Holden gets the “Surprise of the Season” award. What coach Alain Vigneault requires is veterans Dan Girardi and Marc Staal to bring their “A” games to all games. Brendan Smith looms as the “Sleeper-Plus” along with Kevin Klein who has excelled in the past, but less so lately. Adam Clendening is the question-mark reserve.

April 9, 2017: The New York Rangers face the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Montreal’s blue line corps demands respect for several reasons, not the least of which is that the Habs have relinquished the third-fewest goals in the league; 19 fewer than New York. Shea Weber is their version of McDonagh and Weber’s supporting cast is varied, including 38-year-old warhorse Andrei Markov and hit-happy Alexei Emelin, who will miss Game 1 due to injury. G.M. Marc Bergevin added Jordie Benn at the deadline but the other guys I’d carefully watch are Jeff Petry and Nathan Beaulieu.

VERDICT: Canadiens, but not by much.

OFFENSE: Do not forget that the Rangers scored a bunch more goals than Montreal this season and can ice four — count ’em four — solid forward lines. Not to mention a quartet of front-liners who scored more than 20 goals.

Looking for key offensemen, you have to start with Rick Nash, coming off a solid campaign but one who must prove he can ka-ching the playoff goal register with regularity. Ditto for Derek Stepan, who got hot at the right time and, of course, the much-debated Kreider who’ll be more closely watched than the Stock Exchange Board at mid-day.

Offensively, the Rangers pose a bucketful of questions:

1. Will Steven McDonald award-winner Mats Zuccarello intimidate the Habs defense with his uncanny canny play or will the little guy get pushed around by Montreal brutes?

2. Can Kid Lightning, Michael Grabner, resume his first-half breakaway magic?

3. Can J.T. Miller play to his notices as a big-game performer?

Not that the Habs are without questions as well. For example, the Montreal Gazette’s columnist Kelly wasted no time pointing a finger at captain Max Pacioretty as a non-big-game performer. But the Canadiens have game-breakers in The Alex Duet — Radulov and Galchenyuk.

The one area where Montreal may have an edge is in physicality. Toughies such as Andrew Shaw, Steve Ott and Dwight King are there for one purpose — intimidation. That, in turn, might compel Alain Vigneault to insert Tanner Glass in his lineup as a deterrent.

VERDICT: Rangers — because of greater depth and speed.

Chris Kreider knows how he can best help his team as he expects an energetic and physical series against Montreal.

SPECIAL TEAMS: On the power play, these teams are too close for comfort. But cannonading-shooter Weber is daunting at the point and he can pass just as well.

Actually, they’re almost even-Steven on the penalty kill. Then again, we all know how things can change in the playoffs. Pushed to a decision, I go with Jesper Fast and Michael Grabner being difference-makers in the Rangers favor. Even when Montreal is on a power-play, the Habs must worry about Grabner’s inevitable breakaways.

UNLIKELY HEROES: Deadline-acquired defenseman Brendan Smith has been a nifty asset for the Rangers and has hero possibilities. Ditto for Montreal’s minuscule left wing Paul Byron, who can provide unexpected offense.

COACHING: In his fourth year behind the Rangers bench, A.V. has been hugely successful in the win-loss column. But the Rangers hasty playoff exit last season puts pressure on Vigneault to rebound this Spring.

His opposite, Claude Julien, suffered the indignity of a firing from the Bruins in mid-season but with Jack-In-The-Box quickness, nabbed the Habs job after Michel Therrien got the gate. Julien won a Stanley Cup with Boston. ‘Nuff said!

INTANGIBLES: Stuff such as the Kreider-Price grudge tend to be overblown by the media but the onus will be on Chris to play his game without distraction in the opener. Not that the Habs will be genteel with Kreider but it sure makes for melodramatic theater. Then there’s the “iffy” business of home ice “advantage” and if such a factor will come into play. Since this IS a new season, you’ll need an error-less Ouija Board to solve these puzzles —  and no such Ouija Board exists.

CONCLUSION: The Maven picks the Rangers to win it in six games because, overall, I see them as the better team. No more, no less.