Round One Begins: Finesse vs. Force

If. If. If. If. A whole slew of “ifs” surround the success or failure of the Rangers as they begin the Stanley Cup playoffs tonight in Montreal.

[HOW TO WATCH GAME 2 OF RANGERS-CANADIENS]

If Henrik Lundqvist plays the way he has always played in the playoffs; if the Rangers can clean up their play in the front of their own net; if they can get their penalty kill up to snuff; if they can solve Montreal goalie Carey Price …

The Rangers, at points during the regular season, would have been considerable favorites against the Habs, but a lot has changed.

The Canadiens have taken off after firing coach Michel Therrien and replacing him with Claude Julien, then beefed up at the trade deadline – which might be a good idea against other opponents, but arguably not so much against a speedier, finesse team like the Rangers.

The Rangers had a mediocre last month or so of the season, but really had not much for which to play, and no ability to manufacture false desperation, given that their playoff spot was virtually wrapped up for weeks. So, even though Montreal was going to be the home team, as the Atlantic champ in this series, the Canadiens were actually able to finally inch ahead of the Rangers in standings points.

None of that matters starting tonight.

The Rangers were the NHL’s best road team this season, but historically Montreal has been their least-favorite city to visit.

FORWARDS:

The Habs are bigger and a bit nastier with the additions of pest Steve Ott, big Dwight King (he of the uncalled goalie interference goal for Los Angeles against Lundqvist in the Stanley Cup Final of 2014), and big Andrea Martinsen joining sandpaperish Andrew Shaw and Brendan Gallagher. So the Rangers are going to have to deal with the physicality and agitation of those types of opponents.

But the Rangers have more speed up front, more skill overall, and more depth. The Blueshirts are better down the middle with Derek Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg, compared to Philip Daneault, Tomas Plekanec, Shaw and Ott, with another skilled center in Alex Galchenyuk targeted for fourth-line wing duty, at least to start.

Stepan: Vesey Made Plays at a Really High Level

The Rangers will need their wingers to pile up some offense, and to play well defensively, especially Rick Nash, whose playoff history – though better the last two springs – needs no dissection.

Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller all had good offensive numbers, and Michael Grabner’s was off the charts. Rookie Jimmy Vesey has given reason to believe he can handle playoff hockey too. It appears Alain Vigneault will go with a fourth line of Tanner Glass – and his needed physical attributes – on one side of Lindberg and Vigneault’s trusted Jesper Fast on the other. Rookie Pavel Buchnevich likely starts on the sidelines.

Like the Rangers, the Habs don’t boast an elite-level scorer up front, topped by captain Max Pacioretty, Alex Radulov and Paul Byron.

The Rangers will depend on their speed. But as we’ve seen through the season, speed isn’t about skating fast. It’s about defending first, then making quick, smart decisions to move the puck up to the forwards on the counter-attack.

The Rangers’ speed, if all facets are clicking, should give the Canadiens’ defense and muscle all sorts of trouble.

Of course, there is going to be the overblown “Kreider as Public Enemy No. 1” storyline. I think that will fuel Kreider to have a monstrous series.

DEFENSEMEN:

The defense, of course, ties into the point about the speed. Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei are among the Rangers’ best skaters and are encouraged to join the play. But they will also need to play well in their own end, and it goes without saying that so must the others – Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Brendan Smith, Nick Holden and perhaps at some point in the series, Kevin Klein.

This group has a ton of playoff experience and big-game performances in their history, but they need to be at the top of their game this time around.

The Rangers don’t have a defenseman like the Canadiens’ Shea Weber, a combination of size and strength with the hardest shot in the NHL. But the Habs don’t have a whole lot of mobility on their defense either, with Andrei Markov perhaps their next best.

Alexei Emelin – who famously tripped Kreider into Price in Game 1 of the 2014 Eastern final, knocking the goalie out of the series – and who chased the Rangers speedy forwards the entire series, is not expected to start the series due to injury.

Newcomer Jordie Benn, Jeff Petry, Nathan Beaulieu and Nikita Nesterov round out what is, in my opinion, an ordinary group. But Julien’s teams play a five-man defensive style that doesn’t simply rely on the defensemen – just as Pittsburgh did against the Rangers last April.

GOALIES:

This is where it gets interesting. And critical.

Lundqvist, the Rangers’ most important player by a wide margin, has endured his “most challenging season” – his own words. He has steadily made his way back from a hip injury, and his last two starts were his best in a while, but he needs to be other-worldly.

He sure hasn’t had much success against Price or against Montreal, especially in Montreal (4-6-2, 3.87, .877 in the regular season), though he did win two games there in the 2014 playoffs and was sensational in the clinching Game 6 at home (a 1-0 win after being pulled in a Game 5 loss in Montreal).

Price, whose season was also up-and-down until the coaching change, has absurd number against the Rangers. In his last 12 regular-season starts, he is 11-1 with a 0.93 goals-against average and .968 save percentage, including five shutouts against the Rangers.

It should be noted that Price allowed the Rangers four goals on 20 shots before he left Game 1 in 2014 with the knee injury, and his career playoff numbers are lukewarm: 23-27, 2.62, .912.

Also, Price’s backup is former Rangers first-round pick, Al Montoya.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Fire meet ice or vice versa.

Ron Duguay and Steve Valiquette analyze what the Rangers have to do both shorthanded and on the power play against the Canadiens.

The Rangers’ power-play has suddenly become a force (13-for-37 the last 15 games, good for 35.1 percent), and this could be a weapon if Ott, Shaw, Gallagher and the rest decide to cross lines in their aggressive play. But Montreal’s penalty kill is tops in the league since Julien took over.

On the other hand, Montreal’s power-play has been awful for a while, at the same time the Rangers’ penalty kill – though always dangerous for short-handed offensive opportunities – has dipped.

It must be better.

COACHES:

The simplest part of the matchup is that Julien’s Bruins beat Vigneault’s Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, a seven-game series won by Boston.

Julien’s Bruins also won a five-game series against the Rangers in 2013, prompting the firing of coach John Tortorella, who was replaced by Vigneault.

Julien and Vigneault were minor-league teammates and Vigneault began his head coaching career with the Canadiens.

Both are among the best coaches in the NHL. Julien with that ring, Vigneault still seeking his.

Coach Alain Vigneault is confident in his team as they prepare for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens. Plus, he stresses the importance of veteran experience during the postseason.

They both strongly believe in their systems and style of play – vastly different as they are – and both have tremendous player-management skills.

This won’t be as much a chess match as it will be a duel of differing methods.

PREDICTION:

Again, a lot more “ifs” for the Rangers than the Canadiens. I think the outcome will be determined more by what the Rangers do and how they play than what Montreal does. If the Rangers play the way they should play, they can win. If they don’t, they lose. I expect it to be a toss-up.

Rangers in 7.