The 2017 NHL postseason is underway, with the 16 best teams in the league assuming their playoff seeding and hoping to cultivate it into a bid for the Stanley Cup. The NHL postseason’s level of physicality, grit and emotion is on full display through the first round of this year’s tournament. One prime exhibit is the series featuring the New York Rangers, who started their campaign against the Montreal Canadiens trailing 2-1 in a best of seven series.
The Rangers began their 90th season of play on Oct. 13; while certainly a roller coaster of a regular season, the team ended with a strong rally that pushed them into playoff contention. They finished the regular season with a record of 48-28-6, good for 102 points. The team faced stiff competition over the length of the season, clawing to emerge from the fierce Eastern Conference, even more so with four of the top five teams coming from their own Metropolitan Division.
Coincidentally, the only team in the top five not from the Metropolitan Division is the Rangers’ first round opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, who finished the season with 103 points. This reflects on the strength of the Metropolitan Division and gives a great amount of credit to the Rangers’ final standings. The team also finished with the best road record in the NHL, finishing 27-12-2 away from Madison Square Garden.
However, they uncharacteristically finished with the worst home record of any of the teams in the playoffs, finishing 21-16-4. This was a strange development throughout the season, and is already starting to rear its head in the playoff series against the Canadiens.
The Rangers began the series against the Canadiens in Montreal on April 12, winning 2-0. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was undeniably the hero of the game, finishing with 31 saves and posting the 10th playoff shutout of his illustrious career. Tanner Glass, known mainly as the team’s enforcer, scored the first goal of the playoffs, followed by Michael Grabner’s empty net goal to seal the victory for the Blueshirts. While they only scored two goals, the Rangers played with an incredible amount of physicality on defense, good for the early series lead.
However, Game 2 was a much different story. The Rangers found themselves fending off a barnburner, as the Canadiens’ hits and shots were plentiful. The Rangers registered 74 hits, and Lundqvist recorded 55 saves, the most saves he has ever made in a single game. Still, the Rangers were not able to hold on to a 3-2 lead, as the Canadiens’ Tomas Plekanec scored the game-tying goal with 18 seconds left in regulation. The late strike sent the game into overtime, where Alexander Radulov scored the walk-off goal for the Canadiens, evening the series at a game apiece.
After the loss, the Rangers would head home to the Garden, with hopes they could turn around their home ice woes and retake the series lead. Instead, the Canadiens unleashed a fury of offense with three goals to show for a game that never once swung in the Rangers’ favor. The Rangers were outplayed in every aspect of the game; the defense played flat, the offense was lackluster and the effort was nonexistent. If not for Lundqvist’s sole valiant play, the Rangers were sure to surrender countless more goals. Madison Square Garden was silent, as its beloved team’s performance on the ice left a great deal to be desired.
The Rangers have to regroup quickly or face the threat of early elimination. Aside from the bright spot that is goalkeeper play, the team must rebuild on the same chemistry that lifted them into postseason play. During its playoff push, the team matched its defensive stronghold with efficient offensive play that allowed them to piece together a number of quality wins. While Game 1 was a continuation of this collaboration, the team has since broken down and it has placed the Rangers in an uncomfortable position to advance.
The team was only trailing by a single game, but the Canadiens are capable of overpowering opponents on any given night, and they match well with the Rangers’ lineup. Moreover, New York’s past two performances have instilled great confidence in the Canadiens’ high-octane offense. Montreal’s head coach Claude Julien maintained a humble approach to addressing his team amid the rebound in the series. Julien, who was hired in February after a seven-game slide that threatened to derail the team’s playoff hopes, explained that his players must focus on maintaining their game plan and executing consistently against an anxious Rangers team.
The Rangers battled all season to get where they are now. They showed a great deal of resilience in a season in which they were faced with many trials and tribulations. They finished fourth in their division and still had better records than three other playoff teams in the East.
It is time for the Rangers to come back and fight. If they do not regain the identity they developed throughout the season, they will not go far in this year’s playoffs.
As for the Canadiens, they must not grow complacent against the Rangers, who have proved that they can quickly take command of a game and neutralize opposing offenses.
The Rangers and Canadiens have put on a thrilling show, with many looking forward to the season coming down to the wire.