The New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens are about to clash in an Original Six Eastern Conference Final. Each team plays with the same strategies and overall the two teams are very similar. Both have outstanding goaltending, balance throughout four lines and solid defense, which makes the series a virtual coin flip.
With two teams as evenly matched as they are, the series will come down to a few individuals who make big plays. Max Pacioretty is one player that has a knack for scoring important goals, and the Rangers need to make sure they contain him.
Pacioretty led the Habs in points this season with 60, and is always dangerous in the offensive zone. Pacioretty’s 39 goals in the regular season ranked second in the Eastern Conference, behind only Alex Ovechkin.
The Rangers have to focus on stopping Pacioretty, similar to the way they stopped Sidney Crosby in the second round and Claude Giroux in the first round. If you can take away a team’s best offensive player, your chances become much higher. The Rangers handled Giroux and Crosby extremely well, and in this series it’s Pacioretty that should draw the most attention.
Just like Crosby and Giroux, Pacioretty’s goals have been in direct correlation with his team winning games, which shows how important Pacioretty is to the Canadiens.
Want proof? In games that Pacioretty scored a goal in this regular season, the Canadiens almost never lost. The team went a staggering 24-1-1 in the 26 games that Pacioretty scored. So far the team has won the three playoff games in which he’s scored. That includes their clinching win in round one, when Pacioretty broke a tie with 43 seconds remaining in the game.
So the Rangers should identify that Pacioretty is a focal point of the Montreal attack, making him a top priority in New York’s defensive game plan, but how do they stop him?
It’s going to take strong efforts from the top two defensive pairs for the Rangers. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are used to logging lots of minutes and matching up against the opposition’s top players. The two are as solid a defensive pair as any duo in hockey. Girardi is a shot-blocking machine and McDonagh has played better as the postseason’s gone on. They’ll need to play physical against Pacioretty and make him work for every inch of ice.
The second pairing of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman has been New York’s most consistent defense in the playoffs. Having two defensive pairs that are comfortable in any situation is a real luxury for the Rangers. It also makes it easier for New York to keep their defensemen fresh throughout each game and as the series progresses. Staal and Stralman need to continue their sound play, and neutralizing Pacioretty’s speed will be key for them.
The Rangers need to force Pacioretty away from the middle of the ice and limit his time with the puck. They need to pressure right on their blue line in order to stop Pacioretty from entering the zone with speed. The Canadiens are capable of getting scoring from many different players, but Pacioretty should be the Rangers’ main concern on defense.
Facing Crosby and Giroux in previous rounds has to help New York’s confidence when it comes to stopping Montreal’s star players. After slowing down those two, the Rangers should be capable of stifling Pacioretty as well.