Saturday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal a pair of Original Six teams heading to the Stanley Cup Playoffs meet in the final game of the 2013-14 regular season when the Rangers (45-31-5, 95 pts) skate against the Canadiens (45-28-8, 98 pts). The Rangers enter play knowing that they will have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs by virtue of clinching second place in the Metropolitan Division on Thursday, so Saturday's contest with the Canadiens is the only one this season with little to no meaning for the Blueshirts. Montreal comes into play Saturday knowing that it will face the Tampa Bay Lightning once the post-season gets underway next week.
Though the Rangers secured second place Thursday with a 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres--coupled with the Flyers 4-2 loss to the Lightning--they still do not know if they will be facing the Flyers or the Blue Jackets in the first round. That will be determined this weekend when both teams play a pair of games.
Thursday was not a thing of beauty for the Blueshirts, who started slowly, were often sluggish, and who went through long stretches of play without registering any shots on goal. Fortunately Benoit Pouliot (seven-game point streak) and Rick Nash (with 1:42 to play in regulation) scored clutch goals and Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves) was stout between the pipes, and the Rangers avoided the empty feeling which would have come with having lost to the team with the worst record in the NHL.
Since clinching a playoff berth Monday when the Devils were beaten by the Flames, the Rangers have played--and eventually won--two games against lesser opponents this week, and have looked like a team that is anxious to get the playoffs underway. Montreal will provide a much more equal foe on Saturday, but they are in the same boat as the Rangers, and looked fairly lethargic in their last game--a 2-0 loss to the Islanders on Thursday.
The Rangers did not practice Friday, though there was still news coming from the team as defenseman Ryan McDonagh was selected as the Rangers 2014 team MVP, as well as the Players Player Award recipient. McDonagh, a former first round draft pick by the Canadiens, has grown into a Norris Trophy-worthy d-man this season, and is the first Blueshirt since Rangers legend Brian Leetch in 2002-03 to win both awards in the same season.
McDonagh, who has missed four games with an injured shoulder, skated on his own Friday before the team traveled to Montreal, and he will take part in Saturday's morning skate, as well. It is not known whether or not head coach Alain Vigneault will put him back in the lineup on Saturday or wait until the playoffs start next week. Vigneault has said that McDonagh will only play if he feels 100 percent ready to do so.
With their playoff positioning secure it is quite possible that Lundqvist--who has started 19 of the Rangers' last 21 games--will get a rest in Montreal, and that Cam Talbot will start the season finale in goal. Talbot started up in Montreal on November 16th and earned his first NHL shutout with a 22-save effort in a 1-0 Rangers win--the team's first in Montreal since the 2008-09 season. Talbot has had a terrific rookie season, posting a 1.67 goals against average and .940 save percentage, while allowing two goals or fewer in 15 of his 18 starts.
Montreal head coach Michel Therrien went with his No. 1 goalie, Carey Price, on Thursday so there's a good chance Peter Budaj will get the nod against the Rangers. Price, who led Canada to the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics, was recently named as the Molson Cup Player of the Year for the Canadiens, after appearing 58 games, posting a 33-20-5 record with five shutouts and 2.36 goals against average.
The Canadiens, who are 2-2-1 in their last five games after having won eight of their previous nine, will be missing four regulars from their lineup Saturday because of injury. Former Rangers Brandon Prust and Dale Weise both have upper body injuries, while defenseman Josh Gorges has a hand injury and forward Travis Moen also has an upper body injury.