New Faces Can be Rangers’ X Factors

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Mike Valvano

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For the underdog Rangers to beat the Canadiens and make a serious run at the Stanley Cup, they’ll need peak performances throughout the lineup. While we know that the Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price battle will have a say in the opening series, the Blueshirts will need elevated performances throughout their lineup.

In 2013-14, we saw Martin St. Louis, who scored three goals in five games, provide a spark when New York topped Montreal en route to the Cup Final.

While this lineup doesn’t have any surefire Hall of Fame skaters, finding similar magic will be key. Strong play from new guys who didn’t get a taste of the previous series between these two teams and figure to get good matchups can give the Rangers the edge.

Mika Zibanejad

If we assume that Shea Weber will be matched up against the Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Mats Zuccarello line, the Rangers’ second line of Rick Nash-Mika Zibanejad-Jimmy Vesey (assumedly) will not only have the only opportunity to carry play, they’ll be expected to. While Nash will almost certainly get his (he’s got 18 points in his last 24 playoff games, five goals in last eight regular-season games), Zibanejad will need to perform to make sure New York’s advantage in forward depth metastasizes.

Fortunately, Zibanejad, despite the Rangers’ uninspiring final six weeks or so, enters the playoffs on a high note. Quietly, he has nine points in his last nine games, including three goals. While he’ll need to be good 5-on-5—and the expectation that he will be is reasonable, considering the fact that he won’t face Montreal’s top defensive pair—he must also be effective on the power play.

As we saw in the Rangers’ shootout loss against the Habs in February, Price can steal a game even when Montreal is outplayed, so cashing in on man-up opportunities will be vital for the Rangers. That is easier said than done, though, as Montreal’s penalty kill ranks fourth in the league at 86.7% since the beginning of March.

Zibanejad can be a difference maker if he shoots the puck well, as we saw against Philadelphia on April 2nd. Since March 1st, New York’s power play ranks fifth in the NHL at 26.5% but to keep that pace through the playoffs, Zibanejad will need to continue firing.

On top of that, Zibanejad must provide strong two-way play. At face value, he’ll match against Tomas Plekanec’s line but, depending on how Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien deploy their top lines, Zibanejad might see a hefty dose of Max Pacioretty-Phillip Danault-Alexander Radulov. If the first is true and Zibanejad struggles against middle-six competition, the Rangers’ depth advantage could be mitigated. If he matches up against Montreal’s best, he’ll be tasked with preventing them from dictating the series.

In 16 career playoff games with Ottawa, Zibanejad has tallied eight points. If he can register the same 0.5 points per game, it might be enough. But if he’s able to push that number up, it’ll greatly improve the Blueshirts’ chances of advancing.

Against Montreal twice this year, Zibanejad had no points and won just 43.1% of faceoffs. Those numbers will not lend themselves to the Rangers winning the series.

Brady Skjei

In his first full year, Brady Skjei has quietly put in an historic performance. As Sean Hartnett noted, “His 39 points are the most by a Rangers rookie defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1988-89. He was also the first NHL defenseman to record at least 27 even-strength assists in his rookie season since Larry Murphy did it with the Los Angeles Kings in 1980-81.”

If Skjei’s able to translate his production to the playoffs, he’ll give the Rangers an added punch that they haven’t had from the blueline during the playoffs in recent years. Like Zibanejad, Skjei will face favorable matchups as Ryan McDonagh, as he always does, will face Montreal’s top line. He also enters the playoffs on a high note, with seven points in his last ten games. Maintaining that pace is probably asking too much, but the offense Skjei can provide from the back end can be a difference maker.

Skjei’s skating and first-pass ability makes his deployment against Montreal’s bottom-six thumpers a serious threat. He’s strong enough to battle in front and, if the Rangers are responsible in their breakouts, their transition game should fly. Skjei can be a catalyst for transition goals and will most likely need to. Montreal is going to clog up the front of the net on both sides of the ice but their heavy lineup could leave them exposed to New York’s speedy attack.

In his playoff debut last year against the Penguins, Skjei tallied two assists and played 18:28 per game. Interestingly, that’s a full minute more per game than he averaged this year. While guessing how Vigneault will deploy him and who Skjei will pair with is a fruitless endeavor, last year’s ice time indicates that AV is willing to give Skjei the nod. If Skjei is productive early in the series, look for his ice time to dwarf his regular season average.

In three regular season games against the Habs, Skjei had an assist and five shots. The lone point came in the February loss in which the Rangers transition game generated high-quality chances over and over again. Despite the loss, that’s the template that the Rangers will depend on to beat Montreal.

No doubt Montreal remembers their loss to New York three seasons ago, and they’ll be looking for revenge. But the Rangers’ new faces, Zibanejad and Skjei, could be the X factor in the series. If the Blueshirts plan to advance, they might have to be.

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