For additional insight into the Stanley Cup Playoff series between the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, NHL.com has enlisted the help of former NHL coach Craig Ramsay to break down the action. Ramsay will be checking in throughout the series.
Ramsay played in more than 1,000 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres before going on to coach the Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers. In the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs he led the Flyers to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final. Ramsay most recently was an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers.
Defensemen P.K. Subban and Ryan McDonagh should be as important to the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens as goalies Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist in the Eastern Conference Final, longtime NHL coach and player Craig Ramsay said.
Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is Saturday at Bell Centre (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).
"To me it's going come down to the defensemen who jump up and join rushes," Ramsay told NHL.com. "It will come down to one special player beyond the goalies."
Price and Lundqvist are givens in this series. They obviously have to play well to give their team a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. They have been two of the best goalies in the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far.
Lundqvist was the biggest reason the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round. Ditto for Price, who helped Montreal come back from a 3-2 second-round series deficit against the Boston Bruins.
"These are special guys who can steal a game," Ramsay said.
Subban leads the Canadiens and NHL defensemen with 12 points in the playoffs. He had four goals and three assists in the first five games against Boston before being held off the score sheet in Games 6 and 7, Montreal wins.
"If he's allowed to get some freedom, he's a guy who can make a huge difference in a game," Ramsay said.
McDonagh doesn't provide Subban-esque offense (three points in 14 playoff games), but he was at his best in the final three games against the Penguins and arguably is the Rangers' most important defenseman because of how he can affect the game all over the ice.
"When he's on the ice, I really feel he has a chance to have an impact," Ramsay said.
Ramsay said the key for the Rangers is to eliminate Subban, meaning get on top of him and make him move the puck as soon as he gets it. When he gets the puck and gets going, he's usually the most effective skater on the ice.
"I'm not saying run him, because this is where people can get confused, because I think that sometimes just cranks him up. But the key issue is elimination because he likes to hold the puck," Ramsay said. "He wants to keep the puck. He wants to make a good play. He likes that. So make him move the puck early and eliminate him. That keeps him out of the rushes in his own zone and it makes him play more defense. You don't have to run over him. You just have to bump over him, eliminate him. If you keep him under pressure, in many ways you eliminate that [offensive] threat."
Ramsay said McDonagh is dangerous in the offensive zone when he's pinching to get the puck deep, which gives the Rangers a chance to regain the cycle. So the best medicine is for the Canadiens to do what they did well against the Bruins: Forecheck like bandits.
"They have to get the pucks deep, run their cycles and take shots," Ramsay said. "One of the problems that you can have when you play against a high-end goaltender is you try to be perfect. I thought Pittsburgh passed up a lot of shots that they could have taken because they didn't think they could score on Lundqvist. Even though he gobbles up rebounds, if you put shots on him on the ice, at his pads, up on his shoulders, then there are going to be some rebounds. If you have an opportunity to shoot, don't look for something better. Just shoot the puck; get the puck on net and then look for rebounds."
Ramsay said the same goes for the Rangers, and in particular forward Rick Nash, who has no goals in his past 15 games, the longest scoring drought of his career.
"They have to get scoring from everybody, but they need to really get goals from Nash," Ramsay said. "He's got to try to score. I don't think he's holding the puck enough in the offensive zone. He gives it up, goes to the front of the net and tries to be a big-body guy, but he's a guy that has to score some goals, be involved offensively. He can't just give it to somebody else and hope that things happen. He's a big, strong man with good hands and he's got to think of himself as a scorer again."
Subban always thinks of himself as a scorer, a playmaker, a threat. McDonagh thinks of himself as a player who can create offense in various ways, whether it's with a strong first pass, a pinch or a deep rush.
The goalies are the givens in this series. Even Nash might get hot. But to Ramsay, Subban and McDonagh might be the biggest difference-makers, and the reason one of their teams will go to the Stanley Cup Final.
"To me it has to come down to creating some offense so the defense has to be involved offensively," Ramsay said. "If they're not, you'll have these one- or two-goal games that anybody can win and either goalie can steal."