(SportsNetwork.com) - The first battle in the Eastern Conference finals is on tap Saturday afternoon, as the Montreal Canadiens welcome the New York Rangers for Game 1 at Bell Centre.
This best-of-seven series is the first postseason encounter between these Original Six rivals since the opening round of the 1996 playoffs when New York won in six games. The clubs have played 14 playoff series and each club has won seven times, although Montreal earned the biggest victory when it beat the Rangers in the 1979 Cup Finals.
Both teams are attempting to get back to the Cup Finals for the first time since the 1990s. Montreal was the last team based in Canada to win it all in 1993, but has yet to return to the Cup Finals, and the Rangers are aiming to get back to the final stage for the first time since winning their last championship in 1994.
Judging by the three meetings between these clubs in 2013-14 and the overall recent history in this matchup, the East finals could be a low-scoring affair. Montreal won two of three regular-season meetings during the season series and the teams combined to score only four goals in those contests. That trend could continue in this series with a pair of star goaltenders -- Montreal's Carey Price and New York's Henrik Lundqvist -- between the pipes.
All told, Montreal has won five of the last six games in the regular season and has shut out the Rangers in four of the last five encounters. Price posted three of those shutouts, but Lundqvist only started one of the last five meetings for New York.
Lundqvist and Price will battle each other on the big stage again after manning the crease for Sweden and Canada, respectively, in the gold medal game at the Sochi Olympics. Price's Team Canada won that clash 3-0.
Lundqvist is 13-11-2 with a 2.86 GAA and .897 save percentage in his career against the Canadiens and hasn't won in Montreal since March 17, 2009. In fact, New York's No. 1 netminder hasn't even played a game at the Bell Centre since Jan. 15, 2012.
Price, meanwhile, is 8-5-1 with a 2.06 GAA and .934 save percentage in 15 regular-season matchups against New York.
Both clubs are coming off emotional seven-game series wins in which they managed to perform well in the underdog role.
The Canadiens outlasted the Boston Bruins in a back-and-forth battle, eventually winning the series by posting a 3-1 win on the road in Wednesday's Game 7. The Bruins not only were the Presidents' Trophy winners in 2013-14, but also were the defending conference champions before falling to Montreal.
New York also moved on to the third round thanks to a road Game 7 victory after falling behind 3-1 earlier in the series against the Penguins. The Blueshirts recorded a 2-1 decision Tuesday night in Pittsburgh to claim the series. It was a disappointing showing for Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, who fired general manager Ray Shero a few days after the Game 7 setback.
"Any team that's part of the final four gets confidence, and that was a good accomplishment for our team to beat Boston," said Montreal head coach Michel Therrien. "But I have to tell you something; that was a great accomplishment for them to come back a 3-1 deficit and play the Pittsburgh Penguins. They're coming in, and they're really confident. So I pay a lot of attention to their game, especially their last three games."
One player the Rangers will have to try and contain in this series is Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban. Last season's Norris Trophy winner further solidified his star status in Round 2, posting four goals and three assists in the seven games against Boston. The 25-year-old defenseman has 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) in 11 playoff games this spring and has nine goals and 19 assists over 37 career postseason tilts.
While Subban is leading Montreal in points this spring, the club's forward group boasts seven players with three goals or more and nine guys with at least five points.
Thomas Vanek has a team-high five goals. while Rene Bourque, Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher each have hit the net four times this postseason.
Max Pacioretty has three goals and four assists in the playoffs and more than half of his points came in the final three games against Boston. The team's leading goal-scorer during the regular season with 39 tallies, Pacioretty had two goals and two assists from Game 5 on against the Bruins.
The Habs also could have forward Alex Galchenyuk back for this series. The 20- year-old had 13 goals and 18 assists in 656 games this season, but he has yet to play in the playoffs due to a lower-body injury. Galchenyuk has been cleared for contact by team doctors and could return to the lineup early in the East finals, but his status for Game 1 is questionable.
New York came back from down 3-1 to win a series for the first time in the franchise's long history in the win over the Penguins. The Rangers were outscored 11-5 by the Penguins over the first four games of the conference semis, but won the final three tilts by a combined 10-3 margin.
Not surprisingly, Lundqvist played a huge role for New York in the second round. The Swedish backstop stopped 102-of-105 shots (.971 save percentage) over the final three games against the Pens and Lundqvist made 35 saves to anchor New York's 2-1 Game 7 victory in Pittsburgh.
Lundqvist, who also won a home Game 7 against Philadelphia in the first round, is 8-6 this postseason with a sparkling 1.99 goals against average and .931 save percentage.
"He's truly among the star goaltenders out there," said Montreal forward Brandon Prust, a former teammate of Lundqvist with the Rangers. "He's really strong mentally. We'll try to rattle his confidence from the start. We're going to throw pucks at him whenever we can and try to create some panic around him."
While "King Henrik" has dominated in the crease, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, both members of Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup-winning team in 2004, are currently leading the Rangers offense.
Richards, the 2004 Conn Smythe winner, has four goals and five assists to pace the club in points this spring, while St. Louis has three goals and five assists. Richards scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 against Pittsburgh and is tied for the team lead in postseason markers with fellow forwards Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan.
St. Louis, who played in Game 5 in Pittsburgh just one day after learning of the death of his mother, only had a goal and an assist in Round 2 but both points were crucial to the series win. The diminutive winger tallied the first goal of a 3-1 win over the Pens in Game 6 and had the primary assist on Richards' winner in the decisive seventh meeting.
Chris Kreider's also played a big role in New York's comeback over the Penguins. Kreider returned from wrist surgery to make his 2014 postseason debut in Game 4 of the second round and his speed and size certainly made an impact on the series. Kreider had a goal and an assist in four games and scored on the power play in Game 5 to halt New York's 0-for-36 drought with the man advantage.
The 23-year-old Kreider has seven goals and four assists over 30 career playoff games.
Of course, New York would like to see Rick Nash finally get his offensive game on track in this series. The highly-paid winger has just five assists in this postseason after leading the club with 26 goals during the regular season.
"I'm trying every night to score goals and put the puck in the net, but it's a bigger picture than me struggling," Nash said. "This is about a team trying to win a championship. There's a bunch of pieces that go into that. If I can help defensively right now, I'm going to do everything I can just to win games."
Game 2 of this series is schedule for Monday in Montreal before the venue shifts to New York for Games 3 and 4.
Funeral services for St. Louis' mother, France, are scheduled for Sunday in Montreal and his Rangers teammates are expected to be there to lend support for the veteran winger and his family.