Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9, first, Atlantic Division) vs. New York Rangers (47-28-6, first wild card in the Eastern Conference)
Why you have to watch: Carey Price has been waiting three years for this moment -- which is not a good thing for the Rangers. The world's No. 1 goalie saw his Eastern Conference finals end in Game 1 against the Rangers in May 2014, when winger Chris Kreider crashed into Price and took him out of the series. With Dustin Tokarski in net for the Habs, the Rangers went on to win the Eastern finals in six games. Which is not to suggest the Rangers wouldn't have won with a healthy Price in net, but we'll get a chance to find out. Price, Olympic champion with Team Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, is back and looking as brilliant as ever as the Atlantic Division-champion Canadiens look to get past a very capable Rangers team that is a wild-card team only by virtue of playing in the NHL's toughest division.
Head to head: The Canadiens swept the season series 3-0-0 against the Rangers, outscoring the Blueshirts 11-7 (not counting a shootout decider), with all three games coming between Jan. 14 and March 4. ... The Blueshirts are a top-five scoring team, while the Canadiens are middle of the pack. And although the team has played much better under new coach Claude Julien (16-6-1), it's been on the defensive side of things -- goals have still been difficult to organically produce. ... The key in this series might be special teams, where both clubs have similarly ranked power plays (New York: 12th; Montreal: 13th), but the Canadiens have a sizable edge in penalty kill (14th-21st), which improved from 22nd under Julien. The Rangers' best chance to win will be to stay out of the box and keep it a 5-on-5 series, where they have more offensive talent.
Injury fallout: Stud blueliners Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers and Shea Weber of the Canadiens both missed time late in the season with lower-body injuries, although with nothing to play for, the teams were maybe being cautious, given how many minutes each player has played this season (each led their teams). Still, as one NHL scout said, you wonder if it will affect the effectiveness of each shutdown defenseman. They are both massively important to their respective team's effort to shut down the other team's top offensive threats.
Goalie advantage: Two of the world's best meet up in this series, although Henrik Lundqvist doesn't enjoy playing at the Bell Centre, where he's 4-9-2 with an ugly 3.87 goals-against average and .877 percentage in the regular season, after going 2-1 with a 2.82 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in that 2014 playoff series in Montreal. Although that series was much better, he still was pulled from a Game 5 loss. So, yeah, it's his House of Horrors. Price has recovered nicely from a midseason malaise that saw him struggle by his lofty standards. He's been razor-sharp since Julien came on, improving his even-strength save percentage from .934 to .944. His most marked improvement, however, has come on the penalty kill, where his save percentage went from .852 to .929 under Julien.
Coaching advantage: Alain Vigneault and Claude Julien are both cut from the same philosophical cloth (read: defensive structure) and are considered among the top coaches in the NHL. Both signed healthy contracts this year too, Julien's new deal paying him $5 million per season starting next season (third-highest in the NHL) and Vigneault right behind at $4.1 million per. There's a reason they're getting paid so much. This will be a real chess match between two pals who know each other very well.
Prediction: As one NHL scout said, "This series is a tossup." One of the things that concerns me about the Rangers, though, is just how long they've had nothing to play for, stuck in a wild-card spot with no room to go for what seems like forever, with so little urgency. Can they just flip a switch come the playoffs? Oh, and there's that Lundqvist-Bell Centre factor, too. Canadiens in 6.