First Round Preview: Canadiens vs. Rangers

After a one year hiatus, the Montreal Canadiens are back in the Stanley Cup playoffs. While many of the Montreal Canadiens haters and naysayers will shake their heads and spout off about the Habs, the truth is, any warm-blooded Canadian knows the playoffs are simply just better when a franchise like the Canadiens are involved. It’s the same reason that despite the rivalry, I, for one, am happy that the Toronto Maple Leafs have made the playoffs this season. It’s good for Canada. It’s good for hockey, and it’s good for Canadian fans of hockey. 

Once again, the Canadiens find themselves in a match-up against an Original Six team. While the match-up with the Rangers lacks the regional intensity that the Leafs bring with them, or the incredible history and intensity that come with a Bruins match-up, the Rangers and Habs have had their fair share of memorable moments over the last few years.

There was this infamous moment – (cue Montrealers going crazy and throwing Molsons everywhere): 

Which led to this:

 

And finally this:


 

3 years ago, the Canadiens had an improbable run to the conference finals until they ran into the Rangers and, more specifically, until Chris Krieder ran into Carey Price. I’m not going to sit here and suggest that the Habs would have defeated the Rangers with Carey Price in nets, but when you consider the series went six games with Dustin Tokarski in nets, you’d have to think they would have had a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1993. That Rangers team was very, very good – better than most people gave them credit for (including this fool). 3 years later and they’re still very, very good; however, they are different than that team that beat the Habs in 2014. 

 So let’s not dwell on the past, and focus on the present, and near future. In breaking down this first round match up, I decided to focus on 5 factors I believe will give everyone reading this (hi Roy!) a more clear picture on who to look for, what to look for, why to look for it, and who has the advantage.

1) Offense at Even Strength:

At first glance, this would appear to favor the Rangers; they feature a fast and deep squad of forwards, and mobile defensemen led by Ryan MacDonagh. The Canadiens have had goal scoring problems for most of the season and their most able puck-moving defenseman is a 106 year old Andrei Markov. Lo and behold, when you look at the numbers, you’ll see that at 5v5, the Rangers scored 14 more goals than the Habs throughout the season.

Before all the chicken little Habs fans out there begin to slide open their windows and climb out on the ledge, it is worth noting that when you consider goals scored at 5v5-close (close play is when the game is tied within or within one goal in the first and second periods, and tied in the third) the Rangers only have 2 more goals than the Habs on the season. Consider as well that the Rangers scored 7 more empty net goals than the Habs and this offensive advantage is not so stark.

When you factor in possession stats it leans even heavier in the Habs’ favor. Regardless of who coached the team this season, the Canadiens have been one of the best possession teams in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Rangers have been middling at best, however, where they make up for the lack of shots towards the opponent net by capitalizing on their high danger scoring chances: this is reflective in their above league average shooting percentage. Furthermore, they are one of the best teams in the NHL at generating high danger scoring chances, through pre-shot movement. (slot passes, east-west scoring chances).

While Habs can take solace in knowing that captain Max Pacioretty is the best offensive player at even strength on either team, the Rangers boast more balanced scoring from top to bottom. Their forward group is led by every Habs fan’s favorite Ranger: Chris Kreider. Both teams have even strength scoring dynamos in Michael Grabner and Paul Byron, but the Rangers have gotten some good offense from their rear guards, even though their possession numbers aren’t great. This is an area that Montreal struggles in once you look past Andrei Markov and Jeff Petry.

Advantage: New York Rangers. It’s very close, yet the Rangers’ spread out offense, give them an edge even though Montreal is better at possession and shot generation. This is in theme with most NY/MTL discussion I’ve had…it’s close, but New York bagels are better, but give me Montreal smoked meat every time…. 

 
2) Defense at Even Strength:

While fans always huff and puff about goal scoring, the objective of hockey isn’t to just score as many goals as possible. It’s to score more goals than your opponents; a simple and obvious act that often gets lost amongst the hand-wringing and complaining. As detailed above, the Rangers seem to boast more depth than the Habs. However, defense is a team game, and the Habs worked hard this season to become an elite defensive team, often at the sacrifice of potential offense. The bottom line is this shift in strategy worked. The Canadiens were the 3rd best defensive team in the NHL at 5v5, while the Rangers were 18th. The Canadiens goal differential at 5v5 was +24, while the Rangers were at +14. At even strength, the Canadiens boast the two top defenseman in all the NHL with regards to goals against. No other defenseman in the league allowed less goals against at even strength than the immortal Andrei Markov and the man mountain Shea Weber. The Habs’ system champions possession and defensive responsibility from their forwards – this allows for less shots against, and less chances against. While any line with Kreider will drive offense towards the oppositions net, the aforementioned Markov and Weber will be standing in his way. Injuries have hurt the Rangers this year, but they simply don’t have the skill on defense to drive possession out of their zone beyond MacDonagh. As a result, they focus on creating turnovers and blocking shots in order to counter attack, and take advantage of the team speed.

Finally, it helps having the best goaltender in the league to back up your D, but more on that later…

Advantage: Montreal Canadiens. For the most part, the Habs one-upped Trump by building a wall at their blue line before he could erect one along the Mexican border. 

3) Special Teams:

The Habs started out the season with one of the hottest power plays in the league. Armed with Weber’s canon of a shot from the point, they were scoring goals and leaving traumatized goalies in their wake. However, that was a long time ago, and the Habs’ power play limps into the playoffs without much success. Overall, they finished the season with a respectable 19.7% success rate; however, that has plummeted to under 14% down the stretch. As teams have adapted to the Habs “one trick pony play” of setting up a Weber slapshot, there’s been a shocking lack of creativity and east-west scoring chances. Considering they have one of the best goal scorers in the league on their team, you’d think they’d find a way to get Pacioretty more shots. On the other hand, the Rangers have hummed along at an average of 20.2% all season and have been on fire down the stretch at over 30% success rate. 30%! You can’t blame Habs fans for heading to their closest Belle Province, stumbling into the kitchen, locating the piping hot gravy pot, and dunking their faces in it. Once again, all you fantastic chicken littles, I’ll ask you to put the gravy pot down, and continue to read on.

The power play is only one aspect of special teams – the other is the penalty kill. I’ve never been shy about stating my lack of belief in Michel Therrien as a great NHL coach. Nothing has been more indicative of that than the Habs’ penalty kill, pre and post Therrien. Julien has instilled an excellent penalty kill strategy that has seen the Habs’ penalty kill ranking rise from 22nd under Therrien, to 14th overall to finish the season. Over the last month of the season, the Habs had the 3rd best penalty kill league-wide. Meanwhile, the Rangers had the 3rd worst penalty kill over that same span and finished the season 19th league wide.

Neither team generates a ton of power play opportunities, which works in the Habs’ favour. Furthermore, the Habs were one of the least penalized teams in the league under Julien. The ability to avoid taking penalties will be vital due the potentcy of the Rangers’ powerplay.

 Advantage: New York Rangers, but only because in a New York (power play) minute anything can change. If the Rangers fail to draw penalties, this could lean towards the Habs. (Yes, I’m sitting squarely in the fence on this one.)

4) The X-Factors:

For the Rangers, the aforementioned power play is an obvious x-factor. While his peak goal-scoring days are behind him, Rick Nash was still tied for the team lead in power play goals and has the ability to put the puck in the net, the Rangers will need him if they hope get to Price. JT Miller and Kevin Hayes give the Rangers  scoring depth and create the offensive balance the Habs seem to lack. However, the key x-factor is Mika Zibanejad. A player familiar with the Habs from his Senator days, Zibanejad put up 37 points in 56 games. He will be tasked with slowing down the Habs top line, while chipping in with some offense. If he can add that extra layer of depth to an already deep lineup, it will add significant pressure on the Habs’ defense corps. 

As far as the Habs are concerned, they have a certain 4th line left winger that has been the talk of the town before this playoff series kicks off. Alex Galchenyuk began this season as the Habs’ number one center. He led the team in scoring when he sustained a knee injury that knocked him out of action for 6 weeks. Upon his return, he resumed the top center role, but seemed to struggle defensively. Although he was driving offense at a high rate, his defensive mishaps caused him to slide down the line up, eventually ending up on the wing. To be clear, Galchenyuk is the Canadiens’ best offensive center and he’s playing on the 4th line…on the wing. He may the most obvious x-factor in playoffs history. If he can harness all that talent and take advantage of his playing time, it will add a dimension to the Habs attack that would have the Rangers scrambling. At 22 years old, Galchenyuk is still young enough to develop into that top line player, but it isn’t a stretch to call this the first major fork in his career. 

Advantage: New York Rangers. They simply have more x-factors. A greater potential for their depth make an impact, including a guy I write about in the next section. (How’s that for cliffhanger? Not bad, right?)

5) Goaltending

For the longest time, the Habs were defined by their goalie and best player: Carey Price. Too often, during the Therrien era, Price was forced to support a leaky ship and force it through rough waters. It all came to head this year when the Habs’ penalty kill went into the tank. While his even strength save percentage was largely unaffected, his save percentage during the penalty kill plummeted. So what happened to the man who has been widely regarded as the best goalie in the world for the last 3 years? Did he forget how to play for a month? Did he throw in the towel? Well, the question was answered when Julien took over and shored up the penalty kill. After weeks of frustration, Price could focus on being the best goalie in the world, and since the coaching change, he has done just that. 

As for the Rangers, they have their own icon in nets. King Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the best goalies in the NHL for the better part of the decade. However, at the age of 34,  Lundqvist has shown signs of slowing down. He put up the lowest save percentage of his career at .910, and was largely outplayed by his back up Antti Raanta. Having outlined the Rangers’ penalty kill struggles above, I decided to take a look at the goalies 5v5 save percentage. Sure enough, there was Price, sitting amongst the league leaders. When I lowered the threshold of games played, Raanta even showed up in the top ten. Lundqvist did not rank in the top 20 – astonishing, considering he has been the symbol of goaltending consistency over the last decade. Finally, I decided to look at save percentage with respect to high danger chances, as this is a good indicator of the goalies that can make the tough saves. Once again, Raanta bested Lundqvist. Granted Raanta played only 30 games compared to the 57 for Lundqvist, but it’s pretty clear that Raanta may serve as another x-factor in this series if the King stumbles. Lundqvist has been a competitor and elite athlete his whole career. It is unlikely he will let a difficult season hinder his desire and need to excel in the playoffs. However, what the mind and heart want, the body sometimes cannot follow. Considering his well documented trouble at the Bell Center, the Rangers’ coaches will have to keep a close eye on their franchise goalie. 

Oh…I know what you’re thinking: “Hey Z…who led the league in the high danger save percentage??” Well that would be one, Carey Price. 

Advantage: Montreal Canadiens. Carey Price has dominated the Rangers throughout his career. While many people are saying he was out to get revenge on Kreider, my guess is he simply was upset he never got a chance to compete during that conference final. He will be hell bent on winning this series, and likely to be more focused than ever. He represents a daunting task for the Rangers but not one that’s impossible to beat. 

Final Verdict:

I’ll be honest, before I started this preview, I had assumed there couldn’t be two more evenly matched up teams in the first round. However, after finishing my analysis, I was surprised to find out that the Habs were largely superior to the Rangers in every possession metric I could find. Now, I’ve discussed the use of analytics on this site before, and I am a big proponent of using them to gauge a team’s chance of success. It won’t be 100% what I base my judgement on, but it’ll certainly influence any decision I would make. While the Rangers scored more goals, the reality is hockey is not just about scoring goals and but also about keeping them out. This is where the Canadiens have a marked advantage over the Rangers. In fact, only 2 teams in the NHL allowed fewer goals than the Habs 5v5. As a result, the Habs have a superior GF% (ratio of GF/ GA as a percentage) than the Rangers. The Rangers have gotten sub-par goaltending from Lundqvist and have largely survived with a dangerous powerplay, and an above-league average shooting percentage. The Canadiens seem to be at a disadvantage on paper – they played in the weaker division, lack the scoring depth, and the power play has struggled to generate any additional offense. However, they control the puck and generate lots of shots towards the opponent’s net. Since the coaching change, they have defended at an elite rate, and when it’s all said and done, they have Carey Price in nets. If Lundqvist can turn back the clock, or Raanta can pull off a Halakian effort, I can see this series stretch to 6 or 7 and going the Rangers way. The Rangers are a very good team and can get to Price is the Habs defensive structure breaks down and then begin to allows the Rangers to cycle the puck and set uo their offense. But I’m betting against that; I’m betting on a razor sharp focused Price; and finally I’m betting that the Habs close this series out by winning 4 hard-fought and close games. 

How many games will it take? Honestly I have no idea because every game will be a battle. It could easily go 7, but I’ll go out on the limb and say Habs in 5 with a Carey Price shutout to win the series at home.

Go Habs Go.