NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers

Pat Keogh
April 11 2017 09:00AM

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© Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

This is part of a playoff preview series based at  NHLNumbers.com  

It feels strange to say, but the New York Rangers landed in a best case scenario of sorts drawing the Montreal Canadiens for the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with many of Blueshirt faithful eager to avoid either the Penguins or the Caps. Likewise, the Canadiens probably feel good about matching up against the Rangers, hoping to take advantage of the latter’s lacklustre defence. It’s a rematch of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals that saw the Rangers go to the Cup Finals, so depending on your persuasion you’re either hoping for a repeat of last time or revenge.

SEASON SERIES

Montreal took all three games each time they played the Rangers this season, winning twice at the Garden and once at home. The first time the two teams squared off, on Jan. 14, was close, with the Habs winning 5-4, and the same goes for the second time they played each other, on Feb. 21. That game ended in a shootout 3-2 Canadiens, but the Rangers were less fortunate on March 4 when they lost to Montreal 4-1. 

Digging a little deeper however, and we can see that the Rangers will have to be at their best against Montreal if they even want to stay alive in this series – in both the first and last time they played the Canadiens they ceded most of the puck possession and scoring chances to their opponent, and the game they lost in the shootout was just barely even. In those former two games the CF% splits were 53.4/46.6 and 54.29/45.71, while the xGF% splits were 52.53/47.47 and 57.91/42.09. The game that the Rangers held on to lose in the shootout was 52.5/47.5 in CF% and 49.77/50.23. In that last game we can see what’s largely been the story of the season for the Rangers, in that they tend to concede the puck possession game while capitalizing on high quality scoring chances generated off the rush. 

Unfortunately for them that game plan wasn’t effective in the regular season against Montreal, so they’ll have to try something different if they want a chance in this first round series.

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY 

Canadiens: 54.3 5v5 GF%, 52.5 5v5 CF%, 52.4 5v5 FF%, 9.1 SH%, 91.1 SV%, 19.6 PP%, 81.1 PK%

Rangers: 52.2 5v5 GF%, 47.9 5v5 CF%, 48.8 5v5 FF%, 10.4 SH%, 91.4 SV%, 20.2 PP%, 79.8 PK%

As mentioned in the previous section, the Rangers tend to let the other team control the puck, while attempting to generate high quality scoring chances by forcing turnovers and making a quick transition on the rush. As a result their CF% is more in line with teams that missed the playoffs, with their 47.95% coming in at 6th worst in the league, just ahead on Vancouver. Their xGF% and SCF% are better than their raw CF%, but both come in around the middle of the pack. In the former category they rank 18th in the league at 49.44 and in the latter 15th at 50.56. These aren’t phenomenal numbers, but they demonstrate that the team is more than just their lousy possession numbers. As is tradition, the Blueshirts have an abnormally high PDO (6th in the league, 101.12), driven in large part by their stellar goaltending (despite Henrik Lundqvist’s struggles he’s still got it, and Antti Raanta was phenomenal as a backup and likely starts in net somewhere else next season, Vegas or otherwise), but their shooting percentage is also pretty elevated coming in at 4th in the league (8.81). In terms of their rolling average CF% and xGF%, they were an awful puck possession team early in the season and then hovered at or just below 50% for the rest of the season, while their xGF% was sky high at the beginning of the season, came back down to earth, climbed a bit from February through March, and is currently in the crapper as we speak. These numbers all tell us the same thing more or less – when the Rangers are on they’re on, but when they’re not they’re god awful.

Montreal seems to be just the opposite, with the team’s CF% being third best in the league this season, coming in at 52.54. This kind of puck dominance lead to a wide share of scoring chances for the Habs as well, with their SCF% being fourth best in the league at 52.94 and their xGF% being fifth best in the league at 52.71. While you might expect their PDO to be elevated due to Carey Price, they’re 9th in the league at 100.75, and the shooting percentage component being 18th in the league at 7.50%. The fact that the Habs don’t shoot at quite as high of a percentage as the Rangers may not be of issue however, given the way they tend to dominate the share of shot attempts and scoring chances. As far as rolling averages go, this team, while starting off slow, steadily climbed from the beginning of the season until mid-January in terms of CF%, going on to then float around or above 50% for the rest of the year, with the team currently on an upswing. A rolling average of xGF% tells a similar story – the team’s play skyrocketed early through mid season and then returned to the realm of mortals, again currently trending upwards (although dipping slightly at the very end of the year). This is a team that’s more or less been hot all season, and will prove a very tough opponent for the Rangers. 

As far as goaltending goes, there isn’t a whole lot to say. Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price are arguably the two best goaltenders in the NHL – we’ll be in for a real treat. Since this is a stats-centric website however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t keep you well informed; Carey Price was excellent as usual, posting a 93.59 sv% in 62 games played, while King Henrik struggled some, only coming in at 91.83. The GSAA gap between them reflects this disparity, with Price’s 20.49 dwarfing Hank’s 3.16. Much of Hank’s issues had to do with him being hung out to dry by his defence most of the time, with his xGA of 116.54 looking not unlike Price’s 114.13. Lundqvist appears to have returned to form just in time however, with the Swede making big saves and stabilizing around .920 just in time for the playoffs to start. Both goalies are known for being fierce competitors – expect them to be locked in as we witness one of the best goalie duels we’re likely to see in all of hockey.

 

WHY YOU SHOULD CHEER FOR YORK RANGERS

If wanting to see Henrik Lundqvist win a Cup isn’t enough for you, the Rangers also have several other eminently likeable guys on the team, from Mats Zuccarello at forward to Ryan McDonagh on defence. There’s exciting young talent all over this squad; the forward corps is especially deep but youngster Brady Skjei has had a standout season on the blue line, finishing the season just short of 40 points. This team plays a high octane transition game, and although the defence isn’t particularly well-equipped to facilitate it when things get going it’s a real treat to watch.

WHY YOU SHOULD CHEER FOR THE CANADIENS

If watching a team utterly dominate the puck isn’t your thing, perhaps all-world goaltending will do it for you. There’s also a compelling redemption narrative in Alexander Radulov, veteran leadership in the form of Shea Weber, and electric young talent by ways of Alex Glachenyuk. America’s hat hasn’t seen a Stanley Cup since the last time the Habs won it, with the great nation of Canada being painfully underrepresented in some of those years. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the Cup come back to the Great White North in the hands of a historic franchise to boot? 

SCHEDULE

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PREDICTION

Habs in seven. Both goalies will steal games for their respective teams, but the Habs ability to own the puck will prove too much for the Rangers, hamstrung as the will likely be by their slow and aging defence. (Especially if they get away with stuff like this again...)

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