Both the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers have taken a similar path to the Eastern Conference Final. While the road has been slightly longer for the Rangers, both teams knocked off the top seeded team in their respective divisions en route to this series.
Match up wise, both teams predicate their success on team speed. You won't find too overwhelmingly large or physical teams here, just simple games, based heavily through the neutral zone speed-based hockey. It won't be easy for the Rangers to bully the Canadiens in their defensive zone with the speed of guys like Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider, but that works both ways.
For the Rangers, the key here is keeping their game simple and not trying to move east to west too much through the neutral zone as they carry the puck. That’s where speed kills: on turnovers.
“If we’re able to get the puck deep, they won’t be able to use their speed,” Carl Hagelin explicated on the eve of game one. “If we turn it over at the red line or blue line, we know they transition [quickly].”
He added that there’s a fear of odd-man rushes that way, so taking care of the puck is imperative to team success.
As far as individual match ups, there aren't the sample sizes available that there have been in the previous two series' for both teams, as these two opponents do not play in the same division.
Up front, the Rangers need to find a way to steady their possession game. Through two rounds their possession chart is filled with valleys and plateaus. It seems one night, they can completely control play, then drop into a defensive shell the next game, playing safe hockey. Score effects have dictated their game more than usual, but that's a byproduct of a high intensity environment and a fear of making mistakes. In the second round, the team that scored first won almost every game, which was hardly the story in the first round, as comebacks percolated throughout the nightly schedule.
Defensively, this series will be more about zone matching than individual matching. The Canadiens don't have the superstar power upfront of a Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Claude Giroux. They do however, unlike those other two clubs, have depth and skill throughout the lineup.
The Canadiens have a balanced offense, attacking with several all-star caliber players, which could give the Rangers defensive fits. The onus will be more on the bottom two pairs in this series for the Rangers, than ever before. Marc Staal and Anton Stralman need to play at a consistent high level, something they have shown they can do.
As far as the story the regular season analytics tell, the Rangers finished the season ranked sixth in shot attempt percentage, averaging 53.2 percent over an 82-game schedule at even strength, with the score close. The Canadiens did not fare as well, finishing 26th out of 30 teams at 47.2 percent in the same situations.
The playoffs have been a different story for the Rangers. They are currently sitting at 48.5 shot attempt for percentage, while the Canadiens are performing the same way they have been at 47.2 percent, again at even strength with the score close. The disparity here is much smaller, but to credit the Canadiens, they just played seven straight against one of the best possession teams in the game in the Boston Bruins.
Both of these teams, have really gotten it done with supreme goaltending.
Through 14 games, the Rangers, at even strength, have been powered by Henrik Lundqvist’s 94.4 save percentage, while Carey Price, has played to a 93.6 save percentage. Both of these players are performing at an extraordinarily high level, but there’s small factor here and that’s Lundqvist’s past performance in the province of Quebec. He has been historically ghastly in Montreal.
The book on Lundqvist in Montreal is still full of empty pages however, as it’s been almost half a decade since he has won there. He’s hoping to write a new chapter, a redemption story, where all public perception is changed.
Two players to keep a close eye on in this series are P.K. Subban and Rick Nash but for ostensibly different reasons.
Subban has been played to a Conn Smythe caliber level. Subban has 12 points in 11 games in these playoffs and a positive corsi relative so his team’s performance when he is not on the ice.
Nash, has a mightily impressive zero goals in 14 games. He could be poised for a huge breakout, but even without the goals, he’s contributing on the ice.
“If you’re getting looks and it’s not going in, you have to find other ways to contribute,” Vigneault said.
Vigneault added that after every game, while analyzing scoring chances for and scoring chances against, Nash has been their top player.
Eventually, a puck has to go in, right?
The Rangers are hoping the addition of Chris Kreider in the last series and the opportunity to take regular shifts alongside him, will boost Nash’s game. With Kreider, Nash’s goals for percentage per 20 minutes in even strength situations is 1.081. Without him, that number drops precipitously to 0.591.
The Rangers have to hope, that their top players can be their top players and they can take care of the puck, or the Montreal Canadiens, a team they have great respect for, will send them home early.
Patrick Kearns is the New York Correspondent and a columnist for The Fourth Period.