Rangers, Canadiens – A Playoffs Primer

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

It’s hard to imagine, but it’s been three whole years since the Rangers and Canadiens last met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That time elapsed is just long enough that you probably need a moment to think about what those respective rosters looked like, but not so long ago that “Carey Price” doesn’t immediately conjure up memories of the infamous collision with Chris Kreider that became the story of the series. A series the Rangers ultimately won to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in twenty years.

With Montréal officially clinching first place in the Atlantic following their 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers last night, the two clubs will officially meet again this Spring to open the first round of the postseason.

In anticipation of this matchup, below is a breakdown of what are likely to be the three keys to the series starting with the most obvious of all—Price versus Lundqvist.

Key One: Goaltending Showdown

While no one should mistake the season Henrik Lundqvist has endured this year for an especially good one, the 35-year old Swede is still the franchise starter despite giving up just shy of half a goal more per game (2.75 GA/A) than backup Antti Raanta (2.26 GA/A). Hank’s .910 SV%—the worst of his career to date, and the first time he’s finished below .920 in the last seven seasons—also trailed Raanta’s .922 this season.

But the body of work Lundqvist has carved out for himself, especially in the playoffs where he’s played more games than any other starting goaltender in the league over the last seven seasons—a stretch of time in which he’s averaged a .926 SV% and a 2.15 GA/A—are exactly why he’ll be called on again this Spring to backstop another run at a seemingly ever-elusive Stanley Cup.

Price, on the other hand, is a formidable opponent. In the 54 playoff games he’s played since 2007-08, he’s averaged a .912 SV% and a 2.62 GA/A. Not great numbers at first glance, but in his last two seasons in which he’s played a total of 24 playoff contests, he’s averaged an improved .920 SV% and a 2.29 GA/A.

From an analytics perspective, he’s been quite good. Over that two-year span, he’s played just four games labeled a Really Bad Start (RBS), a metric developed by Rob Vollman in the Hockey Abstract that tracks starts with a SV% below 85%. Furthermore, 15 of those 24 games were considered Quality Starts (QS), another Vollman metric that measures starts with a SV% greater than the regular season SV% average, or at least 88.5% on nights with 20 or fewer shots against.

Lundqvist has him edged there, too, however, with 18 QS out of a possible 24 over the last two seasons while matching an equal RBS of four.

The question ahead of us is, despite the edge in play over the last few seasons, at the age of 35, how kind will Father Time be to Lundqvist, and just how much will the wear of 86 playoff starts in the last seven seasons affect his ability to play to his potential?

Key Two: Maison des horreurs v. Road Warrior Rangers

Rangers fans know all too well what a house of horrors Montréal’s Bell Centre has been for the Blueshirts in recent years. Not only did the Canadiens take the season series winning all three games the two teams played this year (though only one was played in Montréal), but they’ve had the Rangers number in Québec since the Bell Centre opened in March of 1996. In the 39 contests they’ve played there since the doors opened, the Blueshirts have an all-time record of 11-20-3 which is equal to a points percentage of just .385. Worse yet, they average 3.15 goals against per game on Canadiens ice.

However, the 2016-17 Rangers are proverbial road warriors, with a league-leading 27 road wins. As my colleagues have written about since February, the fact they’re going to play the Habs despite not owning a home ice advantage may still actually be an advantage for New York.

Only the Toronto Maple Leafs (126) have more goals scored on the road than the Rangers (124). Furthermore, the Rangers power play, which has been a source of contention all season, is actually fourth-best at 23.5% on the road this season in the NHL versus their pedestrian 16.5% PP% at home.

Rounding out the special teams angle, the Rangers also own a positive penalty-killing differential on the road versus at home this year. They are tenth-best in the NHL at 82.3% on the road and 25th-best at 76.9% on Garden ice.

This is not to say the Rangers should hope to take every series by never winning at home. Doing so would spell certain doom, and would unnecessarily tax them by requiring they go seven games in most projected matchups, but it is to say that perhaps their lackluster home ice performances this season won’t necessarily cost them the chance to advance.

Key Three: Superior Firepower

The third and final key is likely to be the Blueshirts superior regular season firepower.

The Rangers’ opened the year like a man on fire. They scored at a 3.41 G/GP pace over the first half (39 games) through to January 1st. Since then their barrels have cooled somewhat, scoring at a current pace of 2.70 G/GP in the 40 games since, but their scoring depth still out guns the Canadiens, even at the current reduced scoring rate.

The Rangers have four 20-or-more goal scorers, and forwards Chris Kreider and Michael Grabner are two and three goals shy respectively of cracking the 30-goal mark. Rick Nash and J.T. Miller make up the remaining 20-goal scorers, while Kevin Hayes, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, and Jimmy Vesey will all finish the season with at least 15 a piece. With 16 on the year, Derek Stepan, who has three goals in his last five games, would need to score four more in the final three games of regular season to give the Rangers a fifth 20-goal man.

Montréal, on the other hand, averaged 3.11 G/GP over their first half (36 games). Since the New Year, they too have seen a reduction in scoring rate, averaging 2.6 G/GP in the 42 games since. They’ve also been shut out a whopping six times in that stretch, including two games since firing Michel Therrien on February 14th.

They have just two players, Max Pacioretty and Paul Byron, who are likely to finish the season with 20 or more goals. Pacioretty is the team-leader by a wide stretch, sitting on 35 at the moment, while Byron has 22. Behind them are Alexander Radulov (18), Shea Weber (17), Alex Galchenyuk (16), and Artturi Lehkonen (16).

While the analytics on the year favor the Canadiens (see the tweets below for more), good old fashioned goal-scoring tilts the series in favor of the Rangers in spite of their wanting possession metrics.

It’s pretty clear that the Canadiens scoring game goes through Pacioretty, whereas the Rangers really can’t be isolated to any one player, including Grabner and Kreider. Shutting Pacioretty down will be no easy task, but the Rangers scoring depth outside their team leaders does appear to outgun the Canadiens’ ancillary scoring leaders.

Both the Blueshirts and the Habs have just three relatively meaningless games remaining to round out their regular seasons before the playoffs are expected to begin near the mid-point of April. While that’s not a lot of time to iron out any last minute kinks, it’s all the runway they’ll have to prepare for the battle ahead. Despite this, what track does remain should give the Rangers one last advantage in effectively knowing who their opponents will be this far in advance. Those games can and should be used to strategically rest veteran players ahead of the start of the series, as well as to game plan deployment techniques, like how best to limit the negative impact of slow-footed defenders like Dan Girardi who can likely be exploited by the Habs’ speedier forwards.

These games won’t impact the NHL’s regular season standings, but it’s still time to get to work.

Allons-y, Rangers!

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