Saturday, 17 May 2014

Welcome to Jungleland

The Eastern Conference final is upon us hockey fans. The Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers meet in the NHL playoffs for the first time since 1996 with the winner off to the dance for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Two original six rivals. Two multi-time Stanley Cup winners. Two teams that haven’t been to a cup final since either of them last won the prized chalice.

Scouring the web there are many previews of the series, but none quite like what you have before you. Two of your favourite hockey blogs are teaming up to tell you why their team will or won’t win. You can agree, you can disagree. In either case the games will be played on the ice, but the opinions of Rangers Unlimited’s Jared Sexton and The Breakdown’s Ian Hermelin are here for your perusal.

The Rangers have played a lot of hockey in a short amount of time. Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final will be the Rangers 15th game in the last 30 days (Montreal has played 11 in that same time span). Fatigue is bound to settle in at some point.

If fatigue is a factor in the series, it will definitely be to the Canadiens' benefit. But it will be nothing like the workload discrepancy from the early games of the previous round against the Penguins. This series features two separate two day breaks in between games, something the Rangers haven't experienced since Game four of Round one.

The Habs have been over-relying on their powerplay. The Canadiens have gotten to the Conference Finals largely on the strength of their hot powerplay. Their powerplay has accounted for 28% of their goals in the playoffs.  Of the teams that have advanced beyond the first round, only Anaheim has relied on their powerplay more. That's all well and good if the Habs can continue to convert 26.3% of their powerplays, but can they? During the regular season, they converted 17.2% of their powerplay opportunities, good for 19th in the league.

The Habs Power play can be very dangerous. Subban and Markov at the point are likely the most dangerous back-end duo on any power play league wide. Up front, with Vanek & Pacioretty, the Canadiens have two of the top 35 goal-getters in the league this season. With 39, only Ovechkin, Perry and Pavelski had more than Pacioretty and yet Vanek is considered the Habs most dangerous weapon.

As for 5 on 5, the Canadiens are a very fast team, the capitalize on turnovers and send a 4-line attack in on goal. The relentless attack causes opposing defenses to eventually take said penalties.

The playoffs historically favor strong possession teams. I frequently reference Chris Boyle's great article exploring the relationship between aptitude at possessing the puck and playoff success. The Canadiens finished the regular season 22nd in the league in the Fenwick measure of puck possession (in score-close situations); the Rangers finished 6th. Teams in Montreal’s ballpark (>50%) have historically performed much worse than teams above that mark in the playoffs: only two have ever made the finals (both the Pittsburgh Penguins).

During the regular season, a glut of injuries forced the Canadiens to play on their heels a lot. They relied on a variation of the trap to win a lot of tight hockey games. Now, with the team at full strength we have seen the Habs go back to playing on their toes attacking the opponent relentlessly. This was something we saw last year all season long. Many point to the Habs pace last year as a reason for their collapse in the playoffs. They ran out of gas, this year it seems, they paced themselves (willingly or not).

The Canadiens didn't match up their D-Pairs as often as Boston did. The Habs top 4 matched up against the Bergeron & Krejci lines for the Boston series. Bergeron (2g,2a,+1) Krejci (2a, -2) Lucic (1g,2a, even) Iginla (3g, -2) didn't accomplish much. If the Habs do the same to the Rangers top end talent, I have no idea where New York will get it's goals from.

The Canadiens rely on their top 4 defense much more than the Rangers do. The Habs top 4 have all averaged over 23 minutes a game through 2 rounds, however as a group those 4 are -1. The bottom pair has seen Mike Weaver and a rotating cast of Characters. Weaver has averaged 15 minutes a game while leading the playoffs in +/- at +7. His rotating cast of Francis Bouillon, Nathan Beaulieu and Douglas Murray have mustered about 12:30 a game and a +3 rating. The Habs top 4 have also accounted for 4 goals and 17 assists (Granted 4+8 came from PK Subban) so they do chip in on the offense.

The Rangers spread the ice time much more evenly among their top 6 defensemen, with only the top 3 playing more than 20 minutes a game. The top 4 however as a group are +3 through two rounds. Offensively though, the Rangers D don't help out as much as Montreal's. The top 4 have managed 3 goals and 13 assists, and it is much more evenly distributed than Montreal's which relied heavily on the reigning Norris Trophy winner.

The Rangers are definitely lacking an impact offensive weapon from the back-end like the Habs have in Subban. That's been a weakness for them all season and beyond.

Mike Weaver's +/- will continue to look good as long as Carey Price continues to stop 96% of the shots on him with Weaver on the ice.

Your point on Weaver would be a good one, and statistically I'm not going to argue with you. Weaver however has earned every bit of his +/- ranking by limiting quality chances against and by blocking shots. With the top 4 logging heavy minutes, it's good to know that #5 can be counted on in a pinch.

The Habs will be facing McDonagh-Girardi and Staal-Stralman for three quarters of the time at even-strength. McDonagh and Girardi get the lion's share of the national fanfare, but the Rangers don't lose much with Staal and Stralman on the ice. The Rangers' top-4 managed to keep Sidney Crosby off the scoresheet in 5 of 7 second round games. The Canadiens have a balanced attack up front, so I think the Rangers match up better than the Bruins, whose second defense pairing was subordinate with Dennis Seidenberg out of the lineup.

Girardi and Mcdonough get attention, but they are a combined -10 in the playoffs. Staal & Stralman have been the better pair. Zdeno Chara was given the task of trying to shut down Vanek and Pacioretty - for the most part he was successful, until game 6 and 7.

McDonagh had been out of game action with a shoulder injury for two weeks and really struggled in the early stages of the playoffs. It wasn’t until the last three games of the Penguins series where he really started to look like himself again.

The Rangers can't score goals. Be it at even strength, on our the special teams. Through  playoff games, The Rangers have scored 34 goals (2.43 a game). The Canadiens meanwhile have scored 36 goals in 11 games (3.27 a game). If we compare the defenses, The Rangers have given up 2 goals a game in the playoffs, Montreal, slightly more at 2.15.

I don't believe the Rangers have forgotten how to score goals. They scored three more goals than the Canadiens in the regular season (six more goalie-in goals). I have to believe their offensive numbers would look a lot better if they had the privilege of throwing 118 shots on Anders Lindback! When some of Rick Nash's playoff-leading shot on goal total starts going in, the Rangers should get the spike they need.

Anders Lindback was fortunate for the Habs, especially since they have never fared well against Ben Bishop historically. That being said, the Tampa Bay Lightning, while quick, well coached and hard working were the weakest team in the playoffs this season. The regular season goal totals go out the window for me as they are not reflective of the current lineups either team sports. Thomas Vanek was not a part of the Canadiens roster and while he may or may not be lighting the lamp his mere presence in the lineup opens up room for multiple other players.

I also don't think the Rangers forgot how to score, but again I go back to depth. Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque are playing on the 3rd line for Montreal. Danny Briere - who is a far cry from the player he once was is playing on the fourth line. Those guys are lining up against much weaker opposition and thriving. This is why I question the Rangers depth up front. They don't have an answer for those Habs players.

Rene Bourque has 29 points in the past two seasons. The Rangers’ third line left wing--Pouliot or Hagelin, take your pick--surpassed that number this season. He’s the guy creating matchup problems for the Rangers?

Vanek is actually the guy that creates the Matchup problem. But Bourque is an interesting character study. After two consecutive 27-goal seasons, Rene Bourque has twice missed games in his career due to concussions.

When Michel Therrien was hired as the coach of the Canadiens, Rene Bourque was one of the players he pointed to as needing to have a better work ethic. He started out pretty well last season, before suffering his second concussion, and was never the same after returning. Multiple times this season he was in the Coach’s dog house. One of the beat guys covering the Canadiens surmised that this likely had more than a little to do with the concussion history.

After Alex Galchenyuk went down late in the season, Bourque was inserted back into the lineup. He played alright, but nothing to put any fear into anyone - then the playoffs hit and everything changed. Just before the playoffs the Habs Director of Player Personnel, Scott Mellanby had a chat with Bourque. No one was privy to the exact details of the conversation, however since Bourque has been a different player. He was far and away the best forward on either team during the Habs first round meeting with Tampa Bay. He has scored 4 goals in the playoffs. He could see himself dropped to the fourth line (or out of the lineup) with Alex Galchenyuk returning, which again causes a matchup issue for New York.

For the line-up you’ll likely see for game one, the Rangers are getting goals dispersed pretty evenly throughout.
Stepan Line - 3 goals
Richards Line - 11 goals
Brassard Line - 10 goals
Boyle Line - 4 goals

Obviously, the top line sticks out like a sore thumb, but Kreider’s only played 4 games and Nash, I’ve been talking about ad nauseum, but I believe is a situation waiting to correct itself.

Contrast that with The Canadiens lines that we’re likely to see in Game 1, looks pretty well dispersed as well.
Desharnais Line - 10 Goals
Plekanec Line - 7 Goals
Eller Line - 9 Goals
Briere Line - 5 Goals

I’d tend to agree that the Nash situation may correct itself, but he could see himself matched up with Plekanec. Plekanec doesn’t get talked about throughout the league as much as he should. To me, he’s the best defensive centreman in the league behind Pavel Datsyuk & Patrice Bergeron. When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, David Krejci led the league in playoff scoring, against the Canadiens in round 1 he had 1 point. Plekanec.

Alex Galchenyuk has yet to play a playoff game this year. By all accounts he had an inconsistent, disappointing sophomore year in the NHL, mainly due to multiple stints on injured reserve. He still scored 13 goals (good enough for 7th on the team) in only 65 games (Which projects out to a 16 goal season). If he is healthy - with all due respect to the aforementioned Dale Weise, Brandon Prust, Rene Bourque, or whoever comes out of the lineup for him, he is an offensive upgrade.

Galchenyuk, a young player coming back from an injury, does seem like the type to light up the Rangers in the playoffs. The Rangers got their boost in the last round, when Chris Kreider returned from his wrist injury. Kreider's return gave them three balanced scoring lines which is key to their attack.

Raphael Diaz and Dale Weise were traded for each other earlier this season. Weise to Montreal, Diaz to Vancouver - however they are now both facing their former team in this Rangers/Canadiens series. While Ex-Pats LOVE to burn their former teams, only one of these two players might get the chance. Dale Weise has been a revelation for the Habs, adding speed and grit to their fourth line, but also chipping in with timely goals. (He has three in the playoffs thus far). Raphael Diaz meanwhile has played fewer games (2) in this playoffs than Weise has goals (3).

Benoit Pouliot meanwhile has been a revelation for the Rangers. He has cooled a touch with only 2 points in the series against Pittsburgh, but he has 8 points in 14 playoff games this season and scored 15 goals during the regular campaign being a part of the Rangers most consistent offensive line.

Brandon Prust has been hurt. No one from the Canadiens camp will confirm exactly what the injury is, but his play early on the playoffs led many to suspect a rib or shoulder issue. Having said that, game six against Boston was his best game of playoffs and it looks like he's nearing full health.

Dale Weise hasn't had this type of scoring surge since his stint playing in the Netherlands!

Raphael Diaz doesn't figure to draw in for the Rangers unless there's an injury.

Dale Weise is taking advantage of his opportunity. He works hard, and skates well, but that alone would necessarily account for goals, generally however a 4th line doesn't have a centreman with Danny Briere's skill set setting up plays. Playing with Briere against other fourth lines, and his own speed and size are what's leading to Weise's scoring surge.

I think you’ll find that the Rangers’ fourth line compares favorably to the Bruins’ Merlot line, which happens to not age too well, as it turns out

Henrik Lundqvist has never fared well VS Montreal. For his career, he is 13-11-2, 2.85 GAA .897 sv%. While those numbers are not otherwordly terrible they are significantly down from his career averages. Over his career, Lundqvist has won 54.7% of his starts vs other opponents (48.1% vs Habs) he has a 2.13 career GAA against every other opponent (2.85 vs Montreal) he has a .922 career save% against every other team (.897 vs Montreal). I'd hazard to guess those are by far his worst numbers against any opponent in the National Hockey League.

At Bell Centre, those numbers get even worse. Lundqvist is 4-5-2 Over his career at Bell Centre. 3.87 .876. In at least 10 starts, those ARE the worst numbers he has posted in any building as a visitor. The only arena that comes close is the old Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. The only other time he has a sv% below .900 is in buildings where he has started less than 5 times.

If this trend in goal continues, We'll be in for a short series. Lundqvist did not start in either game at Bell Centre this season, so this is a trend that the Rangers coaching staff is aware of.

Lundqvist has struggled against the Canadiens in the past - his save percentage against the Habs is lower than against any other Eastern Conference opponent. When you reduce data into smaller samples, patterns can appear to emerge. When I checked in March, the Rangers were twice as efficient in Saturday and Sunday games than Monday and Tuesday games.

When Lundqvist takes the ice in the Bell Centre, it will be in a crease the same size as any other and facing a regulation sized puck. If there is some disadvantage, it's solely in his head, but I have more confidence in his mental game than that.

Lundqvist has not Started in Montreal since January 2012, and hasn't won at the Bell Centre since 2009, so something tells me the building MUST be in his head, or Rangers brass of multiple generations thinks it is.
In big game situations, Price and Lundqvist have met once with the Habs netminder walking away with a gold medal.

Only because of Nash and St. Louis’ great work on the 4th line. :)

Final analysis.

I'm not taking the Rangers lightly, but If we fairly assume the defensive corps are a wash, I believe Montreal holds an advantage everywhere else.

Throwing out the crazy stats of Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price has been almost unbeatable since the Olympics. Over a seven game series, I can't see Lundqvist getting the better of Price 4 times.

The Top Line Talent of the Rangers (St.Louis, Richards, and Nash) definitely have the name value over the top end forwards of Montreal - but Nash has yet to score a goal in the playoffs (Pacioretty has 3, Vanek has 5) and Richards and St.Louis are on the wrong side of 30. The Canadiens have 4 lines that can score, the Rangers I would argue have two.

The offensive depth, and Goaltending of Montreal will be too much for the Rangers to handle.

My head says the Canadiens don't hold the advantage over the Rangers, but you'd be hard to find pressed to find a Ranger fan that isn't weary when the club faces off against the Habs.

Carey Price has been on point since the Olympic break (0.937 SV% - combined reg. season and playoffs), but so has Henrik Lundqvist (0.937 SV%). Both goaltenders are elite, but I'd have more faith in the Rangers winning the series if Price outplays Lundqvist than I do the Habs winning if the situation is reversed.

Habs in six.
Rangers in six.

A friendly wager amongst the readers of Rangers Unlimited and The Breakdown. Hab fans VS Ranger Fans. The winner - children somewhere.

Should the Rangers beat the Canadiens and advance to the Stanley Cup final, all funds raised will be donated to the "Garden of Dreams".

Should the Canadiens defeat the Rangers to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, all funds raised will be donated to the "Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation.

The Garden of Dreams Foundation is a non-profit charity that works closely with all areas of The Madison Square Garden Company including the Knicks, Rangers, Liberty, MSG Entertainment, MSG Networks and Fuse to make dreams come true for kids facing obstacles. All donations and fundraising efforts will help Garden of Dreams continue to help children by creating unique and unforgettable, on-going events and programs to brighten the lives of children and their families who battle everything from homelessness and extreme poverty, to illness, to foster care.

The Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation provides help and support to children in need. Since its inception in August 2000, the Foundation has donated upwards of $16 million to more than 500 charitable endeavors from across the province of Quebec who helps underprivileged children.
The Foundation is determined, more than ever, to help offer a brighter future and good health to underprivileged children and is committed to encourage and foster a healthy and active lifestyle among youth.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for donating. May the best team win!

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