By: Chris Boyle
With the Rangers virtually locked into the first wild card spot, the team’s immediate focus is getting Henrik Lundqvist back in the lineup and keeping the players healthy before the playoffs begin.
The Blueshirts’ playoff opponent is still to be determined, but the site sportsclubstats.com has their likely first-round opponent as the Montreal Canadiens (66.2%). This may induce some fear in the fanbase. The Rangers have struggled with the Habs since they ousted Montreal in six games during the 2014 Eastern Conference Final. Since that series, the Rangers have taken only five out of a possible 18 points, with just one point coming this season.
Although they haven’t gained a win this season, their underlying numbers against the Canadiens suggest that the Rangers wouldn’t be a substantial underdog even though they’d enter the series as a wild card.
The shot metrics slightly favor the Rangers, but the expected goal totals (xGoals) resulted in almost a dead heat with the Rangers at a slight advantage. The difference in the season series resides solely in the crease. Over the three-game sample, Carey Price has been one goal greater than average and has the edge over Lundqvist in performance.
Lundqvist has struggled with the Canadiens, resulting in almost a 3.5 goal below-average performance. This is one of the main reasons the Canadiens are a scary opponent. Ninety-five percent of the Rangers’ opponents start the series with a significant disadvantage in goal, but with Price, the Rangers will be forced to carry the play. Fortunately, they have been quite capable of that this season.
With the recent hiring of Claude Julien as head coach, the Canadiens have been more reliant on speed and controlling the puck to generate chances, which could result in a track meet should these two teams match up in the first round.
The Rangers have done a good job of limiting the impact players on the Canadiens. Shea Weber and Max Pacioretty have only slightly pushed the play above 50% and the trio of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello has pushed Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher into their own end of the ice for the majority of their even-strength minutes. The Canadiens’ role players have been able to bridge the gap with Brian Flynn, Torrey Mitchell, Andrew Shaw and Arturri Lehkonen pushing the play forward while hitting the score sheet.
The Canadiens and Rangers have matched up fairly evenly all season and while the fear of recent results may push your bias to cheer against facing the Canadiens, the other option out there for the Rangers are the Ottawa Senators, who currently sit at a 30.3% probability of a first-round matchup according to sportsclubstats.com.
The Rangers and Senators have split their two games so far, but the numbers are not as flattering for the Rangers based on their regular-season matchups.
Small samples can be influenced by a single bad game, but the Rangers have had trouble against the Senators in the first two matchups this season. If Ottawa finishes as the Atlantic Division winner, the Rangers are in for a battle in the first round.
Despite the data, the Sens are still the preferred matchup for the Rangers. While Erik Karlsson is scary and Craig Anderson is good, I still want the goaltending advantage. A 50/50 proposition when the other team has Price, isn’t a strong starting point.
So with only eight games to go, keep a keen eye on those results from Atlantic Division and enjoy scouting the Rangers’ first-round opponent.