By: Chris Boyle
With the first round matchup with the Montreal Canadiens locked in, the Rangers finally have something to focus on.
The Canadiens are a dangerous first round opponent and present a significant threat to the Rangers’ Stanley Cup aspirations because of the possibility of Carey Price stealing a series.
Since Chris Kreider collided with him during the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, knocking him out of the playoffs, Price is 6-0-0 against the Rangers with a .954 SV%. If you aren’t concerned with him turning a playoff series on his head, you should be.
Carey Price is no paper lion. He is legitimately one of the best goaltenders in the NHL right now and propped up the Canadiens during the majority of the Michel Therrien era.
During the one season he did not complete (2015-16), the Canadiens fell into the draft lottery. If we view the Canadiens record since the hiring of Therrien in 2013, the Canadiens are a .650 hockey team when Price starts and a .510 one when he doesn’t.
He has the ability to turn a series on its head and is likely even more dangerous now with the defensive structure coach Claude Julien has provided him. Since the arrival of Julien in February, Price has registered a 13-5-0 record with a .942 SV%.
It’s a monumental task to face a goaltender this dangerous so early in the playoffs, but the blueprint does exist to beat him.
One look at the above chart gives us an idea of the Rangers task ahead. Price is above average in every category I track. Over a significant sample of the nearly 10,000 shots tracked, Price has shown the ability to consistently manipulate his environment for positive results. Like everybody else though, he is vulnerable to pre-shot movement, especially in a small sample series of 150-200 shots.
Which team is among the best in the NHL at creating this specific movement that denies goaltenders the ability to gain clear sight?
Last week I compared the Rangers offense to previous Stanley Cup winners and their offense was extremely dangerous off the rush at creating slot-line opportunities and defensive breakdowns. This is exactly the type of offensive assault that the Tampa Bay Lightning employed against the Canadiens during the 2015 NHL playoffs, resulting in Price registering an un-Vezina like .896 SV%, as the Canadiens bowed out meekly in six games.
During that six-game series, over 10% of all the Lightning’s shots were the result of slot-line passes. This resulted in an extremely ordinary performance from Price. His expected save percentage was .896 because of the Lightning’s ability to penetrate the high-danger scoring area with dangerous movement. Price faced only 78% of his shots with clear sight. The Lightning were quick at moving the puck and it opened huge passing lanes, which they exploited for high-quality opportunities.
In the previous series that year, the Senators adopted an entirely different offensive approach. They chose volume and this allowed them to register almost eight shots more per game than Tampa. Of these, only 3% were slot line feeds. This allowed Price time to set his feet and use his elite pattern recognition to determine where and how the play was developing, and it resulted in an expected SV% of .917.
The Rangers have the specific offense to accomplish what the Lightning did and consistently keep Price off balance. If they do so, they will have every opportunity to survive and advance. But if the Canadiens can manage to funnel the offense into spaces, which provide Price with clear sight, the Rangers will need a vintage Henrik Lundqvist to move on.