Coming into the playoffs, the Canadiens-Rangers matchup looked like a toss-up.
While the Canadiens won all three regular-season matchups, the shot metrics showed a .039 difference between the two Eastern Conference rivals. Over 185 minutes, the Rangers and Canadiens were separated by one clear-sighted shot from a foot inside the blueline. While the results didn’t play out in that same manner, the sample is so small that a couple of brilliant saves or perfect shots can swing the results wildly.
Game 1 was no different. One break in the form of a perfect backhand shot by Tanner Glass dictated a positive outcome from the Rangers and a 1-0 series lead. While the result was different, it was a reflection of their regular-season matchup.
The expected goal total for Game 1 slightly favored Montreal 1.53 to 1.49, slightly adding to Montreal’s overall total for the season to 9.42 to 9.26. While Henrik Lundqvist was great, both teams clogged up the middle of the ice and both goalies only encountered 3 shots or 10% of their workload with high-quality pre-shot movement. While both goaltenders are great, the stifling defensive environment is what caused the low scoring affair.
The Rangers played a perfect road game. They entered a raucous Bell Centre and weathered the Canadiens’ high-energy assault, the Rangers weren’t truly in any danger. Only two of the Canadiens’ 14 first-period shots were in the high-danger area and only one was the result of a rebound. The Rangers were content to let the game rest on one break and relied on Lundqvist to bring it home. The netminder only had to deal with one extremely dangerous high-quality shot late in the second period on a slot-line feed to Shea Weber.
The Rangers limited the Canadiens’ offensive push at even strength and consistently won that battle on the night. The Rangers effectively shut down the top unit of Max Pacioretty, Philip Danault and Alexander Radulov with the Mika Zibanejad, Rick Nash and Jimmy Vesey line. They were able to push the play offensively with every unit outside of the J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner line, whom of which struggled with the Canadiens’ deployment of one of their top offensive players. Alexander Galchenyuk on the fourth line supported with depth and gritty wingers in Steve Ott and Andreas Martinsen.
Defensive anchor Ryan McDonagh was his usual dominant self, but he did struggle to stay above the 50% line when paired with Dan Girardi or Marc Staal. Where the Canadiens continually stalled offensively was when the Brady Skjei/Brendan Smith pairing was on the ice. When deployed against the Galchenyuk or Shaw line, they surrendered one shot from the neutral zone.
With the Canadiens seemingly content with their line combinations, the Rangers may have the opportunity to replicate the same matchups that worked so well for them in Game 1. Even if they are able to replicate their success, we are still looking at two teams that are so evenly matched that the end results will likely dictate on fortunate bounces, perfect shots, and miraculous saves. If those even out, we might be looking at a classic.