Even though the Habs found themselves on the ropes for 59 minutes and 18 seconds away from a 2-0 hole, the Canadiens found their stride and began to pull away from a team that had played them to a standstill during the regular season in addition to Game 1.
The Blueshirts were beginning to lose control of the play and began to become over-reliant on Henrik Lundqvist to bridge their gap in play. Lundqvist has been brilliant through four games and has outplayed Carey Price during the series.
One of the players the Rangers have had trouble against in this series is Max Pacioretty.
Because the playoffs are such a small sample and a results-driven environment, the Canadiens’ captain is being raked over the coals in Montreal over his lack of production. He hasn’t dominated the point totals, but he has excelled against the Rangers territorially over the four games in the series, producing a .712 expected goal differential.
Through four games, the boyhood Rangers fan has been a strong driver of play. The Canadiens are dominating the high-danger area by a count of 10-3 and the medium-danger area 8-5. They have created nine shots with pre-shot movement to the Rangers’ two. When he is backed by Shea Weber and Andrei Markov, Price has faced opportunities that would lead to one-quarter of an expected goal over four complete games.
Pacioretty possesses elite speed and the Rangers have struggled to deny the trio of him, Philip Danault and Alexander Radulov controlled entries. Even when they dump the puck in, they are fast enough to pursue and recover, and physically recover the puck should they lose the footrace.
Unsurprisingly, the Pacioretty line had tremendous success in Games 2 and 3 — games the Habs recorded victories.
The Blueshirts were able to slow them down in Game 1 by matching Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan against the Pacioretty line, but starting in Game 2, the Canadiens began to get Pacioretty away from that trio. Canadiens coach Claude Julien line matched and had Pacioretty’s group go up against Mika Zibanejad, J.T. Miller, and Kevin Hayes. The result was two Montreal wins and the Rangers looking for answers to keep Pacioretty, Radulov, and Danault in check.
Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are physically capable of containing the Canadiens’ forwards along the boards, but at times struggle to exit the zone without help. This allows the Canadiens’ trio to cycle and create offense. When the Rangers forced the Canadiens into dump-ins (the Pacioretty line only had three shots of a controlled entry in the two losses), they had considerable success. In Games 2 and 3, when the Rangers struggled to contain the line, they had nine shots off the rush.
Where New York have gained a massive edge is the star battle in the crease. Price is still an elite goaltender, but he hasn’t shown it yet and is only a half-goal above his expected total. The Rangers spent the season dominating pre-shot movement, and it was one of the keys to beating Price this series, but they have only managed to provide deception on 10% of their opportunities. Lundqvist is facing over 18% and is decisively winning this battle so far.
Fortunately, playoff series are played in individual segments, not an accumulation. The Rangers were outplayed in two of the games, but deserve credit for their two wins. The Rangers can win this series if they can contain the Pacioretty line like they did in Games 1 and 4, while forcing Price into more difficult scenarios two more times.