The New York Rangers weren’t supposed to be here. Alain Vigneault wasn’t supposed to take the team John Tortorella left behind and turn it into a Stanley Cup contender in Year 1 of his tenure. He wasn’t supposed to eliminate a squad led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to reach the conference finals. Not in October, and certainly not after the Penguins went up 3-1 in Round 2 last week.
But here we are. The Blueshirts mounted an impressive comeback against Pittsburgh -- who has since fired its general manager -- and are now eight wins away from giving their fans something to talk about other than Messier’s Guarantee.
Rangers vs. Canadiens
Rangers vs. Canadiens
Beating the Canadiens in a best-of-seven battle will be no easy task, but the Rangers do match up well against Montreal. If New York’s depth forwards can continue to produce the way they have thus far in the playoffs, there will be good reason to believe the Western Conference champion will travel to Broadway for the first time since 1994.
The Rangers’ bottom-six has had an incredible postseason, combining for 32 points (14 G, 18 A) in 14 games. Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello, who have each racked up three goals and five assists, have been at the forefront of this success; Derick Brassard’s seven points have been instrumental, as well.
As luck would have it, Montreal’s defense is quite thin. While the top pairing of Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban has done a tremendous job driving possession, the team’s other blueliners -- namely Mike Weaver, Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray, Alexei Yemelin, Andrei Markov -- have been considerably worse in that regard.
P.K. Subban will probably play about 30 minutes a night against New York, and that ridiculous ice time may be a necessity. All it takes is one simple graph (which was built prior to Bruins/Habs Game 7) to illustrate the stark contrast between Montreal’s play when Subban is on and off the ice:
If Montreal wins this series, PK should probably win the Conn Smythe, right? pic.twitter.com/RVwnN9BM6g— mc79hockey (@mc79hockey) May 14, 2014
This graphic is a testament to how great Subban has been, but it also says a lot about his fellow rearguards. The 25-year-old can’t be out there all the time, and winning with a sub-40 percent shot differential during key moments -- even if it’s only for half of the time -- is extremely difficult.
Indeed, Michel Therrien won’t be able to shelter his lesser dmen in this series, as New York is capable of rolling four strong lines and getting offensive production from any of its forward trios. Will this be a back-breaker for the Habs? No. But it will make matters far more challenging for them -- especially at even strength.
Despite emerging victorious, the Canadiens were ridiculously outplayed during even strength against the Bruins in the quarterfinals -- as evident by the aforementioned graph. In fact, they took 101 less shot attempts during 5v5 than Boston, and that differential only improved slightly during "close" action -- when the game is within one goal in the first and second period or tied in the third -- as the B’s tallied 56.9 percent of Corsi events in those situations.
And though Boston is considered a deep team, it didn’t get much production from its bottom two lines in the playoffs. The Bruins’ five point leaders in their 12 postseason contests were either top-six forwards or defensemen, and their third line of Loui Eriksson, Matt Fraser and Carl Soderberg combined for just four goals.
The Habs won’t have that luxury against New York.
It’s also worth noting that the Rangers’ bottom two lines haven’t had to carry the load; rather, they’ve done a tremendous job complimenting guys such as Brad Richards (4 G, 5 A) and Martin St. Louis (3 G, 5A), who have been playing well themselves. Sure, Richards and St. Louis haven't been world-beaters, but their steady production has forced opponents to respect their presence, which has given the likes of Zuccarello, Pouliot and Brassard the opportunity to play against relatively average competition.
Though New York's third line has been impressive, it has succeeded at an unsustainable rate. The trio has posted a combined shooting percentage of 12.8 during the playoffs, which, if given the time, would tumble -- especially since they aren't exactly the most skilled players out there.
Whether or not their S% dips now or next season remains to be seen. It can definitely remain high through two more rounds, as anything can happen over the course of a small sample of games.
We also have to consider the possibility that Rick Nash will break out of his slump during this series. The star forward has yet to light the lamp during the 2014 playoffs, but that isn’t for a lack of trying.
His well-documented struggles notwithstanding, Nash has still done a good job driving possession and getting pucks on net -- signs that he isn’t playing poorly, but has more or less been cursed with bad luck.
Nash’s 5v5 relative Corsi of plus-6.4 is tied for second on his team during the postseason, meaning the Rangers’ shot differential is 6.4 percent better when he is on the ice than when he is off of it. That figure is definitely a product of his work, as his 52 shots on goal are more than any other Ranger has accumulated.
The most likely scenario is that Nash breaks out of his funk and the third line sees a dip in scoring. That could even out nicely, as the numbers so often do.
If Nash’s fortunes begin to change, and if New York’s third and fourth lines can continue to find the back of the net, the Rangers’ offense could be a severe mismatch for Montreal -- even though New York ranks 13th in goals per game among the 16 playoff qualifiers.
As the Penguins proved, a top-heavy attack -- even one that includes two of the best players in the world -- isn't the way to win in May. The Rangers, despite their lack of star power, have proven capable of scoring at any time -- and that's one of the main reasons why they're still playing.