Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Game 1 - ECQF: Rangers vs. Habs

New York Rangers 2, Montreal 0:


- Nesterov gets the start ahead of Davidson, which surprises (and concerns) me.

- If it seems like the Bell Centre is loud over your TV, you're right. Having been at a Canadiens playoff game in that arena, the noise cannot be described (or underestimated).

- Gallagher with a bad trip on Staal. As we mentioned in the series preview, it's important that the Canadiens avoid the penalty box, because it offers the Rangers a path to victory.

- Good PK by the Canadiens - not entirely suprirrisng since this unit has been among the League's best since Julien took over.

- Beaulieu with a couple of great scoring chances high slot, but can't deliver his shots on goal. That's been an issue with him all season - shot accuracy.

- Habs largely dominating the game so far, but Rangers strike first, as Plekanec wins a deep draw, but his wingers, specifically, Paul Byron, fails to tie up their marks, in this instances it's Glass, who with a fierce backhander that hits top corner. 1-0 New York.

- Galchenyuk looks great, but he isn't getting much help from his inept line mates Martinsen and Ott  both of whom are predictably mixing it up physically, but can't do a damn thing with a hockey puck.

- Lindqvist has stopped all 12 shots he's faced, but his style shouldn't endear Ranger fans with confidence. Scrambly would be a good way of describing his style so far.

- McDonagh gets nailed for an interference, with a strange play on Pacioretty at centre ice, with the puck really nowhere close. Gotta be smarter than that.

- Julien goes with Andrew Shaw first unit, a page out the book of Therrien. Doesn't work very well at least that first attempt. Galchenyuk  on the 2nd unit, which is something, I guess.

- Smith high sticks Lehkonen, Montreal's powerplay extends from 2 to 4 minutes.e

- Aside from the Glass goal, difficult to feel disappointed with that 1st period, the Habs outshooting the Rangers 14-5, which is not a sustainable number if you're hoping for a New York victory. Don't think Lundqvist looked anything but slightly shaky, which means he's likely getting too many good looks at shots. Habs could probably offer a bit more traffic around the crease, and shouldn't be wary of crashing the Rangers net when the opportunity presents itself (Ott had managed to run over Lundqvist earlier in the period). Don't like the score, but like the mostly dominated Habs period.


- Domination by Habs in that 1st period, 77.3% CF ... at even strength. Rangers with a couple horseshoes helping them stay ahead on the scoreboard:

- While the Canadiens had a very strong 1st, one failing were their attempts. Just one high danger in the frame, which is not nearly good enough against any opponent or their goaltender:

- Underlying numbers are hard to debate, here. If the Canadiens play the 2nd and 3rd periods like they played the first, the Rangers will need a miracle to win this hockey game.

- Maybe Vigneault read them a copy of the riot act during the intermission - Rangers coming out a bit faster this period.

- Stumbling start this period, Rangers doing much better job retreating to their own zone, and for bottling up centre ice. Canadiens unable to muster much speed with the puck so far.

- Rangers clearly turning the tables this period, Habs need to regroup. Ott and Martinsen with two terrible shifts this period, at some point Julien has to think about moving Galchenyuk up, maybe switching him up with Dwight King, who's doing his line no favours so far, either.

- Rangers have the forecheck running full throttle, and it's keeping the puck mostly in the Habs zone. 7 minutes gone in the period, Montreal still hasn't registered a shot.

- Habs 4th line officially back to being a tire fire again. Julien needs to make an intervention, or at the very least, significantly scale back their playing time (while moving Galchenyuk to another line).

- Weber with a cannon, which is good. But it's a shot that Lindqvist is allowed to see without any distractions in front, which makes it a routine save by NHL standards. Habs have to get bodies in front, or they're not going to score.

- Mats Zuccarello, who's been the target of Shea Weber tonight, with a dirty low hit on Gallagher that the officials refuse to call. Not cool. Not cool.

- Great shift by Galchenyuk, one of the best I've seen all year, and it puts the Rangers entirely on the defence. Canadiens come close to score, with pucks loose around Lindqvist, but predictably, neither Ott nor Martinsen can shoot it home. At some point Julien will need to reconsider his strategy, Galchenyuk needs to be put next to people with goal scoring abilities. Otherwise, all this fine play is being wasted.

- That Galchenyuk shift has changed the dynamics of this game, Habs swarming Lundqvist, who has to make a couple of big saves to keep his team ahead.

- Galchenyuk with a *do'h* puck handling off the faceoff, which is probably the most avoidable penalty possible. Sigh. Goodbye momentum.

- Ut-oh, extended Rangers 5-on-3 advantage, as Gallagher is nabbed for a hold.

- Simply outstanding kill by the Habs PK, Markov and Weber really shining. Huge missed opportunity for the Rangers.

- Well, that was an unexpectedly bad period for the Habs, especially in light of what we saw in the first. Maybe this team came out a little too fast, too hard? It happens, especially game one at home in the playoffs. Still, there's no excuse for the way this team played in that 2nd period, the Rangers clearly reorganized and refocused during the 1st intermission, and took it to Montreal for the first 14 minutes of that period, dominating possession and the shot clock. Galchenyuk played a very strong period, Dwight King was very weak. Claude Julien, the hockey gods are basically screaming at you to make an obvious adjustment - moving Galchenyuk up to King's spot, and King back down to the 4th line. HEED THE GODS.


- Oy, what a turnaround. Canadiens ridiculously lucky to be only 1-0 down at this point, including the fact they managed to kill an extended 2 man advantage. Rangers CF (5v5) in the 2nd alone was 67%+:

- Julien sticks with King along side Lehkonen and Shaw. Sigh.

- Rangers are stacking their line, and so far, the Habs have no response.

- Habs are gonna have to do this the hard way - shooting pucks, hitting and retrieving. Rangers also doing an excellent job covering passing lanes in their zone. Canadiens can't muster up any form of sustained puck pressure.

- Shaw sets King up perfectly in the slot, shot fired hits Lundqvist in the head. If that's Galchenyuk, it's like a tie game. CLAUDE TAKE A HINT.

- Rangers are winning most of the puck battles, especially in their own zone, against Bergevin's "bigger", "tougher" team.

- Habs look spent. Gave it all the 1st period, battled to keep the floodgates closed in the 2nd, limping through the 3rd.

- Julien steadfast with his line combinations, refusing to budge an inch. He's picked his hill to die on tonight, dammit.

- 6 minutes left, Habs will have to gamble now with hard pinches. Nothing else has worked. Julien won't make any adjustments, so now we need some luck to salvage this game.

- Phillip Danault won't be bookmarking this game as a career highlight, and he gets nailed for an anxious tripping penalty in the O-zone. Another viable candidate for some kind of line juggling, but Julien remains steadfast.

- Habs kill the Danault dumb-ass penalty, but lose two minutes off the clock. 3 minutes left, time to roll all the dice.

- Julien switches up King and Galchenyuk. With 2 minutes left in the 3rd. Too little, too late.

- Grabner, empty net. Game over.

- Habs get shut out. It's not rocket science. You put one of your best forwards on the 4th line for 58 minutes, you're going to struggle to generate offence. And now the Habs suddenly find themselves in a must-win position, with the playoffs literally just begun.

Game 2, there's no excuse for Galchenyuk to be mired next to Martinsen and Ott. There's no excuse for Dwight King to be in over his head on the 3rd line. This team ought easily handle an opponent like the Rangers. Instead, the Rangers easily handled the Habs tonight, especially in batting for pucks. This against Marc Bergevin's reconstructed "tough" hockey team. Well tonight, his troops got manhandled.


Well, it's arrived. The Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For fans of the Montreal Canadiens, the fight for a championship has been two years waiting. 24 months have passed since the last spring of promise, and just 12 months time removed from the disastrous 2015-16 campaign, a season in which the Canadiens finished with just 38 wins.

This year, it's been different. From 38 wins last season, to 47 this season.

All of this while in the shadow of "the trade".

In late June of last year, the Canadiens sent star defender P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators in return for the hulking body that comprises Shea Weber. The deal stunned Habs fans, many of whom had developed a affectionate following for Subban, who, just weeks previously, had himself made a $10 million commitment to the Montreal Children's Hospital.

The trade, in itself, highlighted a deep and unabiding insecurity over certain perceptions that had haunted the franchise for years:  The Canadiens are too small. The Canadiens lack character. The Canadiens aren't tough or rough enough to compete.

The acquisition of Weber, all 6'4", 230 lbs of man mountain, changed the dynamics, or at the very least, the perception that Montreal didn't have the muscle required to ice a truly competitive hockey team.

The "toughing" of the Habs actually started in earnest before the Subban trade. In the days leading up, General Manager Marc Bergevin, then entering 4th season within the Canadiens' front office, traded away Lars Eller, who had attained a reputation for soft play, and then hours later, made a play for Chicago Black Hawks grinder-supreme Andrew Shaw, whom had caught the G.M.'s eye during his time as an assistant G.M. in Chicago. For Beregvin, Shaw shored up the "character gap" that had presumably dogged the organization for so many years.

The Eller deal and Shaw trade would, of course, be totally overshadowed 3 days later when P.K. said his goodbyes to Montreal. But in the aftermath of the trade, Bergevin made a free agent signing which, in retrospect, may have had a bigger impact on the Canadiens fortunes this season than either Weber or Shaw.

It was Canada Day, when Bergevin announced that he had won a fierce bidding war against the Colorado Avalanche for services of Alexander Radulov, who 4 years earlier had been banished from the NHL because of management conflicts with the Nashville Predators. It was a watershed moment for the Canadiens who entering the 2016-17 season, desperately needed scoring punch on the wing. Previous experiments with the likes of Dale Weise, Thomas Fleischmann, Alexander Semin and Devante Smith-Pelly had failed to pan out.

From game one it was clear the Canadiens had finally found their wingman in Radulov, whose speed, skill, grit and playmaking abilities made him an immediate fan-favourite:

While much last summer's roster limelight was cast on the likes of Radulov, Shaw and Weber, another roster move, which at the time received relatively little attention, has had a big impact on the Habs offence. That addition, made back in May, 2016, was the entry level signing of Arttruri Lehkonen, who had originally been drafted by the Habs in the 2nd round of the 2013 Draft.

Lehkonen, while not possessing Radulov's brawl or intensity, has in short order evolved into one of the most talented young two-way players in the NHL. Lehkonen's hockey intelligence, in combination with a fierce wrist shot, helped him to score 18 goals in his rookie campaign, no small accomplishment for a winger who had largely fallen off the radar of most Habs hockey observers before his signing. Just look at his shot from a game in early March against the Panthers:

These are not the same Habs as the old Habs. With Radulov, Lehkonen, elite scoring from captain Max Pacioretty, and 20+ goal production from Paul Bryon the Canadiens front lines have as much depth this season as any in recent memory - bolstered further by the presence of a healthy and productive Brendan Gallagher.

Ah yes, health. That's a big word around Montreal, especially so given what happened to Carey Price last season. The Canadiens, blessed they be with talent up front, will only go this post-season as far as their healthy all-world goaltender can carry them. It goes without saying that the Habs, with Price in top form, are a much more difficult team to beat in a seven game series. And while Price has had his ups-and-downs this season, his form has looked excellent since the Canadiens made a mid-season coaching shift in February, with Carey putting up a +.940 SV% since then.

Oh right. The coaching change. We almost forgot about that.

Truth be told, the Montreal Canadiens were never going to compete for a championship under Michel Therrien, who somewhere along the way, lost the room. Blessed with talent and a healthy Carey Price, the Habs nosedived from a comfortable 1st place lead at the start of the calendar year, into nearly out of a playoff spot in a mere 6 week span. The underpinning trend was dreadful:

Following a 4-0 loss at the hands of the Bruins, Marc Bergevin, realizing the season was slipping away, and born from the opportunity of having an available Claude Julien, made a change that so many Habs fans have been pining for years. The effect of the change was nearly immediate:

So what does this all add up to? It adds up to a Montreal Canadiens team that, for the first time in 25 years, has a viable chance at winning a Stanley Cup championship.

But it won't be easy. It will mean having to beat tough competition, be it the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Chicago Black Hawks - or someone else. 

It will mean, of course, beating the Habs first round opponent, the New York Rangers. So, before we put any carts before any horses, let's look at the 1st round, and break these two teams down a little:


Both clubs enter the playoffs with reasonably deep offences, but big questions surrounding their deployment. Under head coach Alain Vigneault, now in his 5th season behind the New York bench, the Rangers aren't a particularly strong possession team, as this season's rolling game average shows:

The Rangers, as per usual, bring plenty of speed to the rink, bolstered by the infamous Kreider, who's had an excellent campaign with 28 goals scored. Along with Kreider the Rangers have veteran Rick Nash, as well as Mats Zuccarello. The Canadiens defence will need to be fleet to contain the Rangers transition, which has the potential of turning the game in their favour on a dime. The Habs, meanwhile, have managed to build three relatively well balanced lines, headlined by Max Pacioretty, Alex Radulov and Phillip Danault first line pairing. Still, there are big questions surrounding how the Habs offence has been constructed and deployed. At the trade deadline, Marc Bergevin made questionable acquisitions in Steve Ott and Andreas Martinsen, both of whom bring physicality to the Canadiens lineup, but on any given shift, are a significant defensive liability. There's also controversy at hand - with Alex Galchenyuk, the presumed top-6 centre, who's found himself now buried on the 4th line wing along side Ott and Martinsen. If head coach Claude Julien is steadfastly intent on burying one of his best offensive assets on the bottom line, the Canadiens offensive potential will be hampered significantly.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: for the Rangers, keep an eye on both Derek Stepan, who's seeking to have a breakout post-season, and Michael Grabner, who's mired in a deep slump. If Stepan produces, and Grabner finds his game, the Rangers will be keeping Carey Price busy through most of the series. For the Habs, obviously it's Alex Galchenyuk - somehow he's got to find his way back to (at the very least) the Habs 3rd line. Being isolated next to marginal NHL forwards will make his ability to produce points limited at best.



The Habs are making a few adjustments to their blue line with Alexei Emelin not playing tonight due to injury. Brandon Davidson, who was picked up at this year's trade deadline, will be in the lineup tonight in his very first playoff game. Otherwise, the Canadiens defence, with or without Emelin, matches up well against any League opponent. We all know Shea Weber's story and what he brings to the table - while Andrei Markov, even at the ripe age of 39, is playing arguably his best hockey in a decade. 

The Rangers' defence is lead of course by captain Ryan McDonagh, who'll be paired with Dan Girardi. While there's no question McDonagh is a top line defender, Girardi, who's had an up-and-down season, might not be the Rangers' best option compared to other more viable candidates like Brandon Smith or even Nick Holden. Vigneault seems to be taking a more diluted approach to his defence, in contrast to the Habs playing their top two defenders, Weber and Markov, together.

Keys players to watch this series. No doubt for the Habs it's Nathan Beaulieu, who had a sparkling training camp and pre season, but has struggled with consistency through most of the season. Beaulieu has demonstrated good puck moving abilities through much of his career - if he's able to consistently feed the puck to his forwards, it'll make the Habs transition and speedy forward much more difficult to contain. For the Rangers, it's Girardi, who we mentioned previously has struggled with consistency through much of the season. If he's able to get his game in order, the Rangers will have a potent shut down 1st pairing.



On paper, the series appears stacked in the Canadiens' favour. The Habs have a good record against the Rangers this season, winning all 3 contests by a margin of 12-7.

The difference makers in those game, both good and bad, was goaltending. And what helped the Canadiens win during the regular season is likely to help them advance in the playoffs.

From the Rangers perspective, hopes are pinned on King Henrik Lundqvist, the venerable veteran netminder who's had an excellent NHL career playing in a blue shirt.

Against the Habs? The picture changes.

Since 2012, King Henrik has played the Montreal Canadiens 12 times, including the playoffs. He has won 4 times. Of those 4 wins, Carey Price was in net for Canadiens a grand total of zero times. Lundqvist's winning success against the Canadiens, at least those 4 times, was because of this:

That collision came 3 years ago, knocking Price out of the playoffs, and with it, the Habs hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup final.

What about with Carey Price in goal? Lundqvist's numbers drop to 0-7-1. A 3.22 GAA and a .886 Sv%. Under normal circumstances, those figures wouldn't be good enough to get you a backup job in the NHL.

Price, meanwhile, has owned the Rangers. Never losing over 5 years, Price has put up numbers that under normal circumstances, would result in a Vezina Trophy romp: A 1.29 GAA and a .955 Sv%



At the end of the day, the Habs are likely to win this series, because of their significant goaltending edge, and a more properly deployed defence. The Rangers best hopes are in their ability to outscore the Canadiens, meaning their forwards will need to elevate their game significantly, bolstered by a productive powerplay. Habs in 5 games.

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