There were a few things to note in the Rangers 1-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens. Tanner Glass scored the only goal of the game, Henrik Lundqvist got his 10th career playoff shutout but the main story was how well the Rangers played defensively. New York has rightfully taken a lot of criticism for their defensive play this year but you wouldn’t know it from watching this game, as they limited the Canadiens to only nine scoring chances at even strength. They also found themselves on the right end of the possession game, outshooting Montreal 49-45 (in attempts).
It was a little surprising to watch because the Rangers have been a pretty weak team at controlling the shot clock this year, especially compared to Montreal. They’ve had a tendency to get hemmed in the defensive zone & relying on the counter-attack for their offense. It’s a tough way to play, but this is what the Rangers have lived and died by over the last couple of seasons. Well, that and their goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, who is coming off a down season but is still one of the best in the league.
Wednesday night, however, was a different story. The Rangers relied on their defense to carry them through most of the game & weren’t getting many chances off the rush. In fact, most of the offensive they did create were off shifts with sustained pressure, which has not been the norm for them this year. What contributed to this? Well, some of it was what the Habs didn’t do, especially in the neutral zone.
Montreal relied on dump-and-chase for virtually all of their offense. We already know that entries done by dumping the puck in don’t lead to much offense, so it’s a low-risk/low-reward type of game plan and Montreal got the expected results here. It’s not the worst game plan in the world against a Rangers defense that struggles at moving the puck, but it clearly wasn’t working that well here. The fact that they recovered the puck only eight times when they dumped the puck in makes that point pretty obvious. To make things worse, they weren’t getting much reward the times they could carry the puck in either. Part of that is due to the Rangers breaking up seven of their entries & the other part is the Habs settling for a lot of quick shots off entries that were easily stopped & held onto for a faceoff by Lundqvist.
Again, this could have been the Habs game plan. They invested in a lot of bigger forwards at the trade deadline & their goal might be to pressure the Rangers defense into turnovers & capitalize on those but it didn’t quite happen here. Maybe it will pay off as the series goes on? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Either way, this was one of the most extreme cases of dump-and-chase play I’ve ever seen in the playoffs, which is saying a lot with how many Kings games I’ve watched.
This does look like something that’s fixable for Montreal, though because even though they struggled to enter the offensive zone with control, the process before that was good.
Montreal was able to get the puck out of their own end with control while the Rangers were forced to dump the puck out into the neutral zone & hope that a teammate came up with it. This is despite the Nathan Beaulieu/Nikita Nesterov pairing having a disastrous game where they failed to exit the zone eight times on 17 attempts.
There is some disconnect here, though because the results in terms of zone entries & shots were inversed. Why was Montreal struggling to get the puck into the offensive zone with control in this game? Part of it was their gameplan (they dumped the puck in 14 times in the first period when they were controlling play) but the Rangers defense did a nice job at stacking the line & playing an aggressive style in the neutral zone. Marc Staal & Brendan Smith stood out in a big way here, the former allowing no carry-ins the eight times he was targeted & the latter allowing only two carry-ins and breaking up three entries. The left defense for the Rangers seemed to be stepping up at the line a fair bit & the Habs didn’t have much of a response to it. Part of it was from having no support up the ice & others were just bad plays/passes.
Here’s one of the Habs breakouts, you can see they have three players in the picture as they’re making a pass up the ice, which means there are two guys in the neutral zone & three Rangers defenders. The situation isn’t ideal from the start.
Weber makes a good pass, but the play is already over, as the Montreal forward has basically nowhere to go with the puck and Staal can easily make a play on the puck here. The Habs seemed to favor the breakout pass as their preferred method to exit the zone, as opposed to skating it out, so situations like this can happen if you have guys standing still on the ice. That said, the Rangers also prepared for Montreal’s breakouts when they had speed going through the neutral zone.
This time we see Montreal moving the puck East-West on their breakout and coming up the ice with more speed than they did in the last example. The Rangers are less prepared to defend this one too because it’s after a failed offensive zone cycle, so the Habs should have some space to work with.
The Habs move the puck up ice and the right winger, Radulov, has a passing option available, but Staal is still holding the line and daring Radulov to make a play instead of skating the puck in himself.
Radulov tries to make the pass & it’s easily broken up. Some of this is just bad execution by Montreal & should improve next game (how many times has Radulov made a pass like that?), but credit to the Rangers for defending the neutral zone well.
The Rangers play in their own zone also deserves some mention here, although they had some problems doing anything with the puck once they got it. Clearing the puck off the glass has its place in the game, but when it’s your go-to breakout method, you aren’t going to create much offense and you’re going to have to win a lot of 1-0 games like the Rangers did here. They don’t have the most mobile group of players on their blue line, but they have some players capable of moving the puck forward (McDonagh, Smith, Clendening) and forwards like Zuccarello who can help out more.
I expect Montreal to make some adjustments next game. They weren’t outshot by much even with the Rangers playing a great defensive game & they were one great Lundqvist save on Shea Weber away from it being tied. More puck support while entering the zone might help, since there were a lot of one-and-done chances & broken up entries thanks to the forwards not having many passing options. That and just better execution all-around.