The 2016-17 New York Rangers are quite perplexing from an analytic standpoint. Despite a decline in 5v5 team CF% from years previous and a merely average performance from Henrik Lundqvist, the Blueshirts still posted a 48-26-6 record en route to a 102 point season that saw them deprived of home ice advantage for the 1st round only because of the peculiarities of the Metropolitan Division. How are they doing it? Well, this year's Rangers belongs to Chris Kreider.
The Rangers have made their living this year from the front of the net. Compare New York's (left) relative unblocked shot frequency heatmap with Montreal's (right), and note the lack of impact that the points, half-boards, and dots have in the Ranger offense.
Chris Kreider is the embodiment of that. The Kreider burned into the collective memories of Canadiens' fans may be a brash 22-year-old with speed to burn just completing his first NHL season, but the Kreider lining up across the blue line this week will be a far more complete 25-year-old who has Gallagher-esque net front presence.
Amazingly, the Rangers lack a single forward trio with over 80 min 5v5 TOI over 50% CF except for Kreider-Stepan-Zuccarello and Kreider-Zuccarelo-Zibanejad.
Kreider's modus operandi is finding scoring chances from the top of the slot in both 5v5 (left) and 5v4 (center) situations, and when he's on the ice, the offense notably funnels through him relative to his teammates (right).
It may be blatantly obvious to state that shutting down a team's best player is integral to success, but in this case, shutting down Kreider's line could mean the difference between a short series and a long one. Possession-wise, the Rangers don't have the depth to match up with the Canadiens, and their defense is being held together, more than ever, by Ryan McDonagh alone.
Fortunately, the Canadiens happen to have a weapon for this precise situation: enter Man Mountain.
Much has been written about Shea Weber this year, but regardless of everything else, he has been a highly effective suppressor of crease/slot opposition shots. Kreider's wheelhouse is Weber's front lawn, and the grizzled veteran isn't going to take kindly to this constant trespassing. Alain Vigneault will not shy away from best-on-best deployment - in the two games vs. Montreal in the Julien era, Kreider played 40% of his 5v5 minutes against Weber, despite both games being at Madison Square Garden. Put these things together and the Kreider-Weber matchup, especially around the slot, is going to be one to watch all series.
And if the regular season is any indication, how well the Habs manage to neutralize Kreider and his linemates will go along way in deciding the result. Compare the Rangers' shot chart from the 2-3 SO loss on Feb. 21 (left) and their 1-4 loss on Mar. 4 (right).
In the February tilt, with Kreider matched primarily against Weber-Emelin-Byron-Galchenyuk-Gallagher, the Rangers had more 5v5 shots from inside the dots than outside. In March, when Kreider faced off against Weber-Markov-Pacioretty-Danault-Gallagher, the Habs did a much better job proportionally keeping them to the outside, even though the Rangers actually had more shots total.
Matchups and challenges like this are precisely why Shea Weber was acquired this past offseason. This is the time for him to show the Montreal Canadiens why he is still considered by many pundits to be one of the premiere defensemen in the NHL.