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Top Heavy: Breaking down the Game One matchups by the numbers

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A very strange game from a very strange Habs team.

New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens - Game One Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Game One didn’t quite go as expected for a lot of reasons, most of them plainly visible on the scoresheet, the spreadsheet, and the eye-test. A lot simply did not go right for the Montreal Canadiens on the night. Here, we’ll highlight a few things to make a note of going forward.

Weber vs. Kreider: Weber wins Round 1

Going into the matchup, I highlighted Shea Weber vs. Chris Kreider as an important matchup. In Game One, Claude Julien chose to deploy Weber and Andrei Markov along with the Tomas Plekanec line to face off against Kreider. This worked to near-perfection.

While Kreider posted a final +10/-11 Corsi line, half of the shot attempts came during three second-period stretches, mostly against Alex Galchenyuk, Steve Ott, and Andreas Martinsen.

The shot chart confirms how effect the matchup was: Kreider only got a single even-strength unblocked shot, and moreover, the right side of the Montreal defensive zone was kept remarkably clean.

Image credit: @IneffectiveMatch

Targeting Staal and Holden: Go for the jugular

The Rangers defence corps as a whole have been unspectactular all season, but the second pairing of Marc Staal and Nick Holden were particularly vulnerable, lacking either Ryan McDonagh or wunderkind Brady Skjei.

The Habs did a decent job on this front; Staal and Holden finished with a +8/-11 Corsi line, and they were outplayed by the Habs first (0-2), third (0-3), and fourth (3-4) lines. The problem is Montreal did not exploit this matchup. Staal and Holden played mostly against the second line and held their own there. Moreover, they only gave up 11 shot attempts on the night in 13:18 of five-on-five ice time, which is a decent suppressive performance regardless of how much offense was generated, especially when the team played with the lead for 50 minutes. By contrast, McDonagh and Dan Girardi were at 23 events against in 15:30 together.

Eyes on the Galchenyuk: Ho-hum

Alex Galchenyuk – and the fourth line as a whole – was a microcosm for the entire Habs team this game. Brief periods of offensive pressure, brief periods of defensive panic, and a lot of nothing the rest of the game. Ignoring the last three minutes when Galchenyuk was moved up the lineup, Galchenyuk-Ott-Martinsen posted a +13/-15 Corsi line in nine minutes of even-strength time on ice, which is remarkably high-event hockey for a fourth line.

Seven of those attempts on Carey Price occurred on one shift, and five on another. The fourth line effectively went +11/-12 on four shifts and +1/-3 on the other six.

This lack of consistency is problematic for a line that’s really caught in no man’s land: you can’t use them as a shutdown unit because of Galchenyuk, and you can’t use them for offensive exploitation because of Ott and Martinsen. Claude Julien is using them in the latter role (one defensive-zone, four offensive-zone starts), which is burying better offensive talents; namely Paul Byron (3, 1), Brendan Gallagher (3, 0), Andrew Shaw (3, 0) and Artturi Lehkonen (2, 1).

Galchenyuk generated seven attempts in the final 3:00, just for reference.

The Rangers are winning the depth battle

We already talked about how Weber won the battle with Kreider, and the top line held up their end of the bargain as well, posting a +12/-8 line against McDonagh and Girardi, a +8/-5 line against Vesey-Zibanejad-Nash, and a +5/-1 line against Kreider-Stepan-Zuccarello.

However, the depth, which was supposed to be an advantage for the Canadiens isn’t working right now.

The Rangers’ fourth line of Tanner Glass-Oscar Lindberg-Jesper Fast was perhaps their most impressive, with a Corsi line of +12/-8. They feasted upon Dwight King-Andrew Shaw- Artturi Lehkonen (4-0) and Nathan Beaulieu-Nikita Nesterov (9-2) in particular. After the first period (3-7), where they were hemmed in for a heavy shift by the Canadiens’ fourth line, the trio only gave up one attempt against the rest of the way.

The Rangers’ third defensive pairing of Skjei and Brendan Smith utterly hammered the Canadiens, beating Jeff Petry-Jordie Benn (8-3), King-Shaw-Lehkonen (9-1), Beaulieu-Nesterov (9-1), and Galchenyuk-Ott-Martinsen (5-1).

Somehow, the Habs have shifted from having a solid bottom six and a sputtering top six to the reverse. This needs to change if the Canadiens are going to have success, mostly because the second line has been consigned to defensive duties. Without a functional bottom six, the offensive fate of the team rests entirely upon Max Pacioretty-Phillip Danault-Alexander Radulov not only winning their matchup against McDonagh and Girardi, but annihilating them to the same tune as Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith did to the Habs in Game One.

This is not a viable solution.

Conclusions

The obvious problem right now lies with the composition of the bottom six, and a single adjustment would provide at least one functional line from the mishmash currently present.

There’s some irony in that the Habs may have actually done better if this game was in New York. Alain Vigneault likes to match best-on-best, and Pacioretty-Danault-Radulov would likely have done better than Byron-Plekanec-Gallagher going up against the Rangers’ best unit. Despite the comedic and farcical nature of the final two periods, the Canadiens have a solid foundation to build upon, and need only minor adjustments in order to swing the pendulum back in their direction.

(Stick tap to Micah Blake McCurdy and Natural Stat Trick for source data and graphics.)