Sometimes, a hockey game is a thrilling duel of minds as well as strength, speed, and skill. Where the subtle difference between victory and defeat lies in a coach exploiting a matchup or a little in-game lineup tweak. Those games are exciting to watch and to analyze.
Other times, you get last night.
Alain Vigneault went to the well
The Rangers bench boss decided to actually alter his forward complement in Game 4 after a wholesale lackluster Game 3 effort. Going into the match up, chemistry was a decided question mark, as the four lines Vigneault placed on the game sheet had spent less time together at 5v5 combined (325 min) than the Montreal first line of Max Pacioretty–Phillip Danault–Alexander Radulov (442 min).
In the actual game itself, Vigneault heavily shielded his newly assembled “top line” of Chris Kreider–Mika Zibanejad–Pavel Buchnevich, deploying them almost entirely against the Canadiens’ third and fourth lines and third defense pairing. As a result, Kreider only clocked 11:12 TOI at 5v5. The consequence of this was a heavy overloading of a new top 6 featuring Rick Nash–Derek Stepan–Jimmy Vesey and J.T. Miller–Kevin Hayes–Mats Zuccarello. Miller, who had the least 5v5 TOI of the sextet (13:36), played over two minutes more than the next highest forward, Jesper Fast (11:13).
Vigneault also played the hot hand defensively, where Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith, by far and away the best Rangers pairing in the series, received significantly more ice time than in previous games. Smith clocked 19:07 at 5v5, most on the team by over a minute.
On the whole, this revamped lineup worked. The Rangers confused the Canadiens with their speed and induced a passivity in the Montreal defense corps not seen in Games 1-3, particularly with regard to organized zone exits. That said, it’s hard to gauge the true effect of this lineup shakeup and frontloading because…
The Canadiens’ defensive coverage flat out stunk
This is not really something particularly profound, or requiring a lot of numbers to explain. Montreal’s defensive zone coverage disintegrated (left), and they didn’t definitively win a single matchup on the night (as noted by the dominance of blue in the squares throughout the table on the right). The old adage “you win as a team, you lose as a team” has never been more valid.
Shea Weber and Andrei Markov got obliterated
For the first three games we talked about how well the Canadiens’ top pair had been playing – about how well they had shut down Chris Kreider, about how they drove the Canadiens comeback in Game 2, about how they chewed up 3rd period minutes while defending the lead in Game 3.
On Tuesday evening, they struggled.
Markov and Weber not only recorded abysmal Corsi for of 31.25% and 32.14% respectively, they allowed significant volumes of shot attempts in the process. Markov and Weber allowed 22 and 19 CA events respectively and were two of the worst three players (sandwiching Nathan Beaulieu) in terms of net shot attempt balance on either team (noted below by the proximity of their names to the “BAD” quadrant).
The pair were victimized by Miller-Hayes-Zuccarello (+1/-8), but most egregious of all, were thoroughly outplayed by both the Skjei-Smith pairing (+2/-7) and the Marc Staal-Nick Holden pairing (+1/-9), which had been so bad through the first two games that Holden was removed from the lineup in Game 3.
Yet the game was still miraculously within reach
Believe it or not, the Habs played a good 1st period. While the Rangers came out hard and jumped to a quick and sustained shot attempts advantage, the Canadiens were doing a good job keeping the Rangers to the perimeter. At the end of the first frame, shot attempts were in 19-12 in favour of the Rangers, but Montreal led in shots (10-9), scoring chances (9-5), and high danger scoring chances (5-0). With the game tied on a late Torrey Mitchell goal and a power play exiting the intermission, the scene was set for Montreal to take the game by the horns.
The Canadiens need to solve their second period woes
Whatever momentum the Habs built in the last half of the 1st period was utterly eviscerated by the second period, which was by far and away their worst period of the series. The Habs were outshot (4-11), and outchanced (4-14, high danger 0-7). The difference in heat maps after the first 20 (left) and the second 20 minutes (right) is stark and thoroughly unappealing.
This is becoming a pattern. Through the first four games, the Canadiens have dominated the Rangers in terms of shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chance generation... except in the second period, where the Rangers hold an advantage in every category.
More problematic is that the Rangers aren't just flipping the script, they're actively doing more. Over the first four games, the Rangers have 41 second period scoring chances (18 high danger). They have 42 combined (20 high danger) during any other time in the game, including overtime. Some of this is caused by score effects, as the Habs have trailed entering the final frame in three of the four games - but the overall trend is still present when just comparing the first 20 minutes with the second 20 minutes.
Ride the waves
In the playoffs, things are amplified, including the natural peaks and valleys of an 82-game regular season. The bravado, elation, hope, despair, frustration, and anger felt by Habs fans since the start of this roller coaster year has been compressed into the last four games and magnified ten-fold or a hundred-fold. Despite all of this, the Habs don't explicitly need to make any major tactical adjustments going into Game 5.
They just need to try.
(Stick tap to Micah Blake McCurdy and Natural Stat Trick for raw data and graphics. For a primer of the metrics discussed in this article, please see Fancy Stat Summer School)