The Montreal Canadiens will meet a familiar foe in the opening round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the New York Rangers. The rematch of the goalie-battle-that-should-have-been-for-the-2014-Conference-Championship-but-wasn’t-because-of-Chris-Kreider will be contested early this playoff season instead.
For anyone interested, a visual statistical comparison of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist during this season is available here, from the fantastically named Ian Fleming.
Price vs. The King
This is a fascinating goaltending series on so many levels. Henrik Lundqvist has virtually nothing left to prove regarding his playoff pedigree, having had many opportunities to will the Rangers through multiple series over the years. Although the King’s one trip to the Final ended in defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings in 2015, there isn’t anyone who would deny that Lundqvist has already proven himself to be a fierce playoff opponent.
Carey Price, on the other hand, hasn’t had the same success. The Habs’ furthest advances into the playoffs during his career have been in 2010, when Jaroslav Halak led the way, and 2014, when Kreider took out his knee in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Final. Now Claude Julien is behind the bench, the team is playing well and relatively healthy, and the playoff structure allows the Habs to avoid the top 3 Metropolitan Division finishers until the Conference Final. This is a prime chance for Price to add deep playoff success to his otherwise unimpeachable resume.
Habs fans, though, know all about Carey Price. So let’s take a look at Henrik Lundqvist.
The popular description of Lundqvist’s technique usually begins with “he plays deep.” It’s true, Lundqvist tends to start plays closer to the goal line than most other NHL goaltenders, even though he’s not a particularly large guy. He's essentially the embodiment of “angle before depth.” In other words, Lundqvist prioritizes his own alignment over his need to push out into the shot path.
He’s able to do this without giving up net coverage for a few reasons, the most significant being that he is rarely out of position. He remains actively engaged on his skates for as long as he can, enabling him to adjust his positioning precisely to small changes in a shooter’s angle of attack, or to unexpected bounces or cross-ice passes. Lundqvist also shows consistent body and hand discipline. His shoulders and head are almost always canted forward, and his hands are consistently active in front of his body line, which enables him to quickly intercept pucks on higher trajectories.
Lundqvist, though, isn't rigid in his style, nor does he ever appear “calm.” Whereas Price always seems in command of his crease, Lundqvist’s crease is often the site of total chaos. Plan on him losing his stick at least five times per game. He will stare down his defensemen, and he will hang his head in dejection. He plays his system confidently, but he reads plays as well as Price does, and will attack threats selectively. There’s never such a thing as an easy goal against Lundqvist, particularly in the playoffs.
Rather than delve into the statistics, though, which will be done extensively in many places, let’s take a look at how the Canadiens were able to score on Lundqvist during their sweep of the season series over the Rangers.
Shots from long range
Several goals came from defensemen. Shea Weber scored on this power play blast.
Weber simply overpowers Lundqvist. He does that. The other goals, though, all show Lundqvist being screened by his own teammates as well as Habs forwards, and also show the Rangers deflecting shots themselves.
For example, Weber scored a different goal on a deflected wrist shot.
Weber’s wrist shot from the right point is headed wide until it ricochets off of Adam Clendening’s stick (4) and into the net over Lundqvist’s right leg pad.
Alexei Emelin floated one past Lundqvist as well.
On Emelin’s goal, Lundqvist’s sightline begins like this...
...and becomes this as Brian Flynn flashes in front of the Rangers net, completely unchallenged, just after a face-off. Lundqvist never sees the puck.
The Habs final goal on Lundqvist this season came from Jordie Benn.
Here’s Lundqvist’s sightline on Benn’s goal.
He never sees the puck as it passes the nearest level of players, including Marc Staal (18), whose back is turned to the shot as he battles Artturi Lekhonen for position. Eventually it appears to elude him just under his left leg pad, though it was difficult to tell exactly where this one went.
In short, Lundqvist is made vulnerable on shots from the point because of the Rangers’ tendency to screen their own goaltender, as well as deflect the puck without controlling its direction. Habs defensemen should have a green light to send any puck to the net that they can get past the first shot-blocker, even if it may not be directly on goal.
For example, one of Andrew Shaw’s two wraparound goals on Lundqvist this season begins as a simple wrist shot from the right point.
Lundqvist somehow manages to see this puck. It changes direction, though, when it deflects off of either Staal or Lehkonen well in front of the crease, and eludes Lundqvist wide to his left.
The puck ends up on Shaw’s stick behind the net. Lundqvist is wide of his net to his left, and attempts to get back across to the right post. It appears that Rangers’ defenseman Nick Holden (22) actually interferes with his own goaltender, aiding Shaw as he completes the easy wraparound.
Defensive coverage lapses
In addition to Shaw’s wraparound, the Habs were able to score several goals as a result of sub-optimal coverage by the Rangers. Shaw nets his other wraparound on this play:
Lundqvist makes an excellent shoulder save on Shaw’s attempt off the rush, and the puck ricochets off the glass behind the net. Lundqvist isn’t sure where the puck is, though, and three of his teammates fail to prevent Shaw from recovering the rebound and wrapping around on his forehand.
Brian Flynn took advantage of another coverage breakdown, when he and Alexander Radulov were allowed multiple whacks at the puck while Lundqvist tries to cover it after a pass out from behind the net on Lundqvist’s stick side.
Lundqvist makes approximately 3 saves before any of his teammates enter the picture.
Finally, Alex Galchenyuk was allowed uncontested time and space on this deflection from well in front of the crease.
So, yeah, the Rangers are prone to defensive lapses. The Habs can look for deflections, attack the net, and look to take advantage of chaotic sequences around Lundqvist.
Lundqvist’s breakaway technique is usually excellent, and his patience on his skates makes it incredibly difficult to beat him with a deke in tight.
Max Pacioretty, though, beats Lundqvist just past the heel of his stick on this breakaway chance.
On his goal, Pacioretty’s quick release takes advantage of Lundqvist’s patience on his skates, and his quick, low shot sneaks past the heel of Lundqvist’s goal stick and just under his dropping right knee.
Lundqvist has also shown some vulnerability to mid-range shots, particularly off the rush (see: Pittsburgh Penguins, 2016 Playoffs). This has always made perfect sense to me. His conservative starting position allows good shooters a slightly larger target area, and from mid-range he may not have enough time to read and react to the shot trajectory effectively. He is also 34 now, and it’s reasonable to assume that his reflexes may not be what they were when he was 29.
The bottom line? Off the rush and on breakaways, pick a target and shoot with confidence from mid-range or longer short-range. The shot may not beat Lundqvist, but the chances are probably better than trying to outmaneuver him with a deke or an extra pass.
If Lundqvist has a true Achilles heel, it is his puck handling.
Lekhonen’s inside-out release off of a cross-ice pass from Philip Danault is spectacular, and beats Lundqvist just under his blocker. However, the scoring opportunity develops from a dump-in on which The King might have been better off leaving the play to his defensemen.
When Pacioretty dumps the puck in and chases, he is outnumbered by Ryan McDonagh (27) and Clendening, with McDonagh having established position on Pacioretty. Danault is trailing the play at some distance, and Lehkonen is just coming off the bench on a change. McDonagh looks away from the puck to assess his options.
When McDonagh looks back, Lundqvist is in the process of knocking the puck into the corner. The redirection forces McDonagh to edge hard to his left, and puts the puck into a position for Pacioretty to push McDonagh off the play.
Pacioretty gets the puck to Danault, who makes a wide cross-ice pass to an uncovered Lehkonen streaking down the right.
Although Lundqvist recovers to his crease and pushes across to defend Lehkonen’s shot, he winds up well wide to his left, and off balance. He never quite settles in after his stick play, and as a result he seems imprecise in his reactions to what follows.
There was no need for Lundqvist to play this puck, unless he was looking to make a strong, controlled pass up ice. His chip to the corner negated McDonagh’s positional advantage, and allowed the Canadiens to turn a simple dump-in into an odd man rush resulting in a goal.
This isn’t to say that the Habs should look to dump the puck in rather than execute controlled entries, but when necessary, they should position their dump-ins so as to create uncertainty in Lundqvist’s mind. He will come out to play the puck, but his puck handling abilities and judgement are less than ideal. If the Habs can tempt him to venture out of his crease with regularity, they will very likely generate at least one goal during this series as a result of Lundqvist mishandling the puck.
From a true goaltending perspective, Henrik Lundqvist’s vulnerabilities are few and far between.
His puck handling can certainly be exploited, and the best chance to beat him cleanly is from mid range with some pre-shot puck movement. That’s about it.
However, he can only be as effective as his defense allows him to be. The Canadiens scored 11 regulation goals on The King in their three games this season. Only Shea Weber’s power play blast and Max Pacioretty’s breakaway should be considered “clean” goals. The rest resulted from deflections and screens with significant contribution from Lundqvist’s own teammates, defensive coverage breakdowns, and one gorgeous finish on a chance that developed as a result of poor puck handling judgement by Lundqvist himself.
Throughout his career, Lundqvist has shown that he is fully capable of carrying the Rangers well into the playoffs. What’s unclear this postseason is whether the Rangers’ defense is capable of supporting their all-world goaltender. The Canadiens’ regular season success against him suggests that the answer is no. However, Habs fans should be prepared for some stressful evenings.
Montreal should be able to prevail in this battle of goaltenders, but one thing is certain. Henrik Lundqvist will put up a fight. A good one.