The final preview piece for the first round is one that is sure to decide the series, and that is the blue line. The Rangers have had issues with their defensive units all year long, but added Brendan Smith at the deadline. The Habs, who did not have such issues, added Nikita Nesterov and Jordie Benn at the deadline, moves which improved their depth.
The Habs are projected to have the following pairs for the playoffs:
Shea Weber-Andrei Markov
Alexei Emelin-Jeff Petry
Jordie Benn-Nathan Beaulieu
The Rangers are expected to have:
Let’s be real here. The Habs have a significantly better top-four than the Rangers. However the third pair for the Rangers is miles better than the Habs’ third pair. It’s not even close. And perhaps, just maybe, Alain Vigneault moves Skjei-Smith up to the second pair. Ice time and deployment will matter in this series.
First things first, let’s look at the pairings and how they actually perform. The thing to really notice here is that all but one of the defense pairings are on the “good” side of the line. The only one that is not is the second pairing of Petry-Emelin. If I’m Alain Vigneault, I’m looking at this and targeting that pairing as the one to attack. Every team has a weakness, and getting the proper matchups against that pairing could swing the series.
The above chart shows the overall deployment for the Habs players. Focusing on that Emelin-Petry pairing, they get a good amount of defensive zone starts, but it’s nothing crazy. Again if I’m AV, when I see this pairing out there, especially in the defensive zone, I’m putting my top line out there. I’m also looking to adjust and see if I can get my best faceoff guy out there. Yes, overall faceoffs don’t swing the needle much, but the situational faceoff does. This is one of those times it might matter. Pinning the Habs in their own zone is going to be critical to success.
This last bit is how Julien deploys his defense at 5v5. February 14 was Game 58 of the season. Weber, Petry, Emelin, and Markov are clearly the guys he leans on. He does not trust his third pair at all. The Beaulieu/Benn/Nesterov/Davidson quartet always swaps and doesn’t get much ice time at 5v5.
That again can play in the Rangers’ favor if Alain Vigneault is cognizant of this. He has the ability to out-coach Julien when presented with this information. Get the right matchups out there, and the Rangers might have an advantage.
Let’s all ignore how good the Clendening-Skjei pairing is. It’s not there. It’s not there. It’s not there.
The Rangers do not have a good blue line. All three pairings are on the “bad’ side of the line here. This isn’t anything new. If you’ve been watching Rangers hockey all year, you know the blue line isn’t that good. But perhaps –or maybe, I’m just hoping– there’s more to it?
As for Smith, you’ll notice none of his pairings are on this chart. That’s because he hasn’t spent enough time with one partner. But on the bright side, he’s right along that neutral line. All things considered, that’s a win.
Ok, so Skjei gets a little sheltered. Clendening was majorly sheltered. But they were really good in those roles. Sorry, I forgot. That pair doesn’t exist.
All of Staal, Girardi, McDongah, and Holden get more defensive zone starts than offensive. Smith is a little of both. So that might impact how their numbers look compared to Skjei. However if you give a role to a player, and he is bad at that role, why do you continue giving that role to that player?
For the Rangers, the answer is not really that simple. They have few options. Since I’m playing coach here (and assuming Girardi is playing), I’d go McDonagh-Smith; Staal-Clendening; Skjei-Girardi. It’s a bit more balanced, and gets Holden out of the lineup too. But hey, what do I know?
The last piece here is 5v5 ice time. And here’s where things get interesting. AV has actually changed his approach a bit. McDonagh still gets the most 5v5 ice time, as he should. But then the surprise comes, as Holden gets the second most, followed by Smith since his acquisition. Girardi is actually fourth in 5v5 ice time on the team since the trade deadline.
But low and behold, Skjei is fifth in 5v5 ice time. Maybe AV doesn’t want to throw the kid to the wolves right away. But you’d think he’d get more ice time at 5v5, right? I don’t know.
I’m not going to surprise anyone by saying the Habs have the advantage here. But they have the clear advantage. The Rangers can close that advantage with proper deployment though.