2017 Playoff Preview: Montreal’s top six forwards

A few days back we took a look at Montreal’s bottom six forward group. Today we’re going to turn our focus to the Canadiens top six forwards. It’s time to continue our preview of the Rangers first round match-up against Montreal.

The Habs are not a team with a high-powered offense, but that’s not because they lack talent.

Montreal’s 2.71 GF/GP is ranked 16th in the league and the Canadiens rank 12th in the league in total 5-on-5 goals. The Rangers rank 6th in the league in that category.

What sets the Canadiens apart (especially from the Rangers) is that they have the third-highest CF% in the league. The Rangers have the fifth-lowest CF%. That disparity in possession is something that will be a big story line in the playoffs.

It will be a showdown of the Rangers speed and transition game against Montreal’s possession-driven offense.

Radulov, Danault, Pacioretty

Marc Bergevin took a big gamble when he signed Alex Radulov in the offseason. I think it’s now safe to say that gamble paid off.

The Rangers can’t afford to give Radulov time on space when Montreal has the puck in the offensive zone. He plays an average of 2:50 on the power play every night for a reason. Radulov knows how to move the puck.

Radulov racked up 16 points on the power play for Montreal this year, but his impact wasn’t just limited to the man advantage.

The KHL import leads the Canadiens in primary assists at even strength and is third on his team in even strength points. He’s a wizard with the puck.

Haven’t heard much about Phillip Danault? That’s because this is the first year that he’s been a full-time player in the NHL.

The Canadiens gave him an opportunity after acquiring him from Chicago in the Dale Weise and Thomas Fleischmann deadline deal last year.

Danault is fifth on the Canadiens in points this year. The 24-year-old has been a relevation playing center on Montreal’s top line.

“I always tell Phil the points are kind of icing on the cake the way he plays,” Max Pacioretty told Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette. “He’s always in great support, great position, always in great D-zone position.”

Pacioretty, of course, is Montreal’s best forward.

This is Pacioretty’s fifth 30 goal season for the Canadiens. He has 33 primary points at even strength this year. For some context Chris Kreider led the Rangers this year with 28 points at evens.

Plekanec, Byron, Gallagher

According to the numbers Paul Byron is as pass-first as a forward gets. This year he put just 78 shots on net during 5-on-5 play. But the undersized forward is best known for his foot speed and his work ethic.

He just might be Michael Grabner fast.

In other words, Dan Girardi should not be on the ice when Byron is prowling the neutral zone.

It’s been a strange year for Tomas Plekanec. He scored fewer points this year than he did in his rookie season back in 2005-06 and couldn’t escape trade rumors up to and on deadline day. But after the smoke had cleared and Steve Ott and Dwight King were Canadiens, Plekanec was still in Montreal.

Plekanec isn’t the 60-point player he was two years ago, but he’s still a solid faceoff man and he and Byron are two of Montreal’s top penalty killers. He’s certainly not fleet of foot anymore, but he’s as crafty as ever and brings plenty of experience to the table.

Brendan Gallagher is more than just a pest - he’s a damn effective winger. Gallagher has some head-turning possession numbers. Only Danault had a higher relative CF% than Gallagher did among Montreal’s forwards.

Gallagher’s counting stats are way down this year thanks in part to a second straight season plagued by injuries. He may not be finding the back of the net like he was a year or two ago, but he’s still taking the body and running his mouth. He’s made for playoff hockey.

So, how does Montreal’s top six compare to the Rangers?

Note: using the top two lines from the last 10 games (excluding games where the teams rested their stars).

Injuries and Alain Vigneault’s line juggling makes comparing these two groups of forwards pretty tricky.

In the world of counting stats the Rangers have Montreal licked - thanks in large part to Plekanec and Gallagher struggling to put up points this year. But in the world of puck possession the Danault and Plekanec lines outclass the Rangers most frequent top line and the Miller-Zibanejad-Nash line.

If we shuffle things up and add Jimmy Vesey to the top six equation, things get a little more interesting - but not necessarily in favor of the Rangers.

What lines Vigneault rolls with against Montreal and what role Vesey and his fellow rookie Pavel Buchnevich will have will be something to keep an eye on in this series.

Vigneault will have to find out what works against Montreal’s diminutive but skilled top six forwards in a hurry. There is a lot of quickness to match up against and Vigneault seems hellbent on playing lead-footed defenders in his top two defensive pairings.

New York can no longer depend on the penalty kill or the power play to get the job done. In all likelihood, this is a series that the Rangers will have to win at even strength. And after considering Montreal’s possession numbers - that will be much easier said than done.

Read more about the Montreal Canadiens over at Habs Eyes on the Prize.