Skilled Depth Reigned Supreme in Rangers’ Victory Over Habs

The sports world loves the concept of “turning points” when it comes to analyzing the playoffs. Two teams close in merit battle it out, and a few select moments get singled out as ones that defined why one team won and the other lost.

The biggest turning point of the Rangers’ first-round series against the Canadiens might have come almost two full months before the playoff matchup even commenced.

The March 1st trading deadline defined the identity Montreal intended to embrace. Two diminutive forwards in David Desharnais and Sven Andrighetto were jettisoned.  Dwight King, Steve Ott, and Andreas Martinsen - all known for their willingness to hit, fight, and agitate - were brought in. It was the kind of overhaul that brings in the usual praise that depth moves of this kind usually do.

“[The trades] addressed the need for size, grit and experience. If you’re into numbers, the Canadiens are 467 pounds heavier than they were last week, but Bergevin stressed that the Canadiens didn’t sacrifice speed,” was the Montreal Gazette’s reaction.

Add in Andrew Shaw and Michael McCaron, and the Habs’ forward depth is practically a Don Cherry fever dream. It made for a delightful contrast to a Rangers’ group that was criticized by numerous outlets for lacking the physicality and toughness supposedly necessary to sustain the rigors of playoff hockey. The lack of nuance created an experiment that would either confirm the paranoia about the Rangers’ stylistic makeup or put it to rest.

For sure, the Habs’ pugilism was on display all series long. Plenty of hits, slashes, and post-whistle meddling gave the TV broadcasts highlight reel material. In this way, their “presence” was felt.

But in terms of helping the Habs outscore the Rangers, their arsenal of brawny depth forwards was mostly ineffective. Shaw, Ott, King, McCarron, Martinsen, and Brian Flynn combined for a total of zero points the entire series. This could have been somewhat forgivable had they at least established a forecheck, kept the puck in the Rangers’ end, and generated some pressure. They did not. All six were negatives in shot attempts relative to their team. Only Shaw and Flynn had an expected goals percentage above 50%, and barely so (all stats via Corsica.Hockey). The Habs needed all the help they could get putting pucks past Henrik Lundqvist, who was in peak form. Instead, it often felt like the Habs few skilled forwards, plus the one positive depth influence in Artturi Lehkonen, had to do everything themselves.

The Rangers, on the other hand, got contributions from back-end of the lineup. One could argue the fourth line, with number of players rotating in, was the best line the entire series. Jesper Fast and Michael Grabner made meaningful offensive contributions, and along with Oscar Lindberg did a tremendous job of driving play forward. When both Lindberg and Fast were on the ice at five-on-five, the Rangers out-attempted the Canadiens 48 to 28. With Grabner added, it was 19 to 9. Buchnevich and Vesey created a fair share of offense and, with better fortune, could have racked up a few points themselves. Even Tanner Glass, the one prototypical grinder on the team, had what was probably the best three-game stretch of his Rangers career. He used his strength and tenacity to keep the puck below the Habs’ goal line for long stretches, and potted a goal to boot. Credit to him for a solid first round showing.

Many of the Rangers’ top forwards struggled to get going in this series, and more is needed from the likes of Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, and so on going forward. But that’s also how life works. You’re not going to get the best from everyone on every single day. That’s why it’s to the Rangers’ benefit to have four lines capable of contributing. In this case, their depth was able to compensate for the ineffectiveness of others. The Habs had no such safety net in place, and it’s a big reason why they’re packing up for the summer.

All hand-wringing about the Rangers being prone to bullying should be done with. They went up against a Who’s Who of grinders and antagonizers, and were completely unfazed by it. They won three-straight with their only traditional grinder in the press box. The Rangers’ skilled depth brought physicality when needed. Montreal’s physical depth couldn’t bring skill. This playoff result should reinforce trust in an offensive identity that has served the Rangers well for most of the season.