2017 Playoff Preview: Carey Price vs. Henrik Lundqvist
The New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens will face off in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Goaltending fans hope to finally be treated to the series-length battle that should have been for the Eastern Conference berth in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
(statistics via Corsica Hockey)
Price’s return to the Montreal crease after losing most of last season to injury can be divided into three segments. Early on, he was dominant. It looked as though he might never lose another hockey game, and singlehandedly be responsible for the NHL adopting 8′ x 6′ nets. Through the middle third of the season, though, he looked like he might be a little mentally and physically fatigued, as the Canadiens faltered under Michel Therrien’s watch. Defensive coverage issues exposed him to a good number of difficult chances, and at times he seemed indecisive as to how to approach the defensive problems in front of him as well as the declining effectiveness of Therrien’s penalty kill system. Once Claude Julien took over for the final third of the season, though, Price’s dominance returned with a vengeance.
Price continues to represent the closest thing to a living textbook of goaltending instruction. His positioning and skating techniques are usually flawless. His recovery skills and body control allow him to make desperation saves look routine, and he is never out of a play. His only vulnerability seems to be an occasional lapse into a passive, static butterfly when indecisive or screened, but that has been rare since Julien took over. When Price plays with his hands actively engaged, as he has for most of this season, it seems that he can only be scored on by accident.
Price holds a singular advantage over Lundqvist in his puck handling. To be fair, he holds that advantage over just about every other goalie in the league. He is excellent at making puck contact and controlling difficult dump-ins and hard rims, and is consistently able to disrupt opposing forechecks. He usually looks for smartly distributed short passes rather than heroic stretch bombs, and is adept at jumpstarting the Canadiens breakout with a simple outlet anywhere in the defensive zone.
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Overall, the story remains the same for Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. Lundqvist, even at 34, can be as good as his defense allows him to be. He is often asked to combat multilayer screens, partially blocked shots, and defensive coverage lapses in high danger regions.
Lundqvist continues to play his “angle-before-depth” style, starting plays closer to the goal line than any other goaltender in the NHL. He is actively patient on his skates, which allows him to fine tune his position before dropping into butterfly, and also enables him to cover the upper portions of the net despite his conservative positioning and his average height. Like Price, he has tremendous anticipation as well. Having said that, he has shown some vulnerability over the years to mid range chances. Shooters can see open net because of his positioning, and if they can catch him moving or surprise him with a quick release from a middle distance, he may not quite be able to react in time. Though his style is largely built on a technical base that rivals that of Price, Lundqvist’s crease is rarely a picture of grace. He is much more likely to appear to be teetering on the edge of disaster while making save after save, often after his stick has gone flying to a remote corner of the ice.
The King’s one true weakness is his puck handling. His stick skills and judgement are not nearly on Price’s level, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that at least one goal this series will result from a puck handling mistake by Lundqvist.
Against the Rangers and Lundqvist, Price is 3-0 this season. Defensive lapses for both teams featured in a 5-4 Montreal victory in January. A thrilling 3-2 shootout victory for the Canadiens on February 21 featured Price’s diving save on J.T. Miller at the end of overtime, which is certainly a candidate for Save of the Year, and the Habs easily dispatched the Rangers 4-1 on March 4 to sweep the season series.
Lundqvist benefited this season from having Anntti Raanta as a solid, and sometimes spectacular, backup, which allowed him to work through some injury issues and a few mini-slumps.
Al Montoya was excellent when called on by the Canadiens as well.
Neither team will be happy if they need to use their alternate goaltenders, but assuming Montoya will be healthy for the playoffs, both are solid and experienced NHL-caliber players to call on for spot duty if need be.