There are no shortage of story lines for this year’s Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ex-teammates abound on both sides, with enough history to fill a bookshelf. And that can be a problem. With everyone concentrating on the easy story lines (Marty St. Louis vs. Ryan Callahan, the Boyles, Anton Stralman, etc.), some compelling match-ups are taking a back seat. Chief among these is the goalie match-up between Henrik Lundqvist and Ben Bishop.
First, we’ll look at the basics of each goalie. Then we’ll take a deeper look at the things that make this match-up so interesting.
Height: 6′ 7″
Weight: 209 Lbs.
Career NHL Playoff Record: 8-6
Bishop is not only the largest goalie in the NHL, but also ranks as one of the tallest players. His sheer size means that when he is on his angle, he can play deep in the net and still cover much more space than a “regular” sized keeper. While larger goalies generally tend to be less mobile, Bishop moves very well for a big man. The combination of size and speed has served him very well in this year’s playoffs. He currently holds a goals against average of 1.82 and a save percentage of .931 in the 2015 playoffs over 14 games.
This is Bishop’s first year playing in the NHL playoffs. So far, his lack of playoff experience hasn’t been a factor–he has handled high-pressure situations fantastically. In fact, his first career playoff shutout came in game 7 of the first round against the Detroit Red Wings.
Weight: 188 Lbs.
Career NHL Playoff Record: 52-52
Henrik Lundqvist was considered to be average height (if not a bit taller) when he entered the league in 2005. However, he is tied as one of the second smallest goalies in this year’s playoffs. Four other goalies out of the 26 in this post-season are also listed as 6’1″, but only Jaroslav Halak is shorter (5’11”).
The goaltender position in the NHL has become larger every year, but Lundqvist continues to play a huge game. He rarely wanders too far out of the blue paint, and his patience and angles are nearly perfect. He has also elevated his game to another level this year, with a goals against average of 1.56 and a save percentage of .945.
Both of these goalies play conservative positionally. Neither player will make many saves outside of the blue paint–they both tend to stay at home and let the play come to them. Of the two, however, Bishop is a bit more aggressive. He will make many saves closer to the top of the crease, as seen below.
In the image above, Bishop has set up high in the crease to get closer to any potential deflections. This leaves some space to his stick side, but he can still cover that space with a stretch. A smaller goalie would have a difficult time filling that space in case of a rebound/deflection, but Bishop’s 6’7″ frame can close that space quickly with a strong push.
Contrast this to Lundqvist’s position in the next picture. Lundqvist is slightly deeper in the crease, but keeps his body position upright so he can cover more space in the top corners. This is just about as aggressive as Lundqvist’s game gets–most of his saves are made even deeper in the net. The end result is that he leaves himself less distance to cover if he needs to move laterally. This deeper positioning absolutely requires Lundqvist to be precisely on his angle, or there will be open space to one side.
With 105 games of NHL playoff experience to Bishop’s 14, the knee-jerk reaction would be to give this goalie match-up to Lundqvist. Henrik may hold an edge here, but it’s definitely less of an edge than these numbers would have you believe.
Bishop’s game can be erratic at times, but he has been increasingly solid as the playoff season has progressed. As the playoff pressure has increased, he has answered. In his first game seven ever, he recorded a 31-save shutout. Every time he has stumbled, his next game is that much better. This is how great goalies respond to pressure.
If Bishop has been great during the 2105 playoffs, then Henrik Lundqvist has been elite. All of the Rangers playoff games this year have been decided by one goal, and nine have been 2-1 games. Simply put, Lundqvist has given the Rangers a chance to win every single game so far. He is playing the best hockey of his career right now, and the Rangers continue to find ways to win close games.
However, Bishop’s second round opponent (Carey Price) was also playing the best hockey of his career, and that didn’t keep him from elimination. Bear in mind that the Rangers have a deeper team than the Canadiens–they rely heavily on Lundqvist, but nowhere near as much as Montreal relied on Price. The Rangers’ defensive corps is much more solid than Montreal’s, and will prove a tougher nut for the high-powered Lightning forwards to crack.
The longer this series lasts, the more the scales tilt to favor Henrik Lundqvist, though. Lundqvist’s performance in elimination games has moved into legendary territory, and his success in game sevens is record-setting. In beating the Washington Capitals, Lundqvist now holds the record for the most consecutive game sevens won with six. In those six games, he has allowed a total of five goals, with a save percentage of .973.
In the end, the edge in this particular goalie match-up still goes to Henrik Lundqvist. Whether that translates into a series win for the Rangers remains to be seen–though goalie is the most important position, hockey is still a team game.