BULLS RUN: RED BULLS FACE FAMILIAR FOE IN MLS PLAYOFFS

Another chapter gets written in one of Major League Soccer’s most heated rivalries, as the Red Bulls take on D.C. United in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

The two will reignite hostilities starting Sunday in the first leg their series, as the Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls head down to Washington and begin their quest for MLS Cup.

This will be the sixth time the pair have faced off in the playoffs and while the Red Bulls have just a 1-4 lifetime record against D.C. United, they probably won’t be too upset they’ll be facing D.C. In their first series. New York went 2-0-1 during the regular season against United and especially had their way with their Conference Semifinals opponent at Red Bull Arena, where they outscored them, 5-0, in two matches.

The Red Bulls might be content with who they’re matched up came about, but will also be wary of the short two-legged series. Two years ago, the 2013 Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bulls were knocked out of the playoffs by the Dynamo. With away goals being the tiebreaker, the result in the first leg could make or break the Red Bulls. It’s why Jesse Marsch is not taking the opponent lightly.

“No matter what, every game [D.C. United] is dangerous,” the Red Bulls’ head coach said post-practice on Friday. “They’ve shown they’ve gone down so many times this year and they just stick around and manage to claw back in and have belief and grit in the way they play. That means they’re never out of it and it makes for a difficult two-game series.”

SEASON IN REVIEW: RED BULLS-D.C. UNITED

Red Bulls D.C. United
18-10-6 (60 Points) Record 15-13-6 (51 Points)
W-2
Streak *W-1 (Beat NE in Play-in Game)
6-7-4 (Road) Home/Road Record 11-3-3 (Home)
1st Conference Position 4th
62 Goals 43
1.82 Goals Per Game 1.26
43 Goals Allowed 45
1.26 Goals Allowed Per Game 1.32
Bradley Wright-Phillips (17) Top Goal Scorer Chris Rolfe (11)
Sacha Kljestan (14) Assists Fabian Espindola (9)

March 22 – Red Bulls 2, D.C. United 0

On a blustery cold day at Red Bull Arena, the Red Bulls unveiled the blueprint of their style of play for the rest of the season, as they took apart D.C. United in the home opener.

Using their vaunted press and counterattack, the Red Bulls squeezed D.C. United into mistakes and capitalized with clinical finishes from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam. It was the first win for Jesse Marsch and one that the new Red Bulls coach would savor.

Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch speaks to media after the team's 2-0 win over DC United at Red Bull Arena.

April 12 – D.C. United 2, Red Bulls 2

This was a match that looked like a sure Red Bulls loss. Two goals from D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen gave the home side a 2-0 lead and defeat loomed for the visitors.

But New York would rally back in stunning fashion. A 68th-minute goal off a corner kick from Damien Perrinelle – two minutes after Kitchen had scored — gave the Red Bulls life and brought them back into the game. Sam would go on to snatch a point in the 90th minute, putting home a rebound after United goalie Bill Hamid spilled Sacha Kljestan’s rebound loose.

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Jonathan Yardley and Shep Messing recap the action from the Red Bulls' 2-2 draw against DC United.

Aug. 31 – Red Bulls 3, D.C. United 0

The scoreline would have been much worse had it not been for a Herculean effort by Hamid in the first half. The Red Bulls peppered the goalie with shot after shot before Sam finally broke the deadlock with a 33rd-minute goal, his third in as many games against D.C. United this season. Wright-Phillips would add another to his tally after slamming home a right-footed volley past a helpless Hamid in the 42nd minute. The English striker finished off the night with another goal in the 62nd minute to seal the game.

The common denominator from all of these games was that the Red Bulls were able to pounce on D.C. United mistakes and turn them into goals. A turnover in midfield would lead to a lightning-quick counterattack and an opportunity in transition. If New York does that in the series, it could make quick work of D.C. United.

War of Words

Even before the playoff pairing was made official Thursday, there was some back and forth between the two teams in the media.

Fabian Espindola was a member of the 2013 Red Bulls that won the Supporters’ Shield and declared that he wanted to face his old club in the next round after D.C. took out the New England Revolution in the play-in game. The striker missed all of the regular season games against the Red Bulls this year and would like nothing better than to get one over on his old team.

The Red Bulls have taken his comments in stride and have had a little fun with them. Especially Dax McCarty, who gave a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reply when told of Espindola’s comments.

“[Espindola] missed all three games and he really wanted to trade jerseys with me after the game,” the Red Bulls’ captain said to the media Thursday. “I know that’s the only reason why he said that. I don’t think there’s any other reason.”

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The Knicks Fix: Knicks See Plenty of Room For Improvement

It’s the easiest, and, admittedly, laziest, reply to the most popular question I have been asked about the Knicks since training camp began:

So how good will the Knicks be this year?

My response: Better than last year.

Yes, it’s not much of a prediction about a team that won a franchise-low 17 games last season. But if we learned anything over the last two seasons after that 54-win effort in 2012-13, it’s that you can’t predict health.

Carmelo Anthony (knee) missed 42 games last season and played most of the 40 he was in uniform for limited with pain. Jose Calderon managed just 42 games as well and is 34-years-old as the team’s starting point guard this season.

Arron Afflalo, one of the four key free agency additions, missed most of the preseason with a hamstring issue that now carries into the regular season. And Robin Lopez, a defensive anchor, played limited minutes with an undisclosed ailment.

In each of the past two seasons, the Knicks got off to bad starts mainly due to injuries and conditioning issues. They begin this season with some similar concerns.

But there is still reason for optimism, no matter how modest. At least initially.

“Well, I mean, we definitely [will] be better than last year, I mean, for sure,” Melo told MSG Network in a preseason sit-down interview. “But as far as putting a number on an amount of games that we should win, I can’t do that right now.

Carmelo Anthony talks about his mentality entering the season, how he's feeling physically and expectations for this year.

Vegas oddsmakers set the win total over/under at 29. I say take the over.

Melo says his goal is “to win the division. I think that’s a goal that’s doable I think that’s a goal that’s reachable. I think we should strive for that.”

It starts, of course, with Melo. He showed in the preseason that he has fully recovered from the knee injury that shortened his season last year, but for Melo it’s always about maintaining the power in his legs. While most observers who use analytics as evidence will tell you, Melo has been most effective when playing the “four’ spot (power forward), but the Knicks prefer to keep him at the “three” and keep him away from the bruising bigs that can wear him down physically.

“If we can help him to stay healthy,” Knicks coach Derek Fisher said, “I think he’s gonna have a great season.”

But this has to be more than just about Melo. He can provide elite offense, but we’ve learned from 2012-13 that to maximize Melo’s talent, you need to have a gritty group around him. Phil Jackson brought in those types of players this offseason in the likes of Afflalo, Lopez and Kyle O’Quinn.

The Knicks brought back the classic blue painted area on the Garden court this season and with that also comes a classic attitude that the aforementioned players wish to re-establish as an identity here.

“I mean, you hear all these Knicks fans from years ago, they loved those times where, you know, Charles Oakley was playing and all that stuff,” Queens native Kyle O’Quinn said. “You know like the grittiness of New York basketball, and I think they’re trying to get that back bringing in guys like myself and others who they feel could fill that role. I mean I’m sure that’s the path they want to go on so, hopefully, the guys that they’ve chosen, we can step up and fill that void.”

If you’re looking for an X-factor, consider former lottery pick Derrick Williams as a newcomer to watch. Williams in the preseason seemed to thrive in a Sixth Man role as an active body off the bench with a much-needed scoring touch.

“I don’t know if he’s ever been asked to do the things that we’re gonna ask him to do, which he seems excited about,” Fisher said of Williams. “You know, he can really help us have not just a good year, but a really good year.”

The development of rookies Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant will be critical factors in this season. Both will play prominent roles in Fisher’s rotation, along with second-year player and All-Rookie selection Langston Galloway.

nyk_porzingis-grant_20151028

“This was the moment I was waiting for,” Porzingis said of his awaiting NBA debut.

The 20-year-old Latvian will start, but don’t expect the Knicks to put a lot of pressure on him to carry a heavy workload. It will take time for him, like any young player, to develop the strength and stamina to be consistently effective at the NBA level. But we’ve already seen enough flashes out of him to believe that when his body does adjust, the Knicks got themselves a special player with the 4th overall pick.

“With KP, man, I just want him to go through this experience and kind of learn on his own,” Melo said. “And then when I see it’s time for me to step in there, I’ll step in there. There’s no greater experience than going through that experience by yourself and learn and you know learning your own mistakes and learning what you can and can’t do.”

The Knicks are also going through a youth movement at coach, where Fisher enters his second year at the helm after retiring as a player in 2014. Fisher asked Jackson to play a bigger role around the team and invited his boss’ input after a season in which the two tried too hard to stay out of each other’s way.

So if anything was gained out of last year’s season, it was not just an opportunity to hit the roster reset button, but the gain of valuable on-the-job experience for Fisher.

“I’m more sure of who I am as a coach,” Fisher said. “Last year was a huge transition year for all of us and I think, probably, me just as much as anyone in terms of changing from being on the court to standing on the side of it and still trying to impact the game in the best way possible. So I’ve learned a lot more about what it is that I want and expect from our players and I can articulate that better.”

What none of them can, or will, articulate is exactly how much better this team will be after last season. Can they get back to .500? Can they contend for a playoff spot?

“As a group we gotta believe in ourselves,” Melo said. “And that’s something that’s kind of hard to kind of verbalize, but we have to believe in ourselves because we don’t think at this point that nobody else believes in us. And we like that. We kind of like being under the radar. We kind of like when nobody is talking about the New York Knicks. So when it happens, it happens.”

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Schneider the Elite Devil?

In an MSGNetworks.com exclusive, Steve Valiquette explains why the Devils' Cory Schneider is one of the best goalies in the NHL.

Who is the best goaltender in the New York metropolitan area?

The simple answer for the last five seasons has been Henrik Lundqvist, but with the New Jersey Devils’ acquisition of Cory Schneider two seasons ago, the answer isn’t as cut-and-dried as it used to be.

The elite goaltenders union in the NHL rarely consists of more than three or four goaltenders at any given time. Carey Price and Lundqvist are card-carrying members, and Schneider has pushed his way into the conversation with his consistent brilliance now that he no longer has to share the crease with future Hall-of-Famers like Roberto Luongo or Martin Brodeur.

He showed signs of this brilliance while pushing Luongo in Vancouver and Brodeur during his first season in New Jersey. The Devils’ loyalty to Brodeur overshadowed a phenomenal debut season for Schneider as a Devil.

When Schneider finally emerged as the No. 1 starter, he was used a lot by then-head coach Peter DeBoer and it resulted in one of the worst stretches of his career. During a period where Schneider started the first 20 games of the season, he managed a slightly below league average save percentage of .914 and gave up 10 of the 14 red goals he would surrender all of last season. The Devils would be wise to use Keith Kinkaid more often to avoid the exhaustion that can negatively affect his game and, in turn, his statistics.

Schneider has remained consistently above average during the 2,000-shot sample I have from the 2012-13 season through early last season. We can see the dip above in his expected save percentage (SV%) during that 20-game stretch toward the end of the graph. Schneider faced higher quality opportunities than an average goaltender and still maintained a greater than expected SV%.

One of Schneider’s greatest strengths is his ability to hold his edges. The goal of opposing forwards is to limit the amount of information a goaltender can accumulate before a shot. This is why quick releases and pre-shot movement are so integral to offensive success. If a forward can disguise his intentions long enough, he can force a goaltender into making the first decision. This allows the forward to use the information he gains to his advantage.

Schneider’s ability to hold his feet allows him, instead of the shooter, to gain this valuable information and it continually provides him with more options in which to choose his save selections. He rarely limits his options with early commitments. This shows up in his lack of red goals as well as a high clean save percentage. When you add in his athleticism down low, as well as his ability to recover on passes and rebound opportunities, it becomes clear how Schneider manages to continually perform above league averages and why I consider him among the elite goaltenders in the NHL.

A well-rested Schneider has improved on this dominant play through the early part of the 2015-16 season.

While the sample is small, Schneider has been continually exposed to high-quality opportunities and continues to dominate. Looking above at his shot chart, one can see that Schneider is being pummeled in the high danger zone. Yet through six games, despite me having Schneider’s expected save percentage at .897, he maintains a .920+ save percentage. His clean save percentage is not where his career average is, but he is creating fewer rebounds and is dominating on high percentage green opportunities.

Schneider, like Price and Lundqvist, has the ability to push his team past its own limits on his own, and with any type of sustained goal support he can make the Devils a legitimate playoff team.

While I am not ready to push his name above Lundqvist as the “King of New York,” he has pushed himself into my Top-Three and is a definite Vezina contender.

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Beauvillier Agrees To Entry-Level Deal

**COURTESY NEW YORK ISLANDERS**

Islanders’ First-Round Pick in 2015 Signs for Three-Years

BROOKLYN (October 23, 2015) – The New York Islanders and forward Anthony Beauvillier have agreed to terms on a three-year, entry-level contract.

Beauvillier, 18, has scored 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in seven games this season with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Islanders selected Beauvillier with their second pick of the first round, 28th overall, in the 2015 National Hockey League Draft.

Last season with Shawinigan, Beauvillier recorded 94 points (42 goals, 54 assists) in 67 games. The 5’11, 170-pound forward, added seven points (two goals, five assists) in seven QMJHL playoff games. Beauvillier also captained Team Cherry at the 2015 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.

On the International stage, Beauvillier won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. He also won a bronze medal with Canada at the 2015 World Under-18 Championships. Beauvillier served as an alternate captain for Team Quebec at the 2014 World Under-17 Championships, recording four points (two goals, two assists) in six games.

A native of Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, Beauvillier scored 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists) in 64 games as a rookie with Shawinigan in 2013-14. Prior to his QMJHL career, Beauvillier played for Collège Antoine-Girouard Gaulois of the Quebec Midget AAA Hockey League (QMAAA), leading the league in scoring with 64 points (39 goals, 25 assists) in 41 games. He was named the 2012-13 QMAAA Player of the Year.

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BULLS RUN: RED BULLS EYE SHIELD OF DREAMS

Minutes after sealing the top spot in the Eastern Conference, Jesse Marsch set his sights on the next prize: The Supporters’ Shield.

Jesse Marsch talks to Tina Cervasio about the Red Bulls' win over the Union, clinching the East's top spot, the club's aim at the Supporters' Shield and the mental make-up of the team.

“We’re going for it,” the Red Bulls’ coach said in his postgame interview with MSG’s Tina Cervasio after his team’s resounding 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Union Sunday.

The Red Bulls have destiny in their hands this week, as they wrap up the regular season with a chance to clinch their second Supporters’ Shield title in the last three years. A victory against the Chicago Fire this Sunday would assure New York the Shield and give it home-field advantage throughout the MLS Playoffs.

Should the Red Bulls fail to get three points in the Windy City, their attention will turn to the FC Dallas-San Jose Earthquakes match. Despite being tied on points with 57 each, the Red Bulls hold the tiebreaker over Dallas due to a superior goal differential (18 to 12). Realistically, the only way FC Dallas could surpass the Red Bulls is if Dallas has a better result this week than the Red Bulls have since it’s highly unlikely Dallas will beat San Jose by seven or more goals.

Marsch isn’t taking anything for granted. He wants to make sure the Red Bulls clinch on their terms, with a win at Toyota Park.

“We’re not going to play for a tie,” he said. “We’re going after the game like we always do. I think our team will be prepared and be ready. This team, we’ve had so many big games this year. With all the different games and rivalries and series and whatnot, this team is battle tested. It will not be easy in Chicago, this club has never won there as the Red Bulls. So that’s going to be a tough place to get a result, but we’re going to give everything we have.”

A LOOK AHEAD: RED BULLS VS. FIRE SUNDAY

Red Bulls Fire
17-10-6 (57 Points) Record 8-19-6 (31 Points)
W-1
Streak L-1
5-7-4 (Road) Home/Road Record 8-7-1 (Home)
1st Conference Position 10th
60 Goals 42
1.82 Goals Per Game 1.27
42 Goals Allowed 56
1.27 Goals Allowed Per Game 1.70
Bradley Wright-Phillips (16) Top Goal Scorer David Accam (10)
Sacha Kljestan (13) Assists Harry Shipp (8)

Everything on paper points to a Red Bulls victory Sunday in Chicago (Live coverage gets under way at 6:30 PM on MSG+).

The best team in the league heads to the worst team in the East with everything to play for. The Fire are fresh off a 4-0 drubbing in Washington.

There is reason for Red Bulls fans to fear an upset, however, particularly when you look at the history of this series. This franchise has never came away from Toyota Park with three points and the Red Bulls have struggled against one of the lower lights in MLS this season.

New York went down, 3-2, in Chicago on Aug. 26 and had to rally from a two-goal deficit to seal a hard-fought win on Sept. 11 at Red Bull Arena.

The Fire’s ability to get around the Red Bulls’ vaunted press has proven to be a problem in recent encounters and there’s no reason to believe Chicago won’t deviate from that plan again. Nevertheless, the Red Bulls have been put through the ringer time and time again. Big matches won’t scare this group, as they look to seize the moment and cap off an unbelieveably impressive season.

“It is important that we stay hungry, that we have an instinctual desire to go forward, get goals, defend, and nonetheless, not only win the shield, but advance towards the cup,” Red Bulls goalie Luis Robles said to the media after the win over Philadelphia.

“I think the word I like to use is resolve. There’s been several times this season where we may have not played well…but you look at the resolve of this team, the mental fortitude, and we know that when our quality comes out and we have that mental toughness, we’re going to be very difficult [to beat].”

 

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Stoll Enjoying Life With the Rangers

Rangers forward Jarret Stoll wears a mic at practice and explains how he has transitioned to life in New York so far.

Switching locales from Los Angeles to New York can be a shock to many, but one thing has remained the same for Jarret Stoll: He’s got a world-class goalie in net.

“I went from Jonathan Quick to Henrik Lundqvist,” a smiling Stoll said during an upcoming episode of The AV Squad. “[Lundqvist] is a great goaltender, he takes up a lot of net in there. I appreciate when he gets scored on how mad he gets, which is great. It shows how much of a competitor that he is.”

Rangers fans might not want to remember this, but Stoll has scored on Lundqvist in the past. The 33-year-old forward scored against Lundqvist in Game 2 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and helped the Kings win their second Stanley Cup. After his contract expired with LA during the offseason, Stoll made the decision to come to New York in the offseason and is happy with the choice.

“[The Rangers] are a great group of guys,” he said in the episode that airs Wednesday at 6 PM on MSG. “The players, the trainers, the coaches … it’s fresh in here. They like to work hard, they like to have fun with each other. It’s a great set up. You hear a lot about the organization and how it treats its players and it’s bang on.”

One of the biggest reasons why the Rangers brought Stoll into the fold was his penchant for winning faceoffs. The only Blueshirts center to win the majority of his faceoffs during the 2014-15 campaign was Dominic Moore (54.5 percent). Adding Stoll, who sports a career 55.1 faceoff winning percentage, gives head coach Alain Vigneault another trusted forward who could take big faceoffs in crunch time.

Now a fixture on the fourth line, Stoll is adjusting well to life on the opposite coast.

“[The experience] has been good,” he said. “The practices have been upbeat, a good tempo, a good pace. Guys work hard off the ice as well and it’s no secret why they’ve been so successful the last three-to-four years.”

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Coughlin Moving Past Eagles, Ahead to Cowboys

Tom Coughlin talks about the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys, how the change to Matt Cassel will impact their preparation and assesses the play of the Giants offensive line.

 

At his weekly press conference on Wednesday, Giants coach Tom Coughlin did not want to harp on Monday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, focusing most of his time on this week’s opponent, the Dallas Cowboys.

Coming off of a bye, the Cowboys have lost three in a row after starting 2-0, but Coughlin was impressed with what he saw in their last game against the New England Patriots despite what the final score indicated.

“There’s no question their defensive team played well,” Coughlin said. “It was a very tight game for a long time.”

Arguably the strongest part of the Cowboys defense is the defensive line, which applied consistent pressure to Tom Brady for much of the first half.

Coughlin admitted the offensive line would have to step up after they allowed 16 pressures and three sacks against the Eagles.

“We have to do a better job of getting beat on the edge and getting pushed back into the quarterback’s face,” Coughlin acknowledged.

On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys made a change a quarterback during the bye week, inserting Matt Cassel for the struggling Brandon Weeden.

Coughlin talked about how the coaching staff had gone back and done their homework on Cassel, studying his successful season with the Patriots in 2008 and some of his more recent play this past preseason.

The Giants have actually faced Cassel once before, a 27-16 win in 2009 while Cassel was with the Kansas City Chiefs. Cassel threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns in that losing effort.

For more on the Giants-Cowboys showdown watch Giants 1st & 10 Friday at 5 PM on MSG+ and 6 PM on MSG.

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BULLS RUN: RED BULLS LOOK TO SHAKE OFF TORONTO SETBACK

Steve Cangialosi and Shep Messing break down the key moments from the Red Bulls' 2-1 loss to Toronto FC.

Jesse Marsch didn’t want to make any excuses for the Red Bulls’ 2-1 loss to Toronto FC on Wednesday night.

Sure, the Red Bulls were without some of their starters due to international commitments, injury or suspension, but the head coach squarely put the onus of the defeat on the players that took the pitch at BMO Field.

“I would say that every single guy that started tonight was not good enough,” Marsch said after the game. “Eleven guys were not good enough and it led to our downfall.”

With a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and extend their lead in the race for the Supporters’ Shield crown, the Red Bulls came up short in their visit across the border. Frustrated by the performance, Marsch lamented the Red Bulls’ inability to win the second ball – in other words, the ball after initial contact while it’s in the air – was the main reason for their defeat.

“What it came down to was: Who was able to pick up all the loose balls? Who was able to grind out the plays? We came in second so many times [Wednesday night],” Marsch said. “So credit to Toronto, but very disappointing for us because this is the first time all year I feel this has been the case to, at this point in the season, not understand what big games are like. It’s disappointing from us.”

New York still needs just a single point in its final two games to secure the top seed, but its advantage in the Shield race is a statistical dead heat with FC Dallas. Both sides are tied with 54 points, but the Red Bulls would win the tiebreaker due to a superior goal differential (+15 for NY compared to +11 for FC Dallas).

The Red Bulls hold their destiny, but any slip-up in either of the final two matches could cost them the Shield, something which seemed a formality the past few weeks.

A LOOK AHEAD: RED BULLS VS. PHILADELPHIA UNION SUNDAY

Red Bulls Union
16-10-6 (54 Points) Record 9-16-7 (31 Points)
L-1
Streak L-1
11-3-2 (Home) Home/Road Record 3-9-4 (Road)
1st Conference Position 9th
56 Goals 40
1.75 Goals Per Game 1.25
41 Goals Allowed 51
1.28 Goals Allowed Per Game 1.59
Bradley Wright-Phillips (15) Top Goal Scorer C.J. Sapong (9)
Sacha Kljestan (12) Assists Sebastien Le Toux (6)

In their final regular-season home game, the Red Bulls will have the chance to put their loss to Toronto behind them and clinch the East in front of their home fans Sunday. Live coverage gets under way at 2:30 PM with Red Bulls Game Night on MSG+2 and will be joined in progress on MSG+ after the Rangers-Devils game.

If there’s one team that has the Red Bulls’ number at Red Bull Arena, it’s the Union. Philadelphia knocked out New York from the US Open Cup this year on July 21 and have beaten their rivals in league play on May 24 with a 2-0 blanking.

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The Union’s ability to spring an effective counterattack has been the reason for their success this season in a place where they’ve traditionally struggled. In their two wins over RBNY, the Union have surrendered ball possession to the Red Bulls. When there’s been a turnover in midfield, Philadelphia has pounced and punished New York.

The good news for the Red Bulls is that they did beat the Union in their last encounter – a 3-1 victory on Aug. 1 at PPL Park. They’ve also won their last four games overall after suffering a loss this season.

Bradley Wright-Phillips puts the Red Bulls ahead for good after getting a great feed from Shaun Wright-Phillips.

 

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Early Observations on 2015-16 Rangers

 

Even after Tuesday night’s hiccup against the Winnipeg Jets, the Rangers have come out of the gate strong with a 3-1 record and are the only team in the Metropolitan Division with a positive goal differential.

And while it is still very early in the season, and all statistical models suffer from small sample issues, there are some warning signs that the Rangers need to observe if they want to compete for the Stanley Cup. The Cup window is still open, but as mentioned when looking into player primes, the Rangers rely on Henrik Lundqvist’s brilliance a little too much for my liking.

During the first 10 games of the season, advanced data will send some crazy signals based on lack of information. It is easy to understand that Oscar Lindberg will not shoot 57 percent on the season, but three strong games can be offset by the noise of one subpar game when trying to understand how a team is playing.

Goal data is extremely unreliable in small samples because of extreme swings in probability. Kevin Hayes’ game-winner against Columbus – which had an expected goal total of a half percent – isn’t a skill-based result, it occurred because of a random misplay by Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky that can reward a shooter at any time.

It is why I like to look at expected goal totals, which weigh probability of events. A shot from the neutral zone will enter the net three out of 1,000 times. Weighing it equally doesn’t really represent its true value in a game.

Last year, the Rangers were below the 50-percent threshold in possession, yet were one period away from a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Possession may identify them as frauds, but expected goal totals do not.

Expected goal totals remove the noise of talent to see who maintains the distinct territory advantages throughout a game. It values the real estate directly in front of the net more than the perimeter, and it also values pre-shot movement (passes/tips/rebounds) which make it more difficult to prepare for shots.

The data helps us see through the noise of shooting streaks and goaltending performance. If you can create high-end opportunities at a higher rate than your competition, then you will have success. Superstar players will generally outperform their expected averages and they can skew the results, especially in the short term.

If we look at the Rangers’ expected goal totals through their first four games, the data would indicate that their 3-1 record is somewhat fortunate.

nyr_after_4gms_20151015

If we look at game-to-game goal differential, we can create an expected record based on average outcomes.

ExpG_Diff

From the data, the Rangers should — in theory — have a record of 1-2-1.  But if we add context, it’s a different story.

The Rangers were dominant in the season-opener against the Blackhawks, they were dominant against the Blue Jackets in their home-opener and the only reason their differential dropped into the negative was because they were sitting on a five-goal lead and score effects took over. So 2-2 is a better estimation. When we add in the toss up game with the Jets, 3-1 is in play. When you add in Henrik Lundqvist doing Henrik Lundqvist things, it becomes a reality.

Through four games, Lundqvist has performed +.029 above an average goaltender in the same situation and has allowed one red goal while the Rangers have scored five. While the Rangers need to break free from their dependency on their franchise goalie, it is almost like breaking an addiction. He makes it so easy to have him back there.

An aspect of the Rangers game that I have been impressed with early in the season is the way the Rangers have controlled the neutral zone. The Rangers have also been great at gaining and denying the blue line. They continue to use their speed to gain the zone and create opportunities off the rush.

After_4GMs_Zone_Entries

If you can control the neutral zone offensively and defensively at even strength, it bodes well for future success. Over and over, the Rangers gain the blue line and, instead of settling for low-percentage shots off the rush, are creating high-quality green opportunities by cutting across the royal road and hitting guys in stride with speed as they break toward the net. Defensively, they have limited the damage, and when they haven’t Lundqvist has been there.

Where they continue to struggle is on the power play. The Rangers have been average at drawing penalties, but are among the leaders in taking penalties and have been somewhat ineffective with the man advantage.

Through the first four games, Rangers are pretty much the same elite team they were in the playoffs. Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh soaking up tough minutes, Hayes and Keith Yandle exploiting depth with a mediocre power play and all-world goaltending from “The King.”

If they can ever figure out a way to push the power play into the Top-five, they won’t have to rely on Lundqvist to be all-world. When that happens, the Rangers may just be ready for that next step.

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