The Rangers‘ performance in Edmonton Tuesday may have set off some panic alarms as it completed a difficult 10-game stretch in which they managed to secure just six of a possible 20 points. It came on the heels of a 10-game stretch where the Rangers managed to collect 18-of-20 and a spot among the elite teams of the NHL.
The problem is these peaks and valleys are typical of a team that rides percentages like the Rangers do. Even an amateur data analyst can pick the team with the high PDO and predict a regression. While the Rangers aren’t likely to crash as low as their possession numbers suggest, this team will likely continue to take their fans on a roller coaster ride of highs and lows.
The whole impetus behind controlling possession is to avoid wild inconsistencies. Possessing the puck for over 50 percent of the game means you have the puck more than the other team. When you have it, your opponent does not. The higher that number moves over the break-even point, your chances to win increase.
This doesn’t mean that you cannot have success while being a poor possession team. The 2014-15 Rangers were a 49.5 percent possession team and finished with 113 points. They were within a game of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Finals. The Kings had the best mark in the NHL and did not even make the playoffs.
Talent can overcome poor possession and the Rangers have been relying on this to overcome their tactical shortcomings. In 23 of their 32 games, the Rangers have been outpossessed. When I looked at their expected goal totals, this number drops to 19.
I mapped out the Rangers’ differentials. The green bars indicate their positive expected differential — essentially games where they outchanced their opposition — with high-quality opportunities. The grey bars indicate games in which the differential was within half a goal and the game was essentially a toss up, and the red bars indicate games where they were outplayed significantly. To put how well the Rangers had outperformed their scoring opportunities, I created dotted lines for actual scoring results.
The red-flag game was the Dec. 11 tilt against Oilers, but in reality the Rangers have played plenty of games like that this season in which they secured two points. The defensive struggles were masked because of the work of their goaltending or finishing ability. Because hockey is a result-oriented business, we tend to ignore the process when the results are positive, but the problems the Rangers faced during their struggles weren’t new. The only thing that changed during their Western Canada trip was that the probabilities didn’t work in the Rangers’ favor like they usually do with Henrik Lundqvist.
With that, the defensive play was immediately thrust into the spotlight. The Rangers’ D became the focal point for the struggles, but when I looked at opportunities surrendered, the Oilers and Flames game registered the seventh and 10th-worst defensive games by the Rangers this season. The reason the other eight didn’t register on fan radar was because the Blueshirts won seven of them.
The Oilers game featured a team riding percentages like the Rangers have on many nights. They were provided with nine high-quality opportunities and buried six of them. When the Rangers faced Columbus early in the season, they had 11 and buried two for goals.
When we contrast the two games, the Rangers actually played better defensively in the Oilers game, but didn’t receive unbelievable goaltending. Generally when a goaltender puts up a big save percentage in a single game, we will see a ton of straight lines. When they struggle, we see a ton of dotted green lines indicating forced movement and less than one second of clear sight. With single game samples being so small, every once in a while goaltenders drop in outlier games, and Lundqvist doing what he did against the Blue Jackets is an outlier.
If we watch the video evidence, we can see the main difference in the game is four incredible saves by Lundqvist that he didn’t deliver against the Oilers. Instead of a 6-5 loss, the Rangers cruised to an easy 5-2 victory.
Looking at the opportunities in the above video, it is tough to differentiate the defensive play outside of the end result. Subpar gap control and neutral zone play creating high-quality rush opportunities, subpar defensive zone coverage allowing players in front of the net or to drift open on the weakside for backdoor opportunities, battles along the boards that were lost resulting in odd man situations. In both games the Rangers scored five goals, but one game went relatively unnoticed because of Lundqvist’s play in net
It all comes down to probabilities. A game like the Blue Jackets game needs the Oilers game to even out. When viewed in these terms, it becomes easier to assess actual play. The Edmonton game happens to every goaltender. Sometimes the opposition can’t miss.
If the Rangers go on another unsustainable shooting/goaltending streak, we need to dig below the surface level results and understand the cause of these types of uneven performances. Life is no different for a Ranger fan this week then it was three weeks ago, outside of wildly fluctuating perceptions and expectations.