The Rangers open the first round of the playoffs with the best record in the NHL and their reward was a matchup with the always dangerous Pittsburgh Penguins. The underlying possession numbers favor the Penguins, and while the Rangers are not a strong possession team, Steve Valiquette and I have been pointing out this season, that the Rangers possess a strong goal differential because of a heavy proportion of green shots.
While the Penguins possess two of the most dominant forwards in the NHL today in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Rangers’ biggest trump card is in the crease. I have reviewed both Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury’s shot metrics through my Shot Quality Project and the King regularly grades out among the elite netminders in the NHL, while Fleury grades out around league average.
In a small sample, such as a playoff series, this talent discrepancy can make a huge difference and assure that the Rangers only have to play Malkin and Crosby even to maintain a significant advantage in the series. This played out in Game One where Fleury blinked and the King did not.
Looking at the above shot attempts (blocks, misses and shots), we see a fairly even matchup. The Rangers produced slightly more green attempts at 13-11 and both teams scored on a green opportunity in the direct slot (both off rebounds). The main difference is that the Rangers were able to register 10 green shots versus the Penguins 7. The Rangers’ top line was also able to limit Crosby/Malkin to only four green opportunities combined, only one of which resulted in a shot on goal.
Keith Yandle was acquired at the deadline to make a difference and in Game One he delivered. Yandle carried a 63% possession rate as the Rangers’ defensive depth allowed him to avoid Crosby/Malkin and abuse the Penguins bottom lines, producing five green opportunities and only two against. He also produced a primary assist on the Rangers’ power-play goal, filling the role the Rangers acquired him for.
The biggest difference in the game was Marc Andre-Fleury providing the Rangers with a red goal that marked the difference in the game. One of the criticisms of the Rangers’ PP was the lack of commitment to creating traffic in front of the opposition net. If a goaltender loses visual attachment to the puck it can cascade into various issues, from not being able to track a pass to not seeing the shot itself. Fleury’s inability to locate the puck led directly to the winning goal, as he allowed his own defenders to compromise his tracking.
Derick Brassard doesn’t do a good job of layering in front of Fleury, but Fleury’s lack of head movement and commitment to identify where the puck is leaves him in a vulnerable position as Ryan McDonagh releases the shot. You can see that Fleury doesn’t pick up the flight path until late in its route and he only slightly deflects it as it passes him by. It’s a small error and one that continually separates Fleury from the game’s elite and ultimately, it cost the Penguins Game One.
However, the Penguins still employ Sidney Crosby and that fact alone is enough to strike fear in the hearts of Rangers fans, but if the Blueshirts can continue to expose the Penguins lack of depth and the King stays the King, the Rangers should be able to continue the success they enjoyed in Game One.