When the Rangers acquired Keith Yandle and waived goodbye to Anthony Duclair at the trade deadline, they went all in on the 2014-15 season. While trades like these are ultimately viewed through the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, they are made to tilt the odds in a tight series like this, where one goal can be the difference. A series like Rangers-Capitals is also where the monster risk of this type of deal becomes apparent because the difference could also be one bounce.
The Rangers are unlucky to be down 3-2 to the Washington Capitals. At 3-1 fans began to seek out a scapegoat, but the simple fact is that this series is a tightly contested matchup, featuring two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. The same narratives about Rick Nash arose last season, but hockey is a fickle game. When you give Barry Trotz preparation time, he goes to work on taking away things that make Nash successful.
Both teams are good at taking away time and space and clogging passing lanes. In order to create high-quality green opportunities, the offense needs to be creative and relentless, in order to move off the book that has been compiled on them. During the regular season, the Rangers were able to dominate the Caps with excessive green opportunities, but that advantage has dissipated during the playoffs and with both goalies not providing any freebies, the series has devolved into a series of breaks.
Over at Sportsnet I created a goal expectancy based on shot location and pre-shot movement and running it through the first five games it shows how razor tight this series is. The Rangers continue to control possession and have produced a higher expected goal rate. You can see the spikes in the above chart. Game 1 was a tight contest that the Rangers began to control in the third as they pressed for the tie. That expectancy was neutralized the minute Joel Ward scored at the end of regulation. In Game 2, the Rangers flew out of the gate and maintained the advantage after a brief Capitals push. Game 3 could be the series turning point, which hinged on a goal that was scored on a lucky break off the guy who the Rangers acquired to make that difference in Yandle. A close contest that was decided by one lucky bounce. The next two games capture a desperate Rangers team trying to fight back into the series. Late in Game 5, the Capitals had managed to even the play out and then Chris Kreider tied the game and the Rangers surged back up.
When we look at shot charts we see a similar outcome. Over five games, the majority of the Rangers’ shot advantage lives on the perimeter as they are managing just over one extra high-quality opportunity per game. The differential in this series is razor thin and if you go into the pivotal Game 3 and flip one break, we could easily be looking at 3-2 series advantage for the Rangers.
This series is your clichéd narrative that goaltending and one break can turn a series. This series is also the landmine a General Manager fears that can blow up plenty of Stanley Cup contenders Cup windows. An over reaction to the result can bury a team’s future, when in reality the difference between the two elite teams was out of their control. History is written by the victors and nobody wants to wax poetic about luck determining their outcome. This isn’t about one team wanting it more. It isn’t about Brandon Holtby outplaying Henrik Lundqvist or Nash not being clutch. Through five games, this is about two teams fighting tooth and nail for every inch of ice and randomness determining who has the lead.