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