Down 1-0, there are plenty of things you can focus on for the Rangers’ deficit. The loss of Ryan McDonagh and Henrik Lundqvist. The unexpected performance of borderline NHLer Jeff Zatkoff or the poor luck the Rangers experienced, even though they maintained close to a 60 percent possession advantage.
Without McDonagh – and losing Lundqvist after one period – is a major blow to a team that has relied on riding percentages for their success. In a one-game sample, these types of results can be erratic and on Wednesday night, they didn’t get Vezina-caliber goaltending nor above average shooting. I know the tired trope of unexpected, outstanding playoff goaltending was the low hanging fruit of Game 1, but Zatkoff had plenty of fortune and his expected numbers don’t tell the same story as his inflated shot totals do.
While Zatkoff had an actual SV% of .944, his expected result was a heavily inflated .934. The Rangers took 11 shots with an expected SV% of .990 or greater: Pucks fired from the neutral zone or clear-sighted looks from along the boards.
This lead to the illusion of the Rangers controlling the possession game, but the expected goal total told a different story. A 60 percent possession advantage dissipated to a 40 percent expected goal differential when location, pre-shot movement and clear sight were accounted for. This was highlighted in both teams approach to almost identical scoring chances.
Viktor Stalberg had an opportunity to even the score late in the second period when he had the puck on an emerging 3-on-1. While he initially opened his stick blade to disguise his intentions, he closed off Kevin Hayes as a passing option. This removed the possibility of a higher quality slot line feed, but he still could have used his shooting percentage to fire a shot far side pad to create a rebound opportunity on Zatkoff’s backside. Instead, he settled for the lower percentage straight line shot into Zatkoff’s chest.
Nick Bonino, with a similar opportunity, never closes off the passing option. Antti Raanta is forced to respect the pass and, lacking the proper information, is never really comfortable in the same manner that Zatkoff is against Stalberg. Bonino disguises his intentions enough to free up Kuhnhackl for a high percentage one-timer that resulted in a goal.
Both of these shots register as one shot attempt, but Stalberg’s attempt is successful 1-in-20 times and Kuhnhackl’s success rate is just over 1-in-4. One hesitation by Bonino is worth five times the expected result. In a short playoff series, these decisions can easily multiply.
During the regular season, the Rangers did a good job of containing these high-end opportunities by Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby. They were able to keep the top of the Penguins lineup to a negative expected goal differential. Where the Pens struggled as a team last season was the bottom half of the lineup, a lineup that the Rangers exposed during last season’s series victory.
During the regular season, the Penguins had a 57 percent expected goal differential at even strength over four games and maintained that advantage in all situations. A stark contrast from 12 months ago.
In Game 1, the depth lines continued to push the play forward while the top of the Penguins lineup was dominant. None more than Kris Letang, who managed to dictate play even though he was matched against Keith Yandle, Kevin Klein, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider.
The Penguins’ elite forwards were able to push the play forward. And while Klein and Yandle were able to push the play forward overall for the Rangers, they couldn’t manage to do so when matched against Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz. Conor Sheary also managed to push Dominic Moore, Stalberg, and Tanner Glass while the loss of McDonagh was magnified on the defensive end.
One game never dictates the outcome of a seven-game series and if the Rangers do see the return of both Lundqvist and McDonagh, this series can change in a hurry. Even with a healthy return of both Ranger superstars, it may be time to push Yandle into the mid-twenties in minutes played.
With the speed the Penguins exert off the rush, mobile skaters like Yandle can manage gaps better and create transition opportunities which result in less defensive zone time. Ultimately, their playoff run may require pushing Yandle and possibly McDonagh to their limits in the manner that the Blackhawks did with Duncan Keith last season.