Through four playoff games, the New York Rangers have resembled the regular–season team that was reliant on talent to create separation from their competition. This is something that they were able to sustain during the regular season because of Vezina-level goaltending by Henrik Lundqvist, and an offense that maximized it’s opportunities by exploiting defense for high-end opportunities.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the road to sustained success during the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially when your goal is winning the Stanley Cup. The Penguins are a familiar opponent for the Rangers, and even though it has been only one year, there are some major differences between their five-game victory last season and their current deficit in these playoffs.
We can see the Rangers’ expected goal differential during the 2014-15 series vs. the Penguins in grey. They were consistently above the break-even mark. When you have Lundqvist, it gives you such an advantage that victory is all but assured. When we contrast that to the red line, which represents the 2015-16 series, we see a stark contrast as the Penguins are consistently carrying the play.
The Rangers were able to accomplish this with their depth advantage. Last season, Keith Yandle was able to soak up easy minutes and the Penguins’ lack of depth was exploited by the Rangers. This season, the Penguins have been getting strong contributions from players like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino to offset their offensive superstars.
They have continually carried the play through high-percentage opportunities, even though the possession advantage seemed to favour the Rangers through the first two games. We can see that the Penguins have maintained a positive differential in all aspects of the game this season. The Penguins are outproducing the Rangers overall as well at even strength and special teams.
When we look at the shot breakdown for both power plays, we see the reason why Pittsburgh has had an advantage.
The Rangers have registered more shots with the man advantage 14-13, but the majority of those shots have been clear-sighted looks. These are represented in the clear column.They have allowed Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Murray the opportunity to set and see most opportunities. The Penguins have been able to create pre-shot movement on almost 50 percent of all of their powerplay shots. This movement is represented through passes, tipped and rebound shots. This movement is a big reason for their success through the first three games. Their special teams differential is 71%, meaning that the Penguins’ powerplay has been three times more productive than the Rangers at creating high-end opportunities.
The Penguins have consistently been able to gain the offensive zone with possession which has allowed them to set up their offense or create high-end opportunities off the initial zone entry. Bonino has been fantastic with time and space. His patience has allowed him to withhold information from Lundqvist and Raanta until he can manipulate time and space to free up a passing lane. When presented with the Rangers’ D collapsing, he has found Kessel for high-quality opportunities time and time again.
As you can see above, the Penguins with this 5-on-3 advantage, patiently wait for the perfect opening. Kris Letang probes the defense looking to open up the Rangers slot line coverage (0.042 expected goal probability or 4.2 goals per 100 shots). He doesn’t settle for a low-end opportunity, so he feeds Evgeni Malkin who increases their goal scoring odds slightly to .084, but Malkin looks to increase them even more with a slot line feed to Kessel.
If Malkin can connect on a pass to Kessel, the resulting shot would improve their chances to .125 (or 12.5 goals per 100 shots). The Rangers drop down to protect that slot line option and with one quick pass to Bonino, he gets the Rangers to overload. This provides Kessel, on the weakside, all types of time and space and Bonino intelligently bails on his limited shooting location (.094) and immediately exploits the slot line for Kessel to exploit a 1-on-3 opportunity (.326).
This type of passing-lane manipulation is how the Penguins have managed to succeed on the power play and why even though they are producing less shots, their outcomes are more successful.
Through 134 minutes of even-strength play, the Rangers have had some struggles, but their negative differential sits at only 1.6 goals. With both teams each with 18 minutes of power play time, the Penguins’ differential sits at +2.06. The even-strength differential can be overcome and through three games it has, as the Rangers have out-scored Pittsburgh 5-to-3.
One potentially positive aspect for the Rangers is the return of Ryan McDonagh to their penalty kill. The return of McDonagh should minimize the damage the Penguins inflicted through the first two games.
At issue is McDonagh’s health and what he can contribute moving forward. He is such a vital piece to the Rangers’ success.
It is obviously only a 22-minute sample, but during the regular season, McDonagh had a .516 differential, and in Game 3 that number was .012. He was one of the best players at driving play during the regular season, but the Rangers captain produced the worst number of his season in Tuesday’s defeat.
While McDonagh was not a detriment defensively, his offensive contribution was almost zero as the Rangers registered only one real opportunity during his 22 minutes on the ice with an expected goal total of 0.06. Even stay-at-home defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal registered 0.34 and 0.27 during Game 1.
McDonagh’s ability to start transition and quarterback the power play are essential to the Rangers’ postseason success. If he can overcome his injury, the Rangers can possibly even the gap. If not, they may require Lundqvist’s finest hour.