It’s hard to look at the Ottawa Senators as a formidable foe when essentially everybody thinks the Rangers are a lock for the Eastern Conference Final.
Most playoff predictors have the Sens as the least likely team to advance into Round 2. It’s fairly easy to see why: The Senators have the worst goal differential of all the teams that have made the playoffs this year and were among the worst in possession.
We learned that regular-season results can also be overlooked to an extent with the Rangers knocking off the Canadiens in six games, even though they only managed one point in their three regular-season meetings. The interesting thing about the Canadiens matchup was how close that series appeared to be entering the playoffs, based on their season shot metrics.
The Canadiens had a two-game push in the first-round series, but the other four games were coin flips like the regular season.
Most experts remain fairly confident about a Blueshirts victory over the Senators, but there are areas of concern for the Rangers, especially when we consider the shot metrics from their three regular-season meetings.
The Senators bested the Rangers in all three matchups based on shot metrics. Ottawa continually produced higher quality chances and almost doubled that of the Rangers in expected goal total. Only 76 percent of their shots were clear-sighted and they produced a significantly larger portion of their shots from the high-danger area.
On the season, the Rangers didn’t have great possession numbers, but their shot distribution was heavily tilted in their favor. This allowed them to cover up defensive shortcomings and produce favorable outcomes. The Rangers did a solid job of containing the Canadiens, but the Canadiens, under coach Claude Julien, contained their own speed through their style of attack and attention to defense.
The Senators use their speed on both ends of the ice to attack, but also to maintain their positioning and close up passing lanes off the rush. Nobody represents this better than their captain, Erik Karlsson. Karlsson is the best offensive defenseman in the league. He starts in transition, is able to gain the offensive line, and has excellent vision to create and exploit passing lanes in the offensive zone.
While he gets devalued by some because of the traditional mentality of what a defender should be, he has been spectacular these playoffs at closing out his man and relying on footspeed to angle defenders away from scoring areas and close off high danger slot-line passes.
Karlsson caused all types of trouble for the Rangers this season and despite being outscored, absolutely dominated territorially.
This shows up in his shot metrics. When he was on the ice at even strength, the Rangers barely produced opportunities that, on average, would produce one goal. There were zero high-danger shots, one rebound shot and zero slot-line passes or deflections. Ninety-four percent of their shots were of clear sight without any deception. This is not an environment for success.
The Senators, on the other hand, dominated play. Forty-two percent of their shots were in the high-danger area and while in these high-danger areas, they created havoc inducing pre-shot movement. The Bruins learned of Karlsson’s devastating ability to dictate the pace and outcome in the first round, as he had a .648 expected goal differential and held the Bruins to 92 percent clear-sighted shots.
Karlsson can dictate the game with his passing from the defensive zone as well, as the Senators had three breakaways with him on the ice in the first round.
The 26-year-old can also dictate the game with his passing in the offensive zone by using his speed and vision to manipulate the passing lanes by drawing defenders to him and exploiting the holes created in the defense for high-percentage shots.
He presents a significant problem for the Rangers in this series. The Rangers overcame Carey Price in Round 1 because some of their strengths played into areas in which he was vulnerable. But Karlsson presents a different kind of challenge. His skill set exploits a Rangers’ vulnerability – defensive coverage in their own zone and footspeed on the backend.
While the Rangers remain the favorite, the Senators with a healthy Karlsson, are a lot more dangerous than the experts think.