Skjei and Smith: Mobile and Shutdown Defenders

By: Chris Boyle

The Rangers may have entered their series with the Senators as heavy favorites, but actually their regular-season shot metrics painted a picture of a team who could struggle with the team speed of Ottawa.

The Senators also boasted an early Conn Smythe candidate in Erik Karlsson who had dominated the Bruins in the first round.

The Senators looked like a very dangerous foe, but with the re-emergence of the Rangers’ dynamic offense and the emergence of defensive depth, Ottawa appears to be extremely fortunate to be leading the Rangers in this series after three games.

The shot clock and pre-shot metrics heavily favored the Sens in the regular season and that trend continued in Game 1, as Henrik Lundqvist was one bad break from stealing the opener. But since the beginning of Game 2, the Rangers have been absolutely dominant.

[Carpiniello: Rangers-Senators: 24 Thoughts on Game 3]

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The playoffs are defined by great individual performances and a career day by Jean-Gabriel Pageau defied the Rangers from a well-deserved 2-1 series lead. The Blueshirts have dominated the shot metrics over the last two games, but couldn’t overcome the Senators’ opportunistic shooting.

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Over the last two games, the Rangers have begun to resemble the dominant team they were in the regular season and a team that compared favorably to the last two Stanley Cup champions. Against the Canadiens, they played chess and the majority of that series was tight checking with both teams content to capitalize on their opportunities. With the Senators, the Rangers have been more open to trading chances and have begun to dominate the slot-line feed. The offense has re-emerged and the team has also benefited from a dominant pairing emerging on the backend.

[Rangers-Sens Post Game Coverage on MSG Networks]

Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith have given the Rangers a pair of defenders who are able to fill the role of a shutdown pairing. While the notion of a shutdown pairing is thought of more physical players like Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, the mobile Rangers pairing of Skjei and Smith have used efficient zone exits and strong footwork to deny entries and clog the center of the ice against the opposition.

When paired together at even strength, they have carried a 63-percent expected goal total during the 2016-17 playoffs. That’s a number that has jumped to just under 70-percent against the Senators. While they have been contributing offensively, they’ve been downright dominant on the defensive end.

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These are the type of shot distributions you expect from a shutdown defender: Shots from the exterior, which are highlighted by almost 60-percent of the shots from the low-danger area, which allows their goaltender to see the initial shot (90-percent clear sight and only 2-percent tipped shots) and protects the goaltender from backside pressure. While Skjei and Smith have been on the ice together during the playoffs, Lundqvist has not had to deal with any slot-line feeds. Henrik has been exposed to some rebound opportunities, but only one of those has been a backside rebound. The rest have been in front of Lundqvist.

Skjei and Smith represent the mobile depth defenders that the Penguins used last year to dominate territorially en route to the Stanley Cup final. They have the requisite foot speed to not only deny the blueline, but force attackers wide should they gain the zone. This avoids high-danger shots and forces exterior low-danger ones. This mobility also allows them to adjust to secondary options driving the net trying to exploit the slot line.

This keeps all the action within Lundqvist’s sightlines. They are also able to avoid being trapped in their zone because they know how to make exit passes and carries. These keys have allowed them to dominate their matchups when paired together in these playoffs.

[Fischler: Blueshirts Win, Must Do It Again]

This mobility is extremely important when defending the speedy Ottawa forwards and will be a key if the Rangers want to return to the Eastern Conference Final.