The Rangers have built their recent foundation of success on elite goaltending and torrid shooting streaks. With this type of blueprint, it is possible to be outchanced and outpossesed and still emerge victorious.
The Blueshirts moved away from this over-reliance this season and it is ironic that their elimination came at the hands of the Ottawa Senators, who relied on streak shooting and timely goals to put an end to this Rangers Stanley Cup run.
These type of results are what make the playoffs interesting to watch. The sample size is tiny and can easily be swung by fortunate bounces. Erik Karlsson won Game 1 from an impossible angle aided by a deflection. Two goals in the final three minutes of Game 2 on tipped pucks and a seeing-eye goal deflection on a Derrick Brassard goal in the closing minutes of Game 5. Tipped and deflected pucks work as massive disruptors for goaltenders and result in a goal 25 percent of the time.
The Senators tipped 10 pucks over six games and scored five goals, which is double the regular success rate. These are the types of things that can sink a season and swing a series.
The Senators made the most of all of their opportunities and were able to ride streak shooting to a six-game series win. The Rangers dominated the series after Game 1, but critics don’t want to discuss that probability. They want to use words like “grit” and “determination” to determine the outcome so we assume that the Rangers were lacking in their execution or makeup. The Rangers’ execution would be viewed entirely differently if even one bounce went the other way and they were preparing for a Game 7.
The Rangers outshot the Senators in every category except for rebound shots and had a significant advantage in slot line passes (13-5) and high-danger shots (57-46). This resulted in an almost six-goal expected goal advantage over the six-game series.
For the Rangers, this is a tough pill to swallow. The Rangers entered the 2016-17 season looking to build a more complete team to help alleviate the burden on Henrik Lundqvist.
The idea was to carry the play more, rely less on streak shooting and Lundqvist in order to bring less volatility to their results. While the regular season results mimicked those of 2015-16, suggesting the Rangers were the same team, they made great strides to distance themselves from last year’s edition. Jeff Gorton hit a home run in free agency with Michael Grabner, maximized Brassard’s career year with the acquisition of Mika Zibanejad and had Brady Skjei make a significant contribution to the defensive corp.
Territorially, the Rangers made significant strides and were no longer being outplayed nightly. They also had one of the most devastating offenses in the league and yet all of it was masked by an un-Lundqvist like year from Lundqvist.
The Rangers may have had a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup with a peak Lundqvist performance. That’s something that he has delivered yearly for a decade, but something he struggled to maintain consistently this season. Even though he delivered a vintage Lundqvist effort against the Canadiens in the first round.
These are the first signs of Lundqvist possibly slowing down in the three seasons I have tracked the Rangers. There may be signs of an encouraging bounce-back though if we map his 2016-17 season against his previous five seasons. While he was only slightly better than league average this season, the biggest area of concern with his inside-out style is a drop in reflexes and being beaten by clear-sighted shots because of his depth. As the sample increased, Lundqvist evened out to career averages in clear sight and all three danger zones.
It’s a good indicator that there isn’t going to be a precipitous drop ahead. Where his play declined was with slot-line feeds and deflected pucks. These are the two most difficult shots a goaltender will face. This type of decline could just be a small sample fluctuation, but if it is the first signs of any slippage, then the Rangers need to adapt their system to protect him from these scenarios.
Even if this season was a one-off blip, the Rangers cannot build a roster expecting an age-defying performance from Lundqvist. Any drop in Lundqvist’s play forces the Rangers to address other areas that he has covered up if they want to contend for the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers offensive approach and personnel have been spectacular for two years. The next step is addressing the backend to protect Lundqvist from high-leverage scenarios and extend his career. If they do that, the window can be pried open slightly longer.