AnalysisHockey TacticsPlayoffs

Caps forcing Rangers away from rush-based attack

We are through three games in the Metro Division Finals against the Washington Capitals, and all three games have been heart-attack-inducing. Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist have almost matched each other save for save, with Holtby stealing one last night to give the Caps a 2-1 series lead.

One of the prevalent observations is that the Rangers are “making it easy” on Holtby by “throwing a lot of shots at his gut.” The problem with this theory is that it discounts how good Holtby has been. Shots hit a goalie in the logo because of the positioning of the goaltender, not the quality of the shot. Holtby is playing to a .949 SV%, and while he’s had to make some spectacular saves, he’s been so good positionally that he doesn’t give the Rangers much to shoot at.

Limiting Rush Chances

The problem is two-fold: First, as mentioned above, Holtby has been unreal. Second, the Caps have done a tremendous job at forcing the Rangers away from their bread-and-butter game, which is generating chances off the rush.

This starts in the offensive zone, as the Rangers forecheck has been minimized due to Washington’s ability to make short, crisp passes out of the zone. That effectively eliminates the Blueshirts’ ability to force turnovers and trap forwards up the ice.

Only twice this series has their work at the blue line to the defensive zone –an area where the Rangers have excelled all season in forcing turnovers and stretching the defense– led to goals. Both happened in Game Two, where a Kevin Klein stretch pass into the offensive zone forced the Caps forwards to retreat quickly, miss assignments, and led to the Chris Kreider goal:

chris kreider
Courtesy of www.newyorkrangersgifs.com

The second came on Derick Brassard’s game winner, where Rick Nash stood up at the blue line, forced a turnover, and then quickly turned the play up to Martin St. Louis at the Caps blue line. The Rangers got lucky here, as St. Louis’ pass tipped off a defender, but it was the Caps who failed to pick up Brassard behind the play, who tucked it past Holtby.

derick brassard
Courtesy of www.newyorkrangersgifs.com

Forcing a Cycle

Instead, the Rangers have been forced to cycle, crowd the net, and get lucky. That happened twice thus far: First on Jesper Fast’s goal that went off his leg. If you recall, that goal was the product of Kevin Hayes entering beast mode and basically cycling the puck by himself. Hayes can play the rush game, but this was a goal that came off that gritty, hard-nosed work that people love.

jesper fast
Courtesy of www.newyorkrangersgifs.com

The second goal came on the powerplay off a strong shift from Nash. He was knocked down, got back up, and got to the front of the net to provide the screen for Dan Boyle’s goal.

dan boyle
Courtesy of www.newyorkrangersgifs.com

Those are the four goals the Rangers have scored in three games. Two off the rush, two off screens/cycle.

Limiting Attempts

The high-powered Rangers offense from this past season, the one that was second in the conference and third in the league in scoring, was a rush-based attack. Barry Trotz has identified this, and clogged passing lanes. For the most part, this limits the Rangers to dump-and-chase hockey, which is certainly not their forté.

The Caps, like the Penguins last round, have forced the Rangers to play low-event hockey. Looking at the Rangers USAT/Fenwick For and Against per 60 minutes (as of 1/1/15), there’s a decently sized drop off in the playoffs:

rangers capitals playoffs 2015
Courtesy of war-on-ice

The Rangers started falling off a cliff in event-based hockey at the end of the season, although that could have been attributed to clinching the President’s Trophy and backing off a bit. But the drop off for the Pens was startling, and it’s dropping even more against the Caps.

Both the Pens and the Caps have effectively gotten the Rangers off their game, there are roughly eight fewer events for/against in the Caps series than at their peak in March. Since the Rangers are still doing a decent job of limit attempts, the drop off comes in the form of attempts for:

rangers capitals 2015
Courtesy of war-on-ice

What Does All This Mean?

This is a very fancy way of saying that the Rangers have been thrown off their game, and it’s not all related to the injury to Mats Zuccarello. The Rangers have been forced away from their rush based offense. This has, in turn, led to less quality chances for the Rangers, and a lower SH% (5.4% in the playoffs).

The opposition has slowed their ability to get through the neutral zone with speed, thus slowing the offense to a crawl. The interesting part is that the Rangers have actually driven possession in the playoffs (50.2% CF, 7th in the playoffs). However, three of the teams ahead of the Rangers (St. Louis, Vancouver, Pittsburgh) are all playing golf.

Summing it up: In the playoffs, it’s better to be lucky than good. But teams can force the Rangers into some “bad luck” by forcing them away from their rush game. So far, it’s worked.

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  • Does this mean that the Ranger’s game is less designed for the playoffs than we all had hoped? ‘Playoff hockey is tighter’, ‘less room’, ‘heavier hockey’ are all anecdotal buzz words which get thrown around, but perhaps they have merit.

    ^ more of a question than a suggestion.

    As far as adjustments, what can we do to get back to our game? Is there a way to tweak our breakout to generate more rush opportunities and bring back the speed which so far Washington has done a good job neutralizing?

    • If the other team doesn’t want to attack, there is really nothing you can do to counter that other than score a few early goals.

      Like Dave said, the Caps are quite content to play low event hockey. Rangers just have to stay out of the box and hope they take a few chances when the chances present themselves.

      I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily because it’s playoff hockey as much as it is that the Rangers drew two miserable matchups so far. Any other Eastern team except Montreal would have been a more open series than the first two Rangers series. It’s a shame the Isles laid an egg in their Game 7.

      Still, we saw that in the 2011-2012 Eastern Conference Finals this style can be beaten. It took a lot of work but eventually the Devils wore the Rangers down that year. The Rangers just have to be a little more sure of their passing in the O-zone and try and pot an early one in Game 4.

      • Their passing certainly needs to get better in the OZ, but they also need to, more consistently, get to rebounds. They’ve been getting high quality chances, especially last night, but, and perhaps my eyes are fooling me, they didn’t get many rebounds.

    • I think it’s more about how they can’t buy a goal. They’ve been the more consistent team, but they aren’t playing their game.

  • Agree with your point overall, but definitely going to take this as a chance to mindlessly rant about the potential to mislead people when using charts in stats discussion (which happens everywhere).

    The “falling off a cliff” you mention in relation to the NYR total Fenwick events is a drop from about 88 (on April 1) to about 82. That’s a difference of just *6* total Fenwicks over 60 minutes. That’s 1 Fenwick event, from both teams combined, every 10 minutes. Its only a 6% drop in percentage terms. The 2nd chart has the same issue. The NYR went from ~ 43 FF on April 1, to ~ 39 FF today. I don’t see this as dramatic. [Especially without knowing whether the NYR went through similar stretches like this at other points during the season – I’m assuming they did].

    The numbers certainly show the NYR are involved in less high event hockey during the playoffs (and some of that is surely due to the opponents play), but the charts make it look more extreme than it is.

    • The 25 game average has fallen just six events, but the single-game numbers have to be far below 6 events per game for that large of a sample to drop like that.

  • Good analysis, but this is playoff hockey in a nutshell. Gaps get tighter, lanes get squeezed, and it takes better execution (and luck) than the other team at getting to the front of the net, creating havoc, and capitalizing on second chances. A semi-reliable PP would be nice too.

    The Rangers can be ok, they just need to finish their chances better – they’ve had no shortage of them.

    • The PP would be nice, and certainly would have helped them in Games 1 and 3.

      Aside from the PP, they’ve had some terrible luck. Can’t buy a goal. Heck, can’t even buy a bounce.

    • That’s what I was getting at with my comment above. Many many high flying offensive teams lose the libido in the playoffs when the game slows down.

      The Rangers, seemed like they have the ability to get past it as they are built from the net out and can/have won tight games by capitalizing on the chances they get.

      Hopefully they can find a way to continue vs WAS. I’m still confident.

  • Maybe Rangers need a touch pass and then shoot? like a->b, b->a, then a shoot? so it makes Holtby move laterally…

    if AV cannot solve this scoring problem, then it’s the problem of his system. if AV’s system isn’t working, then AV’s coaching career might be in trouble.

    • 2 points for this.

      1) moving Holtby laterally isn’t really going to solve your problem. He has a tremendous amount of athleticism side-to-side and holds his position well in those situations. You’d have a better chance trying to force bodies to the net and try to cash in on some rebounds.

      2) A lack of adjustments and a flawed system are two separate concepts. Just because the Caps are not allowing the Rangers to play their game, it doesn’t mean the system is broken. He might be getting out-coached (I believe he has up to this point), but it doesn’t mean there is an underlying problem with the system itself. That remains to be seen.

        • I’m a huge AV fan but unfortunately, I agree. Coaching is about making adjustments. That being said, would we be saying the same if we were up 2-1? These games are as tight as a drum and can go either way.

          We need to get more bodies in front of the net more of the time. Holtby’s been real good, but Caps have had more grade A opportunities than we have. That needs to change tomorrow night.

  • First, let me say I do not think Holtby had to make more than 1 difficult save last night. Their defense kept the middle clogged and we could touch a rebound.

    As far as our game not translating into the playoffs, I think there may be some reality there. A team that lives and dies by the “home-run” pass needs to make modifications when other teams play the trapping, “clog-the-middle” game. So far, while we cycled well against the boards, not too many of those cycles resulted in a guy getting free in-front. How is it that we think we have a great defense, but somehow, Ovie gets great looks every game? I think the Caps know how to get dirty and get open. We may not be used to doing the heavy-lifting getting free takes. Combine this with our inability to even get good shots on the power-play, make the games too close for comfort.

    Just my opinion.

    • I’m with Dave on this. Holtby has not been getting nearly enough credit for how good he has been. Everyone wants to blames the Rangers offense. His positioning has been so spot on, that many difficult shots (glove saves from the slot come to mind) look almost effortless. He has been out of this world.

    • Holtby’s positioning has a lot to do with the “difficult save” bit. NYR got a lot of quality chances, but Holtby has been so solid that he’s made it look easy. The best goalies don’t make acrobatic saves, they make you hit them in the logo.

  • great article and great analysis…I learned something here.

    but I have to say Dan Boyle is a disaster signing for 2 years 9 mil. if we keep Stralman and Brain not Dan Boyle, we don’t need to trade for Yandle and we still will have a better team.

    the thing worries me is that everyone says Rangers played the best game in the playoffs so far, but we still lost…to me, it’s not a good sign.

      • You make your bounces by committing to hard work. Not too many successful people are not very hard workers

    • That’s the definition of a goalie stealing a game. We’ve seen Hank do it more times than I can count (pretty much the whole 2011-2012 season).

  • I’m about to kick a dead horse here, we need to get bigger, and force our will on people.

    We got some poor puck luck last night, but let’s give credit where it’s do, they played a very good game, and shut us down. If we were bigger, then we would have more of a net front presence, and wouldn’t be moved out as easily as we do.

    Oh, Holtby is a good goalie, and he played a damn good game for his team!!!!!!!!

    • I don’t really think size is the issue. The Caps aren’t having their way with the Rangers. NYR have been the more consistent team.

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