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