Folks, welcome back.
I’m sure lots of people are surprised that I get to write a Round 2 preview for Ottawa, but I’m not one of those people. However, I am surprised to be writing a preview for an Ottawa Senators v. New York Rangers series. I was mentally preparing to construct a grim preview for a Sens-Habs series filled with all sorts of anecdotes about how the Habs were a bad matchup for Ottawa and how we’d all better buckle up because the series might really suck for the Ottawa Karlssons. Instead, Henrik Lundqvist and Brian Elliott broke whatever Freaky Friday body-switch spell they were under, and Max Pacioretty turned into Max Patio-Ready, and now I get to read the tea leaves to see what sort of chances the analytically suspect team with good players has against the other analytically suspect team with good players. Let’s get to the graphs!
1. The New York Rangers are not the Boston Bruins. At all. Not even a little bit.
For all the hand-wringing from Boston fans about how Ottawa’s “boring” “1-3-1” neutral zone play was bad for the game of hockey, it’s important to note that Boston was equally culpable: outside of one line, the Bruins simply didn’t have the speed or talent to be able to gain the offensive zone reliably. This is not true of the Rangers. New York has speed and they have it everywhere.
The Rangers are a counter-attacking team who don’t mind dumping the puck out of their D-zone because they know they can force a turnover and attack with their deadly transition game. New York’s first line of J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Mats Zuccarello are all fast enough to turn nothing into something if Ottawa isn’t alert in the neutral zone. Going down the lineup, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, Michael Grabner, Mika Zibanejad, Rick Nash, and Jesper Fast (I assume) are all plenty quick as well. With New York’s focus on quick transition, the Senators-Rangers series is going to have a much different rhythm of play compared to the Senators-Bruins series.
2. The Rangers are good at getting to the net and scoring once they are there.
You need to give New York credit: as much as they are analytically suspect, lacking in Corsis and barely break even in terms of Expected Goals (AKA xG – my favourite nerd stat because it takes into account shot location in addition to shot volume), they are extremely adept at getting the puck to the front of their opponents’ net. You go up and down the Rangers’ forwards and it’s difficult to find one who isn’t above average at getting shots away from close to the net. (Ok, I did find one.) Add in the fact that Mika Zibanejad, Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, and Michael Grabner have all been shooting at a greater than 10% shooting percentage this year, and it’s not hard to see what drove the Rangers offense to the 4th best Goals For in the league this season. Check out that list again. Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan, arguably the Rangers’ two best forwards, aren’t even on it. Essentially the Rangers have three full lines who can take the lotion to the basket and put it in there without needing to be threatened with the hose.
Ottawa will have to be even more disciplined in the neutral and defensive zones than they were against Boston in order to slow down New York’s extremely effective scoring forwards.
3a. The Rangers are bad at keeping pucks away from their net.
Now that I have successfully terrorized every Sens fan reading, I will get to the other side of the Rangers coin: they are bad at defense. In fact, they are about as bad at keeping the puck away from their own net as they are good at getting pucks to the opposition’s net. This is a trend that has held when playing Ottawa specifically. In all three games against the Rangers this season, Ottawa has taken a lot of shots from dangerous locations. Ottawa also dominated the Corsi battle in two of those games, including their 3-1 victory on April 8th where Ottawa had more than 75% of the shots with Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf on the ice (???). The takeaway here is that as much as New York’s speed is going to be a bad match up for the Borowieckis, Phaneufs, and Kellys of the world, Ottawa’s offense seems to pose just as many problems for the Rangers.
3b. On New York’s Jekyll and Hyde defense corps.
Ryan McDonagh is very good, so naturally he’s often paired with Dan Girardi who I’m told is “like if Mark Borowiecki got 1st pairing minutes”. Brady Skjei is a sneaky good puck mover and offensive threat in the mould of Matt Niskanen who lately spends his time playing with Brendan Smith (who is O.K.) or Kevin Klein (who barely moves the needle in either direction). This leaves The Pairing With Marc Staal On It, which is the pairing with Marc Staal on it. Marc Staal isn’t exactly known for his offense but on the other hand he’s also not known for his defense. Lately Staal has been paired with Nick Holden who managed to keep both their heads above water against Montreal.
As deep as New York’s forwards are, there are opportunities to be had against the Rangers’ defense, especially if Alain Vignault continues to deploy Girardi with McDonagh. Moving out of the top 4, Ottawa’s defensive depth of Wideman/Claesson/Harpur may be just-ever-so-slightly less dodgy than the Rangers depth of Staal and Whoever, even with Borowiecki and Cody Ceci occasionally driving Sens fans to the edge.
4. You didn’t really think you were going to read a playoff preview that didn’t mention goaltending, did you?
In the blue corner is Henrik Lundqvist, the perennial Vezina candidate and poster of a .920 or better save percentage for every year from 09-10 to 15-16. King Henrik had an extremely average year this season, and at the age of 35, it’s possible he’s finally coming down from the elite level he’s played at for most of his career. On the other hand, he just posted a .947 sv% against the Montreal Canadiens and basically won the series singlehandedly. The only thing hotter than Henrik Lundqvist in a suit is Henrik Lundqvist in the playoffs.
In the red corner is Craig Anderson, a playoff gamer whose .921 sv% against Boston was still disappointing to some because Anderson’s career playoff sv% is .931.
For all the weaknesses both teams have, they are extremely strong in net. This means that it’s time for the phrase all my playoff previews must have: “If either goaltender gets hot, it will likely prove to be the difference in this series.”
That’s the WTYKY difference right there. Only I’m going to tell you goaltending is important.
I suspect that this series will be one that Nerds would refer to as “high variance”. You could play this series 100 times and each team would win it 50 times for a different reason each time. I think something weird and unpredictable will be the difference in this series, be it Henrik Lundqvist posting 3 shutouts, or Mike Hoffman scoring 9 points in 4 games, or every single Senator doing nothing but bounce off Rick Nash for a whole series, or Dan Girardi and Marc Staal melting down into puddles of goo at the sight of Erik Karlsson. Where Ottawa vs. Boston was a series decided by Ottawa’s strengths (AKA The System) against Boston’s strengths (AKA The Bergeron Line) (Decision: The System), the winner of Ottawa vs. New York will be the team whose weaknesses were exploited less. If Ottawa’s commitment to team defense can slow the Rangers’ counter-attack, I’ll see you for a Half-Assed Round 3 Preview. If Henrik Lundqvist can adequately wallpaper over the holes in his team’s defensive structure, we’ll be left with lots of time to ponder how a traditional rebuild five years ago would have been better for Ottawa.
I leave you with this bit of advice apparently still unlearned by most experts at ESPN: when in doubt, pick the team with Erik Karlsson on it.
Sens in 7.