“It wasn’t perfect,” said Derick Brassard, stating the obvious to anyone with two working eyes at Madison Square Garden that night. “We got the two points and that’s what matters.”
The game in question was Monday’s 4-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes but that quote could have come from Brassard or any other Ranger after most of their wins this season. Despite a stellar 17-7-3 record that has them in the mix for a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, the Rangers are winning on the back of outstanding goaltending and opportunistic scoring.
Or, as some would call it, luck.
That luck has run out recently — after a 2-1 loss to Colorado on Thursday, they have dropped five of six and have been supplanted atop the Metropolitan by the Washington Capitals.
But here’s the thing — it’s not a problem. The Rangers can continue to rely on Henrik Lundqvist and an unreasonably high shooting percentage to mask their possession woes all the way to a 100-point regular season.
In late-April and May, however, is when this will submarine the team if nothing changes.
It’s easy to forget that last year’s Rangers team that got within one win of a Stanley Cup Final was a mediocre possession club. They finished a shade below 50 percent in Fenwick-close and found themselves atop the league with a 102.3 PDO, fueled by a .934 five-on-five save percentage, fourth-best in the league, and an 8.9 shooting percentage at five-on-five, second-best in the league.
With Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot standing on their heads and shooters burying their chances more frequently than all but one team, the Rangers finished with the best record in the league. How did a team that was 20th in Fenwick-close land a Presidents’ Trophy when the possession numbers are supposed to weed out teams like this over an 82-game season?
In a word, talent.
If a team is getting out-attempted on a regular basis, even if it’s only by a small margin, a team loaded with talent can overcome those deficiencies. The Rangers have one of the world’s best goaltenders in Lundqvist and had a goaltender in Talbot that played so far above his head last season that he warranted two high picks in a trade during the offseason.
Throw in a group of gifted offensive players that include Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and Martin St. Louis among others, and that’s how you excel in the regular season.
Your shot-attempt numbers can be in the red all you want, but with that mix of goaltenders and shooters, you can compile a plethora of points against the gaggle of teams that can’t compete with your talent. Play five bad teams from the other conference each twice, another 20-30 games against the also-rans in your conference and the occasional quality team coming to your building at the end of a three-games-in-four nights stretch, and it’s not all that difficult to find 100 points across 82 games with an elite roster.
This season, the Rangers still boast one of the better rosters in the NHL, perhaps one that is only slightly inferior to the 2014-15 counterpart. Talbot and St. Louis are gone, but now the Rangers are getting a full season out of 2015 trade deadline acquisition Keith Yandle, 2010 second-round pick Oscar Lindberg has 10 goals in 27 games as a rookie and new goaltender Antti Raanta is doing a terrific Talbot impression when he gets a start.
Last season, Stepan missed a month in the early and it was expected to burn the Rangers; Stepan will again miss at least a month, perhaps all of December. Defenseman Kevin Klein is out for a few weeks with a strained muscle. Some believe those two losses will conspire to derail and expose the Rangers.
Overall, the Rangers’ possession numbers are far worse than last year. In all situations, entering Thursday’s game, the Rangers were Fenwick’ing at 46.1 percent, about three points worse than last season and 30th overall. But in the more useful close situations, the difference between this season and last season is about one point, as it sits at 48.8 percent through 24 games.
Last season, the Calgary Flames, maybe the worst team in NHL history to ever qualify for the playoffs, Fenwick-close’d at 46.2 percent and finished with 97 points in a superior conference by using two goaltenders that weren’t Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers’ 105.3 PDO entering Thursday indicates a correction is still coming, but it will hardly derail the season; the Rangers are on pace for 112 points as of today, so they could go 34-20-1 over the rest of the season and still finish with 106 points, which should be good for no worse than second place in the Metropolitan.
Worried about this stretch of five losses in six games? Last season, the Rangers lost five of six in November that was part of a 3-3-4 run during the second month of the season. They were 11-10-4 overall before finishing the season on a 42-12-3 push, one this year’s team almost definitely won’t match, although they are plenty capable of riding hot goaltending for months at a time.
Here’s the bad news.
If the Rangers fail to figure out a way to play a more efficient five-on-five game, their season is just about guaranteed to end in either the second or third round of the playoffs.
Consider last year’s team, which probably would’ve reached the Stanley Cup Final if they scored first in Game 7 of the conference finals against Tampa Bay. They were 101 seconds from losing in the second round to the Washington Capitals in five games before squeezing that series out in seven. There was minimal difference between the East’s top-four teams.
With this year’s Rangers looking like a slightly lesser version of last year’s Rangers, and the fact the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens are vastly improved and have goaltenders in Braden Holtby and Carey Price that can go toe-to-toe with Lundqvist, the Rangers are again looking like a team whose death is inevitable somewhere between the second and third rounds. Only it seems more certain if they play like this.
Heck, the Lightning may be more formidable come May with a more fully developed Jonathan Drouin in the lineup.
Talent, goaltending and a poor possession game often will get your four wins out of seven during the regular season; when those seven games are against teams with comparable talent, goaltending and a quality possession game, those four wins are much, much harder to come by.
So if you see the Rangers relying on 35 saves from Lundqvist and three goals on 22 shots to beat teams that will be counting lottery balls after the season, take solace in the idea that it’s likely sustainable in the regular season.
But if you don’t see any sort of puck possession improvement over the next four months, brace yourself for the Rangers being bounced by the skin of their fingers, fingers that are caught in a Stanley Cup window that’s slamming shut.
Advanced statistics via stats.hockeyanalysis.com