Erasing the doubts cast by their shaky 7-4 loss on Tuesday, the New York Rangers stifled the Montreal Canadiens at every turn Thursday night, winning 1-0 and closing out the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals. New York is now four wins away from the Stanley Cup. The Rangers dominated the flow of play in Game 6, particularly on defense, where they yielded just 18 shots (all of which were turned aside by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist).
It was a master class in shutting a team down, but it’s also somewhat uncharacteristic of this Rangers team. During the regular season, New York was an excellent offensive team in terms of creating chances (it ranked fourth in Fenwick events — that is, shots directed at the net, excluding blocks — per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 action), but were merely average (14th) at preventing those same types of chances on defense. Yes, part of the Rangers’ blueprint has always been to rely on Lundqvist to make saves, but their defense usually makes him work more than it did Thursday.
In the playoffs, the Rangers’ offense-first tendencies have only been amplified. The following table lists how New York has done at generating and preventing Fenwick events per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, relative to the playoff-wide average rates (stats courtesy of the fantastic ExtraSkater.com). In addition, it lists how we’d expect them to perform against each opponent, based on those opponents’ regular-season numbers relative to the league average.
For example, the Rangers’ rate of Fenwick events per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play against the Philadelphia Flyers was 10.3 greater than the playoff-wide average. But the Flyers also allowed two more events per 60 minutes than the average team during the regular season, so the Rangers’ performance was more like 8.3 Fenwick events per 60 minutes better than an average team.
The difference between the actual and expected rates is, theoretically, how the Rangers have performed relative to average after accounting for their strength of schedule. By that measure, New York’s offense has played above average (if below its regular-season standards), while its defense has been worse than the norm, even after effectively shutting down Montreal for most of the Eastern Conference finals. This is consistent with the Rangers’ regular-season profile of a good offense and middling defense, despite the deep playoff run.
Of course, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether a team generates chances on offense or prevents them on defense, as long as it manages to control possession of the puck. But that’s why the Rangers might be in for an uphill battle in this Stanley Cup Final, regardless of whether the Los Angeles Kings or Chicago Blackhawks prevail. Those teams finished the regular season No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in close-score Fenwick percentage, which measures a team’s share of all unblocked shots directed at either net during its games. The Rangers finished sixth, and they haven’t really done much to suggest they’ve improved in that area since the postseason commenced. (In fact, their 50.5 Fenwick percentage in the playoffs is below what we’d expect an average team to have done against their slate of opponents.)
Fenwick isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it has a good track record when it comes to postseason success. And that, coupled with the West winner’s home-ice advantage, suggests the Rangers are unlikely to be favored when the Final starts Wednesday.