Two losses in a row have the New York Rangers on the brink of elimination after they seemed close to reaching their first Stanley Cup final since 1994. Has superstar netminder Henrik Lundqvist come up short? Or has their vaunted shot blocking let them down?
You've heard all about it. When the Blueshirts are winning, they're blocking tons of shots, with Lundqvist cleaning up anything that happens to get through. Coach John Tortorella demands that his players play hard, including repeatedly throwing their bodies in front of frozen rubber disks being fired at 100 mph. And when his players don't meet those standards (cough, Marian Gaborik, cough), they can expect to spend extra time on the bench or in the pressbox.
Think about it: Was it any surprise when Ryan Callahan was named team captain in the preseason? The gritty, self-sacrificing style of the U.S. Olympian was exactly what his coach wanted from all of his players. A captain's job is to lead by example. In Callahan, Tortorella had the perfect example of how he wanted his team to play.
But has shot blocking really been part of the Blueshirts' recipe for success, or is it just an overblown narrative? Let's dig into some numbers to find out.
First of all, what you can say about a blocked shot -- like a hit or a takeaway -- is that you can't record the stat unless the other team has the puck to begin with. And as better teams possess the puck more, it's the lesser teams that tend to lead the league in hits and blocked shots.
Sure enough, the top three teams in blocked shots were the New York Islanders (1,364), Minnesota Wild (1,347) and Montreal Canadiens (1,341), all non-playoff teams. The team that came in fourth place, however, was the Rangers (1,338).
But guess who came in last? Would you believe it was New York's foe in the East finals, the New Jersey Devils (928)?
Yet something is wrong with that ranking, and it's a major confounding factor in looking at raw blocked shots: scorer bias at various arenas. While the Devils were credited with 606 blocked shots on the road in 2011-12 (10th in the NHL), they tallied only 322 blocks at the Prudential Center. That's only 53 percent of their road total, and over 25 percent lower than any other team. Other arenas had lesser but still significant variations, with home blocked shots ranging from 81 percent to 122 percent of road blocked shots. This shows how subjective the stat can be.
Undercounting and overcounting blocks, 2011-12
Rank Team Home BS Road BS H:R Bias
1 NJD 322 606 53%
2 CGY 515 643 80%
3 BOS 469 585 80%
4 CBJ 472 582 81%
5 LAK 435 534 81%
26 SJS 721 606 119%
27 MTL 730 611 119%
28 DAL 689 573 120%
29 TOR 671 552 122%
30 EDM 680 559 122%
So, to get a better idea of who led the league in blocked shots, it's best to adjust to a value that's proportional to road blocked shots -- roughly twice the number.
Blocked shots, adjusting for arena bias
Rank Team ABS
1 MIN 1450
2 NYI 1332
3 NYR 1322
4 NSH 1291
5 CGY 1265
26 LAK 1051
27 DET 1043
28 PHX 1037
29 PIT 1003
30 VAN 972
ABS - Adjusted Blocked Shots
Though the Rangers remain among the league leaders, we see the two Western Conference finalists among the bottom teams in shot blocking. Since the lockout, there's no strong correlation, but teams that block more shots also tend to allow more shots and more goals.
Even when you tease out a team's shot-blocking propensity by looking at blocks per shot attempt (therefore putting teams on equal ground as far as the volume of shots), you find that this skill doesn't correlate with winning or even preventing goals. How can that be?
First, it's because teams win in many ways. A team that's good at faceoffs might be poor at blocking shots, and vice versa.
Second, a failed block frequently screens the goalie, calling for a difficult save to be made. You need to look back no further than Game 4 between the Rangers and Devils. Bryce Salvador scored from 56 feet, past an attempted block by Callahan, not to mention a maze of bodies, and Ruslan Fedotenko didn't require more than a screen by Marek Zidlicky to tally the Rangers' only score. Neither player is exactly a sniper. The chance of an unscreened shot going in by either player would have been slim. In each case, the attempted block was a major factor in the puck to going into the net.
Finally, there's the injury factor. Every block is a potential injury. Remember last year's playoffs? Callahan missed the five-game series against the Washington Capitals because he broke an ankle getting in the way of a late-season Zdeno Chara slap shot. Are the blocks worth the time missed, especially by key players? It wasn't worth it for New York in 2010-11.
At the end of the day, the question stands: Is the Rangers' shot blocking helping them win?
There's certainly a case to be made for it, at least in the series against the Capitals and Devils. Versus Washington, New York won the game with their highest blocks per shot attempt rate (Game 7), while they lost the two games with their lowest block rates (Games 4 and 6). Against New Jersey -- after adjusting for the Prudential Center -- the Rangers have won the two games with their highest block rates (Games 1 and 3) and have lost the other three. But it's a small sample and certainly all of the games don't fit into a neat pattern.
One follow-up question arises: Are the blocks themselves winning games for the Rangers? Maybe, but another explanation is possible. Games where you see an outstanding effort in blocking shots are likely indicative of a high "battle level" (coaches love to say that) by the Blueshirts. The blocks might be helping the cause a bit, but mostly they're indicating that the team's focus and intensity are where their coach wants them to be.
Can it work as a long-term strategy? The Rangers looked to be a worn-out, lifeless team against the Devils in Game 4 and early on in Game 5. Long series are a wear in themselves, but Tortorella's approach is likely to take that much more tread off the tires. Even if the Rangers manage to make it past New Jersey, it's hard to believe that there will be much left of the Blueshirts to face the Los Angeles Kings.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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