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April 12, 2012
NHL Playoffs, First Round
New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators

by Ryan Popilchak

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The matchup of the Rangers and the Senators pits the proverbial powerhouse (Rangers) versus the upstarts (Senators).

Ottawa looked left for dead after last season, but somehow had enough of an offensive core to rebuild around quite quickly. Resurgences from Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and Milan Michalek have been paired with the Norris-worthy emergence of Erik Karlsson to score their way into the playoffs.

The Rangers took a good, solid team and added the prize of free agency in Brad Richards. The former Conn Smythe winner may not have set the point-scoring pace that many thought he would, but the Rangers have ridden the Richards-Gaborik-Hagelin line and the superb play of "King" Henrik Lundqvist to within a hair of the President's Trophy.

If nothing else, every hockey fan should hope the Senators, or the refs or even just a reporter with a legitimate question finds a way to anger John Tortorella. The head coach of the Rangers has the most entertaining quotes and rants in the sport outside of Ilya Bryzgalov.

New York Offense vs. Ottawa Defense

New York Rangers Offense: +2.8 GVT (Rank: 12th in NHL)
Ottawa Senators Defense: -19.7 GVT (Rank: 30th in NHL)
Ottawa Senators Goaltending: -2.6 GVT (Rank: 19th in NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, +25.1 GVT

The Rangers offense revolves around the line of Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, and Carl Hagelin. In fact, Gaborik and Hagelin are the only Rangers forwards to score more than 2.0 points per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time. Richards was close (1.92 points per 60), but the Rangers are far from having top-end scoring depth.

However, the good news for the Rangers is that they get to face the cure for any ailing offense, the Senators defense. Filip Kuba, Karlsson, and Sergei Gonchar played more difficult competition than any other rearguard on the Senators. Of the trio, only Karlsson was positive in possession relative to the rest of the squad.

Ottawa also had struggles between the pipes, but essentially was slightly below average. Starter Craig Anderson had a .920 save percentage at even strength, but the combination of Alex Auld (.897), Ben Bishop (.916), and Robin Lehner (.948) combined for .916 on the season. While goaltending hasn't been their Achilles heel, it's not a point of strength either.

Advantage: New York Rangers

Ottawa Offense vs. New York Defense

Ottawa Senators Offense: +25.8 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
New York Rangers Defense: +20.1 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
New York Rangers Goaltending: +17.0 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Total: Ottawa Senators, -11.3 GVT

This is where the series will be won or lost. Much like fans love seeing a high-flying offense versus an iron defense in football, the clash in styles will be apparent. In some ways, this series could mirror that of Anaheim versus Nashville last postseason, when the Predators were charged with neutralizing the incredible offense of the Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan line with the stalwart pairing of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.

Ottawa possesses three players who finished in Offensive GVT's Top 35 ranks with Erik Karlsson (fourth), Jason Spezza (sixth), and Daniel Alfredsson (34th) all looking potent while the puck is on their stick.

Ottawa also has four forwards who averaged over 2.0 points per 60 minutes of even strength time in Spezza, Nick Foligno, Milan Michalek, and Alfredsson. Kyle Turris was the next in line, clocking in with 1.74 points per 60. That kind of scoring depth forces opposing teams to match lines well, embrace the roles for shutdown defensemen, and rely on solid goaltending.

Fortunately for the Rangers, they have all of those prerequisites. Defensemen Ryan McDonagh (fourth), Dan Girardi (seventh), and Michael Del Zotto (28th) all rank quite highly in Defensive GVT while Henrik Lundqvist had the third-highest GVT of any goaltender this past season.

At forward, the Rangers possess one of my favorite matchup centers, Brandon Dubinsky. Dubinsky started only 41.8% of his shifts in the offensive zone, faced top-line competition, and still had a relative Corsi of 8.8. Ryan Callahan is equally capable of facing top competition but is not quite as possession-strong as Dubinsky. Brian Boyle is also capable of being buried in his own end (28.8 ZS%), facing second-line competition and keeping his head above water possession-wise. Combined with the assortment of defensive blueliners, Tortorella has plenty of weapons to throw at Spezza, Karlsson, and company.

While Ottawa has a high-flying offense, the Rangers have more than enough tools to neutralize it.

Advantage: New York Rangers

New York Power Play vs. Ottawa Penalty Kill

New York Rangers Power Play: -2.1 GVT (Rank: 20th in NHL)
Ottawa Senators Penalty Kill: -1.4 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, -0.7 GVT

The Rangers have the second worst shot-generating power play in the playoffs, as only Phoenix was worse. While only generating 43.6 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 time, the Rangers aren't making up for it with the percentages.

The Senators aren't much better on the penalty kill, but at least they're league average. They were 23rd in the NHL at shot-prevention (52.9 shots per 60), but spent the second-most time at 4-on-5 of any team in the league.

Advantage: A clash of ugly; it's a draw

Ottawa Power Play vs. New York Penalty Kill

Ottawa Senators Power Play: +1.4 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
New York Rangers Penalty Kill: +11.1 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Total: Ottawa Senators, -9.7 GVT

Despite the offensive firepower, the Senators power play is middle of the pack. And it's not like the Senators just couldn't get the bounces. They were 16th in the NHL at generating shots when 5-on-4, with only 47.6 per 60 minutes.

The Rangers rely on the superb forward trio of Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, and Ryan Callahan to log penalty kill minutes, while McDonagh and Girardi average over three minutes per game on the kill. In this case, team defensive prowess appears to be duplicated on special teams. The Rangers were ninth in the NHL at shot prevention (46.6 per 60) in 4-on-5 situations.

In net, the addition of Lundqvist's solid .905 save percentage while shorthanded is enough to put this unit in the penalty-killing elite.

Advantage: New York Rangers

Season Series Ottawa won three out of four matchups between the two teams during the regular season, with one victory coming in a shootout.

Intangibles & Injuries

Chris Neil suffered a strange injury during a shootout drill that caused him to miss the final game of the season. At this point, it's unclear whether he will be ready to play in Game 1 of the series. While Neil isn't considered one of Ottawa's top players, and has slipped the last few years, he is one of the few veterans on the team that can help the young players prepare for and deal with the pressure of the playoffs.

Kyle Turris has been much improved since he transferred from the more defensive system of the Phoenix Coyotes to the free-flowing offensive style of the Senators. He's been a positive possession player (10.69 Corsi, 4.3 relative Corsi) against decent competition and without super-cushioned zone time (52.0 ZS%). He may prove to be a key scoring option for the Senators if the Spezza line consistently sees the shutdown pairing of McDonagh and Girardi.

Prediction

New York Rangers: +39.0 GVT (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Ottawa Senators: +9.0 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, +30.0 GVT

Rangers were class-of-NHL for most of the season and narrowly missed President's Trophy while playing in toughest division in the NHL.

Ottawa has made great strides this season but likely won't be able to match a very well-constructed Rangers squad.

One statistically oddity that appears to clash with GVT's assessment of the two teams is that Ottawa is actually the better possession club. With the score close, Ottawa had at least a 1% advantage over the Rangers in Fenwick rate, both overall and on the road (2%). They also hold a 2.8% advantage over the Rangers in Score-Adjusted Fenwick since the trade deadline, according to Eric T at Broad Street Hockey.

Overall, the teams are actually closely matched, but a major edge goes to the Rangers in net. Unless Craig Anderson dramatically outplays King Henrik, I don't see the Senators having a chance.

To quote Mr. Tortorella, it's time for me to wrap this up. "He needs to shut up—and I do as well."

New York Rangers in five games

Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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