We’ll be continuing our playoff feature by looking at the first round series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. This is one that most people will likely gloss over because it was a very quick series and didn’t have many surprises. Pittsburgh, despite their previous playoff struggles against the Rangers, were heavily favored and went into the playoffs as Cup favorites while New York had a much bleaker outlook. Most of that was due to the matchup they were handed, but the Rangers also had some pretty mediocre underlying numbers (48.5 Score Adjusted Fenwick) and were a bottom-ten team in this regard after the trade deadline. Compare that to where Pittsburgh ranks and how strong they were playing to finish the year and this looked like a mismatch.
The results didn’t end up being much different as Pittsburgh ended this series in five games and all of their wins came by two goals or more. Even with the Penguins missing Evgeni Malkin for one game and goaltender Matt Murray for two, they still made quick work of the Rangers. I was struggling to do a post on this series because things looked pretty cut-and-dry. The Penguins had more star power and just overpowered the Rangers. There wasn’t much else that needed to be said.
Was there more to this series than that? Let’s find out.
Under The Microscope: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
5v5 Shot Attempts (Corsi)
Right out of the gate we have a pretty big surprise here, as the Rangers actually outshot the Penguins at even strength. This is probably where the “shot quality” question comes into play and while a higher percentage of the Penguins shots were scoring chances, the Rangers had more chances overall and more shots where they were able to move the puck laterally in the offensive zone. This is likely more due to score effects than shot quality. Pittsburgh had a lead for 79 minutes during five-on-five play, which is about 35% of total five-on-five ice time to put it into perspective, and during that time, the Rangers outshot them 90-74 according to Corsica.Hockey. That isn’t as big of a differential as it could have been, but the Penguins did sit back a little while they had a lead (mainly in Game 5) and took a hit in the shot column as a result. This is where credit goes to Matt Murray for holding the fort down while the Penguins defended their lead.
Aside from the overall shot count, the other thing that stands out to me in the chart is how each teams created the majority of their shots. The Penguins heavily relied on their transition play to generate offense with more than 51% of their shots coming after they carried the puck in and they also created a decent amount of offense off turnovers, as well. The Rangers also had success when they were able to carry the puck in, but they relied way more on faceoff plays than Pittsburgh did.
It was a little weird to see Pittsburgh struggle in an area they were so strong in all season, but it seemed to wash out in the end because they outscored their problems. They have elite offensive players in their first three lines and can be deadly in the transition game since they are stacked with guys who can find the back of the net on just one shot. You can argue that it’s not sustainable, but we’re looking at only five games here so that was enough for them to get by.
One area Pittsburgh didn’t struggle in was zone entries, and we’ll dive into that next.
5v5 Zone Entries
New York had more overall entries and might have gained a possession advantage from that along with faceoffs, but Pittsburgh was still able to carry the puck into their zone at will. Now, there’s a chance the Rangers might have been okay with this. I don’t have access to their game plan, but if their plan was to pin Pittsburgh into their own zone and beat them with shot volume, then Pittsburgh carrying the puck in on 53% of their entries isn’t the worst thing in the world….if they could limit them to one-and-done chances. Problem is that didn’t happen. New York had the advantage in shots and were able to create offense off the forecheck, but Pittsburgh still beat them in the transition game and scored most of their goals this way. To add salt to the wound, New York scored all of their goals in transition and didn’t get see any rewards for the number of shots they created on the forecheck. Some of that was due to Murray/Zatkoff but thems the breaks.
Next we’ll look at which players did the most damage for Pittsburgh in the neutral zone.
Penguins 5v5 Zone Entries
Pittsburgh’s forwards had a lot of fun in the neutral zone with all but three players boasting a Carry-in Percentage of 50% or greater, which is considered above average for forwards. The names at the top of the list shouldn’t come off as a surprise to anyone, but it is interesting to see Conor Sheary rank so highly, especially when you consider the workload he had on his line. Sheary’s a small, quick player with a lot of skill, so perhaps it’s not that surprising to see him excel at making plays to get into the offensive zone. Still, him having a higher role in the neutral zone than Crosby is something I didn’t see coming, even if we’re looking at a short series.
Another player who sticks out here is Bryan Rust, who finds himself all the way in the right hand side of the graph. Rust started this series as a healthy scratch, then found himself playing on Malkin’s wing to playing on the fourth line for the last three games. That might have been the best spot for him, as he seemed to be what made that line go, with all due respect to Matt Cullen and Tom Kuhnhackl, who also did well for themselves. Rust just seemed to have the puck on his stick in the neutral zone more often than either of them.
Something else worth noting is that the Rangers kept shuffling their defense pairings throughout the series and it was pretty much out of necessity. They started without Ryan McDonagh, so that made things difficult and they kept shuffling players (sometimes mid-game) to find the right mix. Pittsburgh seemed to take advantage of whatever they were sending out and this group of defenders struggled mightily when it came to preventing entries, especially carry-ins.
This graph shows how often a Penguins player carried the puck into an offensive zone against each Rangers defenseman. I’ve highlighted some of the players who got hit hard. Some of the matchups are harder to see because of how often the Rangers shuffled their defense pairings around (Vingeault tends to do this more than most) but Pittsburgh seemed to have the most success against Kevin Klein and the rookie Brady Skjei. Sheary in particular had a field day against both of them. In their defense (pun not intended), most of the Rangers blue-line didn’t fair much better against Pittsburgh’s top-six with the exception of McDoangh, who was targeted only nine times and Dan Girardi, who played only two games. You’ll also see that Rust had decent success against almost everyone he was matched up against.
Now let’s see at how the Rangers players faired at entering the zone.
Rangers 5v5 Zone Entries
Rangers ended up with a scattered graph with eight of their forwards dumping the puck in on the majority of their entries which includes four players in their top-six. It was nice to see their defense jump into the play as often as they did, Skjei was especially impressive here, but when Dominic Moore is one of your best players in the neutral zone something is clearly wrong. New York runs a lot of set dump-in plays but with how little success they had at creating shots & goals off these plays, it wouldn’t have hurt to change things up a bit. The fact that they were dumping the puck in so often wasn’t the problem, but they were seeing next to no reward for it and their most skilled players were among the ones doing it the most. Derick Brassard and JT Miler were the main exceptions.
Now that we’ve covered most of what went down at even strength, let’s move onto the power play.
The power play was a major deciding factor in this series with Pittsburgh striking eight times with the man advantage on 21 opportunities. It made what was a three goal advantage at even strength completely insurmountable for the Rangers, who scored only one power play over five game. Just to make thing sting even more, they had three more minutes of power play time and the only five-on-three power play of the series, so they weren’t very efficient at all. You can see here that the Rangers had more shots but the Penguins had eight more chances and were way more efficient with converting on their opportunities.
Finding shot quality at even strength is usually a fruitless task, but on the power play things are a little different because you’re working against the clock with an extra man. Some teams might go for the shot-volume approach and it might work for them but power play designs & setups are meant to setup quality chances. Looking at where Pittsburgh was getting their shots from, it’s obvious that they were more effective in this regard.
The Penguins power play was all about setting up looks down low to the slot area and the Rangers did an incredibly poor job at defending this part of the ice and Pittsburgh exploited it. New York’s power play setup appeared to be completely different, as most of their shots came from the blue line or the high slot area. They had over twice as many screened shots as the Penguins, so getting traffic in front of the net was definitely a key, but they struggled to generate chances with this approach.
Penguins Power Play
Letang, Crosby, Kessel & Hornqvist were the key pieces for the Pittsburgh power play with the former two doing most of the setting up and the latter two finishing off most of their plays. You can see that both Crosby & Letang were able to setup Kessel five times a piece while Hornqvist created most of his chances off rebounds. A little interesting that Letang was the Penguins main distributor and not Crosby, but the Penguins defenseman did a fantastic job of getting the puck to their most dangerous players in the best spots.
Rangers Power Play
With so much of the Rangers power play shots coming from the blue line, it’s not a shocker to see Yandle directly involved with most of their offense. He was directly involved of 45.6% of the shots New York created on the power play and 56.1% of them went through Yandle in some way. The next closest player on their team was Derick Brassard with 36.8%, so that should give you an idea of how much Yandle was depended on. Brassard & Zuccarello were also relied on as the two high forwards and the latter had some trouble finding the net despite leading the team in power play chances. The rest of their players are petty jumbled. Rick Nash & Chris Kreider were primarily used as screens/net front options while Derek Stepan had some success in setting up Yandle for shots at the blue line.
It says a lot about a team that wins in dominant fashion despite not playing their best game and that seemed to be the case with Pittsburgh. They weren’t the even strength powerhouse they were for the latter half of the season, but they still made this a quick series by winning the special teams battle by a landslide and getting the edge in goaltending. Matt Murray had a great series and Pittsburgh was basically able to outscore most of their even strength problems.