Blueshirts defying NHL betting metric

Blueshirts defying NHL betting metric

The New York Rangers are now three wins away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. After dispatching the Lightning, 6-2, in Game 1, the Blueshirts are odds-on favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NHL’s showpiece in two week’s time.

The fact that the Rangers have made it this far is surprising for a number of reasons. The Blueshirts were expected to compete for a playoff spot this season and have enough star power that they’re not a Cinderella story, but very few people would have picked the Rangers to be in the final four when the season started.

The real surprise isn’t that the Rangers are where they are, but rather how they got here.

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At this point, it’s not a secret that the Blueshirts have been able to win games against the run of play. The knock on the Rangers during the regular season — especially in the first half of the campaign — was that they were too reliant on their goaltender. That never became a huge issue, though, as Igor Shesterkin had one of the best goaltending seasons we’ve ever seen. Shesterkin’s blood-and-thunder performance in goal allowed the Rangers runway to sort out their issues, which they started to do down the stretch.

Even with their post-deadline improvement, the Rangers still finished the regular season in the bottom-third of the league in five-on-five scoring, high-danger scoring chance rate and expected goals percentage.

When it comes to handicapping the NHL, five-on-five metrics are king. Of course other factors such as a team’s goaltending, special teams and finishing ability need to be factored in, but generally if you spend too much time in your own zone at five-on-five it will catch up to you.

The Rangers have come to be the exception to that rule.

For one reason or another, Gerard Gallant’s charges reverted to old clothes in Round 1 against the Penguins. Pittsburgh dominated play at five-on-five and was in control for large chunks of the series.

Igor Shesterkin saves.
Igor Shesterkin stops a shot in Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Getty Images

The Rangers did improve their defensive play in Round 2, but it was a similar story. The Hurricanes — like the Penguins playing without their starting goaltender — out-chanced the Blueshirts at five-on-five but gave it all back on special teams and in goal. Shesterkin was the MVP of Round 2, skating to a .945 save percentage and a +14.4 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx).

While the Rangers were the underdogs to start the series vs. Tampa Bay, there were plenty of signals that pointed to them taking Game 1. The Blueshirts were home, they’re as healthy as any team in the playoffs, and the Lightning were coming off a nine-day layoff after sweeping the Panthers in Round 2. It was as good a setup as the Blueshirts could have asked for considering the opponent and, to their credit, they took advantage of it to the tune of a 6-2 victory. Once again, the Rangers were presented with an opportunity and seized it.

Just how much you can glean from Game 1 remains to be seen. It was clear the Bolts were not at their best and that starts with goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who let in six goals after allowing just three in the entire four-game sweep against the Panthers — who set a record for most goals in a salary cap era season.

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After the win, the Rangers find themselves in unfamiliar territory. They are the favorites (-125) to win a series for the first time since before Game 1 against Pittsburgh and have their first series lead of the postseason. Additionally, they’re going up against a different animal than they saw in the first two rounds.

Like the Rangers, Tampa is a team that can defy analytics. The Lightning were decent at five-on-five during the regular season, but not near the top of the table like other Stanley Cup favorites. Additionally, the Bolts have something that can’t be quantified, which is the experience of winning 10 playoff series in a row. Tampa is a team that usually doesn’t beat itself, which is why Game 1 ended up being a must-win for the Rangers. If the Bolts are going to make errors, they must pay for them.

At this point it’s now fair to ask if too much has been made of New York’s poor five-on-five play. The Rangers may have the worst expected goals rate and high-danger chance rate of any team in the postseason, but they’re also one of four teams left. All that matters at this time of year is wins and the Rangers are showing an uncanny ability to take advantage of almost every break they catch — and they’re have been plenty of them.

Perhaps that’s a skill that only shows up in one place — the scoreboard.


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