At 7:00 PM tonight, the New York Rangers will take the ice for Game Five of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins down three games to one. From Mar. 25 to their final meeting on Apr.7, the Rangers held a Pittsburgh offense led by two Hart trophy-winning (MVP) centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to just three goals, and more importantly, in game one, the Rangers looked to be in the driver’s seat by jumping out to a two-goal lead.
However, they don’t say a two-goal lead is ‘the worst lead in hockey’ for nothing and after Filip Chytil‘s goal was disallowed in the third period of game one due to Kaapo Kakko‘s goalie interference, Pittsburgh stole the game one. In-game two, Rangers head coach, Gerard Gallant had his Blueshirts fired up and they blew the Pens out by a score of 5-2 behind a strong performance from their goaltender who was recently nominated for the Vezina trophy, Igor Shesterkin, and a three-point night from Artemi Panarin.
Nevertheless, Pittsburgh found a way to respond in games three and four of this first-round playoff series. Riding the energy wave of their tremendous home crowd, the Pens scored an incredible seven goals in both games three and four, as chants of “Igor, Igor” have rained down on Shesterkin. Mike Sullivan’s team has earned two big wins even though they were forced to start third-string goalie, Louis Domingue since game two. Despite this, the Penguins have overwhelmed a Rangers team who were confident heading into this matchup. So, let’s analyze why the Rangers will face an early exit from the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs when they step onto the Garden ice for game five, tonight at 7:00 PM.
Analyzing the Performance of New York’s Top Guns
“A fish rots from the head down” is a saying that can be applied to an organization or team. In the case of the 2021-22 New York Rangers, it means that they will only succeed if their leaders lead. Perhaps one leadership issue with the Rangers has been that they have no captain. You can’t argue with the team’s success which includes finishing second in their division and you also can’t deny that likely candidates like Chris Kreider have had more success individually than they ever have in their careers.
However, there is something to be said of a team having a strong captain like the Penguins do with their captain, Sidney Crosby has led this franchise to their last three cups. Despite being 34 years of age, Sid the Kid has been as good as ever and has scored two goals and seven assists (nine points) in just four games which has bled into the success of linemate Jake Guentzel. The latter has scored five times in this series and pretty much every goal that Guentzel has scored has been a momentum-changer.
In that triple-overtime game that kicked off this series, it was Guentzel who got Pittsburgh’s first goal of the series. Then, the shifty winger got the next goal which tied the game, which was absolutely massive. On Guentzel’s first goal in game one, the Rangers failed to clear the puck out of their defensive zone right after Shesterkin made a great save. This extra zone time allowed Guentzel to sneak over to Shesty’s backdoor, where he was left completely uncovered and scored.
This is not a surprise because it was not the Rangers’ defensemen that allowed them to clinch the playoffs two weeks before the season ended, it was Shesterkin who in the words of his coach “allowed us to win games that we probably should not have…” early on in the season. Furthermore, only Rangers alternate captain, Jacob Trouba and his partner K’Andre Miller have been plusses during this eastern conference quarterfinal However, the problem has not just been the Rangers defense– it’s been their first line as well. With the exception of the Rangers’ win in game two Pittsburgh’s first line has played really smart against the Rangers’ first line and taken advantage of their naivete.
Two advanced stats, “Fenwick-for percentage” (FF%) (above 50% shows a player’s team controlled the puck more often) and offensive zone starts which is a calculation of how many offensive zone faceoffs a player had. The Penguins’ first-line center Sidney Crosby has a 62 FF% in the first four games of this series and has squared up for offensive zone face-offs 64% of the time, as well. Meanwhile, During the regular season where he scored 80 points, Mika Zibanejad’s Fenwick-for percentage was 54 % but when facing Crosby’s line in this series it has been a 44%– 18 points worse than Crosby’s while he’s had offensive zone face-offs, 15 percent less of the time than Sid the Kid.
But let’s not pick on Mika, what about Chris Kreider who was the third-best goal scorer in the league this season? Well, Kreider has two goals and two assists this series, which is one point less than the Pens’ first-line right-winger, Bryan Rust. Now about those advanced stats, well Rust has a 59% FF % while Kreider (who everyone agrees is a better talent) has posted a 46.9% Fenwick-for. In addition to this, the Penguins are three-for-six on their last six power plays while New York has gone zero for their zero in their last four attempts on the man-advantage. Overall, Mike Sullivan’s Pittsburgh team has controlled the puck more than 60% of the time which is keeping the Rangers big-name forwards at bay and allowing Crosby and Malkin to execute.
Can the Rangers Regain their Mojo?
Its totally irreverent to quote a comedy film like ‘Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me,’ but there is a nugget of knowledge in there. In this film, legendary TV host, Jerry Springer gives the audience a lesson when he says to the audience, “nobody can take away your mojo because what we’re looking for is inside of us.” When it comes to why the Rangers have lost their last two games to the Penguins, it may not be about what they can do but what they will do to stop their opponent, which will come from within them.
When a reporter asked Gallant if it’s been his players who had no playoff experience coming into this series that have hurt him so far, he responded this way.
I wouldn’t use the word ‘inexperienced’, I’d use the word ‘not committed’ to playing the right way. We played the right way at home so there’s no reason we couldn’t in this building. It’s not just the inexperienced guys either, tonight you saw a lot of bad plays by a lot of people.”New York Rangers head coach, Gerard Gallant
Gallant was correct since ‘Laffy’ scored just two minutes into the first period of game four. It was not a garbage goal in front of the Penguins’ net either but a nice wrist shot from beyond the tops of the circles.
In fact, Lafreniere made an opportunistic play in what was a strong period for the Rangers where they conceded just one power-play goal to Crosby. The problem is that the team did not win the battles they needed to all over the ice as they did in the first period in the second period which ended up with Pittsburgh scoring three unanswered goals. If the Rangers want to survive elimination and win tomorrow, they need to play hard all over the ice as opposed to how their head coach described their play which was ‘soft’. In the first period, they really didn’t wear the Penguins down enough by dumping and chasing and keeping the play in Pittsburgh’s D-zone. I really believe that by further simplifying their game and absolutely forgetting ‘drop-passes’ and taking all the unnecessary plays out of their game, they will be able to keep the game close tomorrow at the Garden.
When you get down in a game, you’re forcing things and we’ve said this all year, when you break down a lot of our goals [they’re simple] expect more pucks on net and a more hungry team that’s a little more straight lines. You can say straight lines, east-west but what it comes down to is [being better] individually the battle level, it’s got to better than last night and it’s not for lack of caring it’s just a bad performance and we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”Rangers center and 10-year veteran, Ryan Strome
Strome touched on what the team should play like in game five but for a team that finished just four points away from first place in the Metropolitan Division tomorrow’s game is as much about pride as it is winning one game. The Rangers had their best season since 2014-15 when they won the President’s Trophy and had the best record in the league. That team was different because it had a great veteran goaltender but there is no reason why this Rangers team that finished five points behind where that team did, can’t come out and hand a hot team a loss.
With ‘nothing to lose’ as Adam Fox described his team’s standing heading into game five of their first-round playoff series against a hot Pittsburgh Penguins team, they absolutely have to give everything got if not for themselves, then for their goaltender who gave them 100% every start this season.
We just have to come out and play hard,” Fox said, Coming back home will hopefully give us a little spark because you know down three-one, honestly, you don’t have much to lose and we just have to leave it all out there and let the result take care of itself.”New York Rangers defenseman, Adam Fox
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