The New York Rangers went into Tampa Bay Thursday night sporting a nine-game winning streak, and left the game with a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat thanks to a late shorthanded goal by Lightning center Valtteri Filppula. Now that the streak is over, there might be cause for concern that a less friendly run could be on the horizon.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault will be one of the first to admit that New York wasn’t perfect while they were piling up the victories. Even though they were getting the results, a third of the wins were one-goal games and one victory, Nov. 14 over the Senators, required a shootout for the Blueshirts to pick up the win.
“We still have areas that we are working on and need to improve,” Vigneault told the New York Daily News’ Peter Botte after the winning streak was stretched to six. “We are very aware of that. We’re like any team in the NHL, you have to get better as the season moves forward and that’s what we’re going to continue to strive for.”
And the Rangers certainly have something to strive for. If they can’t turn around their puck possession game, and if their shooting and save percentages are any indication, Vigneault’s club could be due some unfavorable luck.
Through 19 games this season, the Rangers are 14-3-2, but their underlying numbers aren’t pretty. When it comes to the possession game, the Blueshirts have managed a shot attempts for percentage of 46 percent. That’s second-worst in the entire NHL and the only team worse are the 26th-place Colorado Avalanche who are operating at 44 percent.
Luckily, we’ve seen teams buck a bad possession number for several seasons now. The Avalanche have done it, the Calgary Flames pulled it off in 2014-15 and the lockout-shortened season saw the Toronto Maple Leafs fight their way into the post-season despite bad puck possession numbers.
That’s to say puck possession isn’t the only statistic that matters. But it matters more when a winning streak is also paired with a team with an unsustainable PDO, or combined shooting and save percentage. Normally, a team on a winning streak may see a boost to one or the other. It could be a red-hot team is shooting out the lights, or the goaltender between the pipes is in full-on brick wall mode. For the Rangers, it’s been a little from column A and a little from column B.
The Rangers’ current 5-on-5 PDO sits at 106.7. Generally speaking, teams will sit in and around the 100 mark by season’s end. For a team to have a 106.7 PDO, just about everything has to be clicking. That’s been exactly the case for the Rangers. New York’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage is 10.6 percent, a full 0.5 ahead of the next closest team, Minnesota. That’s due to regress.
The highest shooting percentage of any team in 2014-15 was the high-scoring Lightning, who ended the year at 9.1 percent. And the Rangers, who finished third in goals for last season, finished at 8.8 percent in 2014-15, which was the highest percentage since 2005-06’s 9.2 percent finish. Not only is 10.6 percent a gaudy shooting percentage, it’s one that simply won’t hold. That’s not to say the goals will dry up altogether, but rather an indication that the offensive punch could slow in the coming weeks.
As for save percentage, it’s not hard to understand why the Blueshirts are sitting atop the league with a 5-on-5 SP of .961. The Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goaltenders in the world and is currently on a run of play that has him sitting atop the league in every meaningful goaltending category outside of shutouts — Lundqvist has one and three goaltenders are tied with three. But .961 is .015 ahead of the next closest club, the Florida Panthers, and it’s 2.6 percent higher than any Rangers 5-on-5 SP of the past decade.
The major issue is that there’s no precedent for Lundqvist to continue what has been an incredible level of play thus far. No goaltender has had a 5-on-5 SP above .949 for a full season, and even that hasn’t been accomplished since then-Boston Bruins netminder Tim Thomas played lights out in the 2010-11 season. Lundqvist’s career best mark is .936, which came in 2012-13. Is maintaining his current .961 pace possible? Sure. Is it realistic? No.
In all likelihood, Lundqvist’s play will slide to a lesser extent. He won’t become a replacement-level goaltender or be mired in the worst slump of his career, but ‘King Henrik’ could very well have a streak where he’s being beaten multiple times a night. When those outings come, it could be on the same night when the Rangers’ offense levels off and they can only muster one or two goals for. And that’s when the losses will come.
They won’t be blowouts, they won’t be embarrassing, but the Rangers are due for some bad luck. How New York plays through it could be the determining factor when it comes to where they sit at season’s end and whether they're Stanley Cup contenders or pretenders. This early season run could help them buck a big slide down the Metropolitan Division standings, but chances are they’re going to have to fight tooth and nail to stay atop the division.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)