The NHL is a copycat league. Once a team establishes itself as a successful franchise, other general managers look at its style and construction in hopes of replicating it with their squad. The Colorado Avalanche realized their potential this season, and the New York Rangers can learn a few things from their style of play.
Holding a 2-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Final, the Avalanche have shown a lot in the three games, regardless of their loss in Game 3. The New York Rangers are a team on the rise. They had an impressive run to the Eastern Conference Final this year, but they know they must improve their game to sustain that success. We all made the comparisons between the Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, having to lose before finding their winning ways, but the same can be said for the Avalanche.
Losing in the second round despite the lofty expectations multiple times has allowed the Avalanche to learn, adapt, and go on a 12-3 run through the first three rounds. Success stems from defeat, and both teams battling for the Stanley Cup are a testament to that.
The Rangers have the offensive talent to play a similar game to the Avalanche and need to focus on mimicking their style for continued success. The Avalanche have stars, but the collective buy-in from all players makes them a phenomenal team. New York does not possess the same speed as Colorado, but the Rangers have a more physical component they can utilize well.
Here are three areas the Rangers need to replicate if they want to have a postseason run like the Avs.
No. 3: Rangers Need Clean Zone Exits
When watching the Rangers this postseason, one thing stood out to me as a glaring issue. Coach Gerard Gallant’s group struggled mightily at getting out of their own zone way too often. Too often, the Rangers rimmed the puck around the boards just to see the opposing defenseman beat the winger to the spot.
If you can break out of your own zone cleanly, you can create more offense and stymie the opposition’s offensive zone possession time. When you watch the Avalanche, especially in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, their ability to retrieve Lightning dump-ins and break out cleanly was evident. It led to excellent scoring chances and limited Tampa to just 36 percent of the scoring chances in Game 1 and a meager 23 percent in Game 2, per Natural Stat Trick.
The Rangers could not do that all postseason and were pinned in their zone consistently by their three postseason opponents. If puck retrieval and breakouts become efficient, the Rangers can access their transition game while improving their main flaw, which is the possession metrics.
The youth on both the back end and on the wings were able to experience the speed of the postseason. Now they understand how limited your time and space are, and if they watch game film on the Avalanche, they can find ways to alleviate pressure and cleanly exit their own end.
No. 2: Aiming to Replicate the Avalanche at Five-on-Five
The knock on the Rangers all season was their lack of possession at five-on-five and how it would eventually catch up to them. It did take until the Eastern Conference Final, but their sluggish play at full strength was a focal point of their defeat.
Colorado has dominated the postseason in tune to a 58.31 Corsi-for percentage (CF%) at five-on-five. During the regular season, the Avalanche managed a CF% of 52.86, good for seventh in the NHL. Flip to the Rangers; they managed to improve at the end of the regular season, moving up to 25th in the league with a 47.03 CF%. In the postseason, that number dipped back down to a 44.85 CF%, 12th out of the 16 playoff teams.
If the Rangers can improve their possession metrics, even just come close to the 50 percent mark, they will have success. Unlike the Avalanche, the Rangers have Igor Shesterkin, who has proven he can easily erase glorious chances. Having a great goaltender gives the Rangers a chance every night, but improving the team play in front of Shesterkin will catapult the Blueshirts into perennial contenders.
The Avalanche have had a 59.29 percent share of the scoring chances this postseason at five-on-five. That is a direct result of their excellent possession game. On the opposite end of the spectrum were the Rangers, who finished their run with 44.96 percent of the scoring chances at full strength. Increasing their chances and decreasing the opposition’s chances has to be the focal point of Gallant’s approach next season.
No. 1: Rangers Need Consistency in Their Forecheck
During the first period of the Rangers’ opening playoff game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the forecheck created an edge that gave all Rangers fans hope. Unfortunately, that dominant forecheck was only seen in glimpses throughout the remainder of the playoffs. Being able to get consistent forecheck pressure will open up the ice for the Rangers’ stars to capitalize on glorious scoring chances that they failed to generate in the late rounds this year.
Colorado is not the biggest and most physical team, but their speed to the puck and relentless pressure allows them to generate turnovers in the offensive zone. They pester every puck carrier, fill lanes correctly, and never dump the puck into the zone without a purpose. Too often, the Rangers would be gassed out by sustained pressure from their opponent, chip the puck into the offensive zone, and watch the other team pick it up and exit cleanly.
Minimizing your time in the defensive zone and pinning the opponent in their end is the next step for this Rangers team. We all remember ‘The Shift’ when the kids line relentlessly pursued the puck before scoring in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. That type of puck pursuit cannot be a once-per-game occurrence but has to be something done by each line each shift.
These changes are not rocket science, but they must be implemented and bought into by stars, role players, and extra skaters alike. It took the Avalanche the better portion of three seasons to perfect their game and get to the Stanley Cup Final. Persistence from coach Jared Bednar and buy-in from the Colorado skaters have allowed them to get better each season.
For the Rangers, that mold is one they need to emulate. They got a taste of success and defeat this season. The young players now have seen how hard it is to play in a playoff game. The will to get better and the desire to lift the Stanley Cup must pave the way for the Rangers to improve these three facets of their game. And if they copy the Avalanche’s style of play, they too can be playing for the Stanley Cup.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!