The Capitals, The Rangers and The Game of Zones

NHL Playoffs, NHL, Jay Beagle, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers
Jay Beagle’s goal in the Capitals 1-0 win over New York handed the Rangers an NHL playoff record. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Another Capitals playoff series, another game seven. It’s up there with the start of Baseball season, warmer temperatures, outdoor cooking and blooming trees as the rites of spring. This hockey team never makes it easy and why would that change in its 40-year history? Now, everyone and their mother will continue to harp on the fact that, with a 3-1 series lead over the New York Rangers, the Capitals will add another to a long list of playoff series that they should have won. The advanced stats and the explanation behind them, however, tell a completely different story.

The Numbers

The easiest stat that explains why the Capitals should not treat this like a collapse is the fact that the Rangers won the President’s trophy. Really, it should be the Rangers that should feel embarrassed to make such a favorable series based on regular season standings points difficult. Yes, never trust President’s Trophy winners, but underlying numbers give evidence that President’s Trophy winners tend to be more mirages than true contenders of the Stanley Cup due to a handful of underlying numbers.

Through advanced stats, it’s the Capitals that should have the upper hand. During the regular season, Washington’s score adjusted shot attempt percentage at even strength was 52.0%, while New York’s was at 50.6%. None of them were of top-ten quality, but the Capitals certainly have the edge, especially when losing the lead.

However, the Rangers have actually been the ones winning the score-adjusted shot attempt battle this series and if it wasn’t for games one and six, the margin of victory would have been even greater. When score-adjusted, the Rangers have had the edge with 59.2 shot attempts generated per 60 minutes versus 58.8 against. In terms of scoring chances, the closest thing to measured high quality shot attempts in advanced statistics, the Rangers have a 30.1 to 28.9 edge on a per-60 minute basis at even strength.

While scoring has been in short supply this whole series, both shot attempt and scoring chance rates indicate that this has been an end to end battle with only two world class goaltenders preventing anything from going in. That is certainly the case when you look at the fact that the Rangers only have an on-ice shooting percentage of 5.6% at even strength while the Capitals sit at 6.3%. For the Rangers, that is more than three percent lower than their conversion rate during regular season; a statistic that only Tampa Bay and Calgary topped this season. If it wasn’t for the last two games, New York’s shooting percentage gets even smaller at 4%, which is the equivalent to the worst shooting team in the NHL.

So what is giving New York such an edge in putting pucks towards goal when they weren’t expected to, especially with Mats Zuccarello not in the lineup all series, now that their puck luck is improving?

Alain Vigenault’s Zag after the Zig

One groundbreaking research done in the advanced statistics community in the last couple of years has been the difference in shot generation when entering the offensive zone by carrying the puck in versus dumping it. With the help of Eric Tulsky, Cory Sznajder and many others, it was determined that, granted with an incomplete sample, that carrying the puck delivers approximately double the shot generation than it does when playing the puck via dump and chase.

However, it has been the dump and chase that has actually helped the Rangers out in more ways than one during this series. From the get-go, Barry Trotz has made sure that Washington stopped at nothing to prevent the Rangers from getting into the offensive zone with speed and he’s done so with a three to four man wall to meet them at the blue line on most occasions. If the Rangers forwards try to carry it on a 3-on-2 or 2-on-2 rush, a Caps defender was always there to push the puck carrier to the outside and either smash them to the boards or retrieve the puck.

This clearly slowed the Rangers down with their high quality chances from a visual standpoint, but what Alain Vigenault has done to counter Trotz’s neutral zone lock has been what makes him one of the best coaches in the NHL. Vigenault has implemented two types of zone entries: one being the conventional dump and chase, the other being a calmer carry that finishes along the left or right point followed by a pass to a trailing teammate via center-line drive.

We’ll talk about the former later, but one perfect example of the latter is Derick Brassard’s goal in game four.

It’s a perfect alternative for a Rangers team that is chock full of fast skating forwards and the likes of Brassard, Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin salivate on these drives and can not wait to score on them. It really forces the defense to think twice and begin to open up the trap that they set up initially to close either the passer and/or the shooter and, as a result, gets their positioning off balance.

The Capitals have not done that so far, whether that is beneficial or to their detriment, but what has really hurt them has been something that should play into their favor if probabilities determined all hockey plays.

One way the Rangers have proven to have faster forwards has been putting the pedal to the medal on chasing after the puck after dumping it into the zone. Along with that they do a fantastic job of covering the right areas to prevent Washington’s patented breakout play where they move it out of the zone by passing it to the center and begin another round of cycling or set offensive plays to generate more shots. This game plan pins their opponents in their own zone and forces them in long shifts and results in tiring bodies for the long term.

Washington’s players that are not a part of the top line have struggled miserably in this aspect of the game and it shows on the Rob Vollman usage chart. The shutdown line of Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast and Derek Stepan have been devouring the Capitals on these plays and the Rangers defensemen roam free in the middle of the ice and getting into prime real estate, feast on juicy passes from their forechecking teammates and shoot at close range. Dan Boyle’s goal in game six shows how it’s done by delivering a goal after receiving a pass from J.T. Miller after the hard work done by the rest of the fourth line.

You would think that, like most regular season games, issues such as failed breakouts and getting beaten to the puck on dump and chase are solvable issues to a low-probability attack. However, Vigenault’s players look like they have memorized Trotz’s breakout strategy like the lyrics to their favorite song. Considering game seven is coming up, pigs will fly if we see a new look breakout system out of Trotz’s camp without any ghastly missteps, so more of the same could be happening without the counter of more good old fashion hustle and hardwork from the Capitals end to get the puck out of there at all costs, legally.

Don’t Worry, Washington Can Board Battle Too

If there are positives to look at in Washington’s play, it’s that they certainly look like they can carry the puck in the offensive zone with speed much easier than the Rangers can. This is where the top line is at their best and you can hear it from the crowd when the Caps have played at home. In 2013, I thought Alex Ovechkin’s aura was gone and it wasn’t so much from the high goal-scoring numbers. It was the shear velocity and ferocity in which he had the puck on his stick, handled it from one zone to the next and then ripped his patented wrist shot that made goaltenders turtle no matter where the puck was going to go. You didn’t need to see it, you could hear it from the crowd with their collective gasps and their eagerness to rise as one from their seats. Not many players in sports, let alone hockey can create such emotion like that from the audience with their talents. It returned with an exclamation mark in game two of the Islanders series and it hasn’t looked back since.

But for the role players, they too can match the Rangers with a bit of their own dump and chase. Take a look at Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal to cut the lead in game six to make it 4-2.

That’s right, it took four players to retrieve that puck along the same vicinity along the boards to make that goal happen. But you can notice all the Capitals staying glued to the wall and using it as a security blanket to protect the puck from their defender. When it’s time to pass, a Capital glides it over to the next chunk of plywood and put enough English on it to continue the cycle and make sure the receiver performs the same level of puck control as his predecessor did. If a Capital is pinned to the boards or is in the middle of a 50-50 puck battle, teammates will join in to keep the possession alive or extended. If the puck squirts into open ice along the offensive zone, again, enough touch on the puck is used to make sure a Capital is there to retrieve it and perform the next task. In Joel Ward’s case in game six, it is to crash the net and take advantage of an exhausted Ranger defense to make it 4-3.

If the defensemen gets involved, he too will be hugged along the wall from either the left or right point in hopes of preventing the opposition from making the simple clear out of the zone. Space along the center of the ice is so small that establishing authority over their in a post-salary cap world is critical for success in the playoffs. The Capitals will achieve this by keeping the puck along the outside when pressuring the opposition on their breakout attempts. The boards and plexiglass are their friends for the Capitals.

In Game seven, the Caps must make this their bread and butter all sixty minutes and force the Rangers forwards into exhaustion without any hope of establishing their form of forechecking in the offensive zone. Literally, winning the dirty jobs along the boards has resulted in who has won the vast majority of the games in the Capitals-Rangers series and it will be no surprise if the same rings true for game seven.