The New York Rangers, in more ways than one, are playing with fire.
They are skating hard, finishing checks and snarling when they must. From the forwards on down to the defensemen, they are competing intensely for every last inch of ice on the 200-by-85-foot NHL surface, intent on winning each battle within the larger war. This is the kind of fire upon which seasons are built.
But they are also 3-for-33 on the power play since the playoffs began, not to mention 0 for their last 25. They haven’t scored a goal on the man advantage since game 2 of their first-round series against the Flyers, and have rarely come close in the interim. It hasn’t burned them yet, but this is the kind of fire upon which seasons are skewered.
Heading into Sunday night’s game two versus Pittsburgh, the Rangers have to consider themselves fortunate. Right? They have been flat-out crushed in the special-teams department the past two weeks, ranking dead last in both power play and penalty kill percentage within the surviving field of eight, and, miraculously, are as close as anyone else to hoisting the Cup.
But how much longer can the Blueshirts defy the odds? Isn’t it only a matter of time before their power play incompetence catches up to them and pops their postseason dreams? This team is living inside a bubble right now, where a most important part of the game has been hardly significant at all, and all bubbles must be burst.
Although maybe not this one.
The sphere of the playoffs is much different from that of the regular season, where bad habits are ultimately exposed over an 82-game schedule. But in the playoffs, where all sample sizes are smaller, it’s easier for teams to overcome some fundamental flaw – such as a feeble power play – and essentially disprove basic truths of the game.
Consider the power play percentages for the past three Stanley Cup champions. Their rank, among playoff teams, appears in parentheses.
2012-13 Blackhawks: 11.4% (13/16)
2011-12 Kings: 12.8% (12/16)
2010-11 Bruins: 11.4% (14/16)
If recent history is any indication, it’s quite possible for a team with a struggling power play to go the distance in the postseason. We wouldn’t go so far as to assume causation of course, but it’s important to note the relative lack of consequence of scoring (a lot) on the man advantage.
The Rangers, through eight playoff games, check in at 9.1 percent on the power play. That’s a lower conversion rate than any of the three above, but not by much. In fact if Martin St. Louis’ (erroneously) disallowed goal in game 5 against the Flyers had counted, the Rangers’ power play percentage would jump to 12.1 percent. Recently, that’s been enough.
Assuming, that is, that the other engines are running smoothly. For what allowed Chicago, L.A. and Boston to overcome their power play ineptitude was mechanical execution everywhere else. In particular, that trinity of champions had three things in common: a stifling penalty kill, an airtight defense (backed by a hot goalie), and a strong advantage in puck possession.
The Rangers, for their part, are mostly there. They have been sound defensively – though not quite airtight – with a goals against average of 2.25. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been good without being hot, which bodes well for this team when he truly catches fire. In terms of puck possession, the Blueshirts have picked up where the left off in the regular season, posting a 53.6 percent Fenwick advantage at 5 v. 5 close.
(And, for what it’s worth, their average of 2.75 goals per game is right there alongside the 12-13 Blackhawks (2.78) and 11-12 Kings (2.85). The Bruins (3.24) were in a league of their own.)
Where the Rangers have failed to emulate those teams is on the penalty kill, where the team is succeeding at a rate of just 76.0 percent. That’s a surprise given how good they were in the regular season, although they were a perfect four-for-four in game 1 against the Penguins. If the Blueshirts can shore up this area of their game, it stands to reason they can make a legitimate run at the Cup without moving mountains on the power play.
Still, 0.00 percent isn’t going to cut it. And that’s exactly where this team has been for the past six games. They can survive the power play’s inefficiency given their ability to tilt the ice at even strength, but they cannot survive its complete disappearance. At some point, it has to show up.
A goal here and a goal there. That’s all it took for the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins. And that’s all it may take for the Rangers as well, so long as they take care of business everywhere else.
So long as they keep playing with fire – in the competitive sense of the phrase.