#4 vs #6 - Bruins vs. Rangers
Characterized by tight, defensive battles over the past few years, the Bruins and Rangers are set to rekindle another dormant rivalry starting this Thursday. Neither team could get out of the first round until the bitter end, so both will be coming off two days rest - a critical factor for a banged up Bruins squad.
The Matchup - Season Series and the Goalie Battle
During this shortened campaign, the Bruins dropped two games of three to the Rangers early in the season when only they and Buffalo had any answer to the B's. But all games were hotly contested, with nothing surrendered in regulation. With three goals per side per game, this was an unusually high scoring affair this year for these two squads. No shut outs in a Bruins-Rangers series? Crazy!
Much focus will be on the goaltending battle, and given the two teams' offensive habits, rightly so. Tuukka came away with fewer games played this season but posted the better numbers of the two in spite of Lundqvist's Vezina nomination. But regardless of that enormous .003 gulf between their SV%, their ESSV ran neck and neck: .938 for Rask and .937 for Lundqvist. As such, in both cases special teams are key, which is nothing a Bruins fan wants to hear.
But hold on! There's a ray of hope here. The Rangers PP in these playoffs is even more execrable than ours! They're 7.1%, 2 on 28 chances, to our 15%, 3 on 20. They were only .9% better in the regular season as well. A team we hold a powerplay advantage over!? INCONCEIVABLE!
In head to head play, Rask's 1-0-2, .904 is underwhelming, but Lundqvist only managed a league average .913 in his own right. Neither were world beaters against the other squad in their three-per-side outings. Rask's career against the Rangers falls at a very respectable .928, though his win record, should you misconstrue this as a goaltending measurement, is a less encouraging 3-3-3. Meanwhile, Lundqvist has posted a dominant 21-7-2, .943. He may have had a good four years of awful-to-mih Bruins teams to pad that tally, but it's still nothing to take as a positive. This series WILL be about goaltending.
If there's any silver lining to draw from the matchup, it's in Quality Starts, where Lundqvist's 65% compares unfavorably to Rask's league leading 76.5. To translate: Henrik's more prone to blow-up games than Rask, whose performance was more even keeled throughout the season. Not a lot of terrible games, not relying on shutouts and high SV% games to cover over bad outings below league average. Granted, 65% is enough to win a series though - that's 4.5 games out of 7.
With that said, lets throw all that regular season nonsense right out the window. We'll be facing a bit of a new look Rangers, with significant changeover from even our last encounters.
Gone is Marian Gaborik, who single handedly took down the Bruins on the 23rd of January, replaced in trade by forwards Derrick Brassard and Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore. A step back, you might think, but Brassard - a poor man's second liner in Columbus - is presently contributing more than any other Ranger. He's leading the team with 9 points; not exactly David Krejci, but an over-PPG player is nothing to sneeze at.
Dorsett's a bit of a spare part to replace the bottom six forward depth the team let walk in the offseason, but Moore is proving to be a more useful piece than his Columbus record might suggest. He produced quite well in his regular season games for the Rangers and hasn't been a liability in these playoffs, seeing the second highest CorsiRel on the team in Adam McQuaid minutes. He's a little sheltered, but doing fine.
In other roster moves, remember when the Rangers won the bottom-of-the-barrel sweepstakes for rumored Bruins target Ryane Clowe? Yeah, don't expect to see him back. He's out with an injury, rumored to be a concussion. Likewise, second pair defenseman and not-yet-Carolina-Hurricane Marc Staal is on the shelf, providing a welcome (from a Bruins fan perspective) opening for Steve Eminger on D.
Slightly old news now, but if you consider Rick Nash still shiny and new you've considered him more than the scorekeepers, as he's disappeared with a mere 2 assists in the Capitals series.
Among the recurring cast, we should be cautious of number three on the all-Derek/Derrick roster, Stepan, and Brad Richards, both of whom are developing reputations as certified Bruins killers. Richards has 5 in 7 as a Ranger and a career record of 31pts in 37 games against the boys in Black and Gold. Stepan has posted 7 in 11. Unknown is #2 Rangers playoff scorer and noted dumb jerk, shire resident Mats Zuccarello, who has never played a game against Boston. He's been riding with Brassard and Nash for the past few games, so Claude will have to make the tough decision whether to glue Chara to them and leave the Hagelin-Stepan-Callahan unit to feast on the second pair, or trust the hot streak to fade and focus on the greater threats. Richards is fortunately being dragged down by Asham and Kreider on his wings.
This matchup conundrum is compounded by the fact that the Bruins D corps is decimated. If Seidenberg's injury is severe, expect Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski both to see top four minutes. Yikes. Any way you slice it, we're going to have to hope for leaps in development as the rookies are tossed in the deep end and moved away from the soft minutes they're accustomed to. Ference, presently in a boot, is probably out for the series, Redden's undisclosed "day-to-day" remains to be seen, opening the possibility for Aaron Johnson or Torey Krug, called up yesterday, to get in on the third pair. In spite of a dire performance in Columbus not unlike that of John Moore, Aaron Johnson hasn't performed as poorly as anticipated and given Krug's struggles in Providence, Johnson may have an inside track for the slot. He was the top possession player among part-timer D men this year, besting Bartkowski, Krug and Redden with marginally higher QoC and marginally less sheltering. He could be as (merely) serviceable in small minutes as Moore has been for the Rangers. Columbus just makes everyone look bad.
The Stat Story
I stress again that it's too early to read too much into any stats, fancy or plain or to believe them predictive of future performance. That said, we can infer some information from the Fenwick breakdown of the Rangers. At Close, They and the Bruins both underperformed their season records, 47.20 and 51.96 respectively, but that's not interesting part, nor is their mutual under-50% Tied. What we can interpret is that the collapsing Rangers we know and love are alive and well; prepare thyself for more score-effect bouyed shooting if the Rangers see ANY lead. When up, their possession game looks hilariously bad, hanging onto the puck just 18% of the time when leading by two. Only the good ol' Leafs were worse through the first round. This is a turtle team, they will go into a shell and Lundqvist is generally going to get the job done - no offense to James Reimer. But as we learned against the Leafs, there's a flaw to this strategy. Giving up shots, no matter how much you collapse and block, leads to giving up scoring chances. Sometimes those scoring chances will bite you right in the ass. But with Henrik in net, lets try not to count on that this time, shall we?
While the Rangers defensive corps' small minute brigade is doing well, holding their ground with heavy sheltering, their big minute boys look like a disaster. First pair minute munchers Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are getting positively shelled for negative teen CorsiRel - with no player on the roster a positive in CorsiOn. They're also pretty much absent from the scoresheet, posting just 3 points between them in their 7 game series. Granted, much of their possession performance is comprised of the score effects we note above, but their all-defensive deployment is a facet to exploit, and the contributing impact on their own offensive effectiveness is a nice bonus.
At forward, the Rangers are putting forth every effort to shelter Nash, Zuccarello and Richards, but are undermined by their shell-game. Meanwhile, the Leafs' faceoff ineptitude makes for a comical usage chart for the Bruins, resulting in only four forwards starting less than 50% of the time in the D zone. Still, Julien is staying the course of sheltering the Krejci unit, even if not in as extreme a fashion as it appears on paper. It looks like that strategy is paying off in spades thus far. They're destined for a matchup against the above top pair, which bodes rather well, particularly if the Bergeron unit wakes up and gives Tortorella the same tough choices his forward groups present Claude.
As mentioned, we should cross our fingers that the Rangers' coach holds the line with the Richards unit, which could keep one of his most effective weapons neutralized without much effort from the opposition, though he will be snuck out with others in offensive zone situations by the look of his starts. The Kelly line, horrible as it has been, may finally have an opportunity for a favorable matchup, particularly if possession wizard Jagr remains on the wing rather than providing a redundant skill set with the possession talent of Bergeron on line two. He's a better asset on a trio that has difficulty hanging onto the puck, though it may be time to shelve Kelly and his amazing technicolor 2% On-Ice shooting percentage in favor of Soderberg so they can potentially make something of that possession.
I'll spare you yet another screed against the Merlot line and simply note that they are facing a 4th line less inept than they at driving play by the looks of regular season performance, and one that will be out to extract their pound of flesh. I'd give the "energy line" battle to the Rangers, though I don't expect a dent on the scoresheet.
All in all, the Rangers, for all their talent, are not a perfect, invincible team. They're relatively weak in the bottom six and have a shutdown pair that seems content with getting peppered. While they're not suffering to the same extent in the sick bay, their depth at D is also being tested. Meanwhile, one of their top possession assets and more dangerous forwards is being wasted in a desperate attempt to provide some depth scoring - which sounds a little familiar. Also, by a flaw in their design there's a vulnerable thermal exhaust port no bigger than a womp rat.
For the most part, the matchup looks pretty even, with some strategic advantages available to the Bruins. Ultimately, what stands between the Bruins and the Conference Finals... is quite handsome.