The Rangers deserve to be where they are. The deserved to win the series against Philadelphia and they certainly earned their win in Game One over the Penguins.
But the thing about hockey is that “deserving” to win doesn’t always equate to actually doing so. For the Rangers, a series against the Flyers that should have been over in five games extended all the way into the dying moments of a Game Seven; largely due to their inability to put the Flyers away with their power play chances. The same can be attributed to Friday’s game vs the Penguins, where a 2-0 lead and even 2-1 lead were never added to with one of the afforded power play chances. It has the feeling of a Final Destination movie; the Rangers have narrowly avoided “death by power play inefficiency” thus far, but they’re fending off the inevitable failure.
At least it would seem that way. The Boston Bruins won the 2011 Stanley Cup despite only an 11.4% power play in the playoffs. The Rangers can go the distance even with a dysfunctional power play. Still, a competent power play would make accomplishing that goal a lot easier.
So how do Alain Vigneault and Scott Arniel go about making that happen? To some degree, they just has to trust that math will start falling in their favor. The Rangers showed during the regular season that they are certainly capable of putting in a respectable number of power play goals, and early in the series against Philadelphia they were banging home a few. No matter how bad you might believe the Rangers’ power play to truly be, a 1-for-27 run is absurdly low. Even the worst of power plays will, mathematically speaking, average 3 or 4 goals during that stretch.
Still, that does not mean the coaching staff can’t be a catalyst. Tactically, a power play lives and dies by the play of its point men. John Moore’s run of five or so games where he was making things happen is in the past. Ryan McDonagh – whether because of injury or rust – is clearly not in peak form. Dan Girardi holds his own but is not someone who is going to make things happen in the offensive end. The result has been Nash, St. Louis, Brassard, etc. trying to pull off some magic from the narrow angles along the sideboards and Richards throwing prayers towards the net from the blue-line. Perhaps Staal or Stralman could help – and Vigneault is in fact switching Stralman in for Moore – but those two are playing heavy, important minutes as is. We’ll see tonight if it works and whether Stralman’s overall game is affected by the extra workload.
Vigneault has an asset at his disposal who can add a needed dimension, and it’s Raphael Diaz. In his 11 games with the Rangers he certainly showed a capability. He has the finesse skating to enter the zone with the puck and move laterally with it in the offensive zone; something Richards struggles with. He’s got a good shot as well.
And credit to The Fourth Period’s Patrick Kearns here for pointing out perhaps the most convincing stat for Diaz’ case; via Extra Skater, Diaz ranked 4th among NHL defensemen this season in setup passes/60 minutes. “Setup passes” are defined as passes that “directly result in a shot attempt.” A big part of the problem with the power play right now, as I previously mentioned, is that the big guns – Nash, St. Louis, Brassard, etc. – are forced to make their own opportunities, whereas ideally they can one-time or take a touch before shooting on net, when the defense and goaltender aren’t fully set. As great as Ovechkin and Stamkos are, their production is often just the end result of their teams’ power plays. Their teams work the puck around until they’ve caught the opposition in a vulnerable position and then send the puck the way of their snipers, who now are in position to do damage. Right now the Rangers are struggling to set those guys up for such opportunities. Diaz, if the math is correct, gives the Rangers’ forwards an improved chance of receiving pucks in high-percentage positions.
The potential downside is that somebody has to come out of the lineup, and that “somebody” is probably fellow right-hander Kevin Klein. Klein has been solid and relatively mistake-free in his own end and, at face value, that is invaluable against an offensive juggernaut like the Penguins. Ideally you have six Zdeno Chara’s who are great on the power play and great defensively and great at everything and there’s no concern. Unfortunately, the Rangers do not have six Zdeno Chara’s and so Vigneault is forced to weigh positives and negatives of each player. Make no mistake, Diaz is a defensive downgrade from Klein, but by how much? More specifically, is that gap big enough to undermine what Diaz brings to the table offensively?
I don’t think so. Aside from one terrible gaff in overtime against the Canadiens during the final game of the regular season, Diaz had not been an issue defensively. Diaz had a Corsi Rel (How the Rangers faired with Diaz on the ice versus without him) of +4.5%, meaning that the puck was in the offensive end far more than the Rangers’ end with Diaz on the ice. Granted, this was in large part due to Vigneault sheltering Diaz’ minutes and starting him in the offensive zone often, but why can’t he do that against Pittsburgh? As threatening as Pittsburgh is on the whole, in truth their power comes almost exclusively from the top-two lines. Klein was matched up mostly against six players. Here is how they have looked during the playoffs at even strength.
This is nothing special. Five of the six have played against relatively poor competition (which you’d expect, since the bulk of attention is paid to Crosby, Neal, Kunitz, and Malkin). Sutter is solid but not by himself particularly problematic. Bennett’s circle is a faint blue, meaning he is slightly positive in corsi, but the zone starts make it obvious why that would be. Craig Adams, Tanner Glass, and Joe Vitale are all black holes at even strength. Marcel Goc is the only one who comes away favorably, but the Rangers have the forward depth to match him.
While writing off players like Sutter or Bennett or Goc would be a mistake, they don’t pose enough of a threat, at least for me, to justify keeping Klein for the defensive defensive prowess. While Klein might be a better defensive player than Diaz, that gets mitigated by the fact that Diaz has less defense to play in the first place, since he’s more proficient in keeping the puck out of his own end. When looking at the components of this series, the Rangers look far more likely to lose it through a battle of special teams than through the 3rd and 4th lines. With Stralman and Staal playing as well as they ever have, Vigneault has no reason to worry about finding a match for Pittsburgh’s second line. With that in mind, Vigneault might be wise to give Diaz a shot at creating something on the power play.
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