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Intelligent Hockey: Best Bets for Game 6 Rangers-Panthers

Igor Shesterkin Rangers Igor Shesterkin - The Canadian Press

Any ascension is bound to be met with jealousy, and the New York Rangers’ tremendous regular-season success was confronted by a chorus of skeptics.

Whether haters or well-intentioned dissenters, those who cast doubts on the Rangers’ President-Trophy-winning regular season drew attention to the team’s substandard 5-on-5 play. After all, New York was below 50 percent in expected goals and high-danger chances percentage. While special teams and goaltending had buoyed them during the regular season, it was widely believed that their suspect play at even strength would be their downfall in the postseason.

But after a quietly impressive sweep of the Washington Capitals in the first round, the Rangers continued to surprise many by disposing of the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are perennial regular-season analytics assassins, but against the Rangers they were bested in expected goals and inner slot shots. Special teams proved a difference-maker as the Rangers’ power play and penalty kill were a large reason why they took a 3-0 lead in the series.

Next the Rangers drew the Florida Panthers in the conference finals, and some of the early concerns reared their head. Now the Rangers are one game away from elimination for several reasons. Their special teams have faltered. At times they have gotten pulverized at 5-on-5. And goaltending can be a crutch but is endangered by too much stress. After losing two straight, can the Rangers force a Game 7? My picks are based around a low-scoring affair in Saturday’s Game 6.

New York Rangers at Florida Panthers

Normally New Yorkers love to vacation in Florida, but the Rangers’ experience in the sunshine state during this series has been nightmarish. In Games 3 and 4, the Panthers completely dominated New York in almost every imaginable way. The Panthers had 152 shot attempts off the cycle while the Rangers had 62. Off the rush, the Panthers more than doubled the Rangers’ output. And from the slot, Florida enjoyed a 68-37 shot-attempt advantage.

In expected goals and scoring chances, the Rangers were walloped. But one critical detail hasn’t been mentioned. Both Games 3 and 4 went to overtime, and the Rangers split in Florida because Igor Shesterkin has been flat-out amazing in this series, posting a 5.31 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx).

The Panthers’ forecheck has been the focal point of this series. Despite the Rangers’ best efforts to thwart it, Florida has leaned on it to gin up consistent time and chances in the offensive zone.

The Panthers’ timing and spacing on its forecheck are close to impeccable and when the Rangers have tried to make short passes to exit their own zone, it has generally spelled trouble. The second layer of forecheckers combined with Florida’s defenceman holding the blue line have created turnovers and scrambled the Rangers’ usually steely defensive-zone coverage.

It was zany and entertaining, but Game 3 was an anomaly, and I don’t think the Rangers can win another game 5-4. The best path forward is likely a low-event game where the Rangers grind out a lot of offensive-zone time and Shesterkin allows one goal or less.

This is a big reason I am all over the unders for this contest. I like the Rangers’ U 5.5 total goals and am willing to bet it another way with the under 6 total goals flat line.

Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has a 2.38 GSAx in this series, which is strong, although he hasn’t faced a consistent barrage of pressure like Shesterkin. I think the Panthers will continue to spray shots on goal in Game 6, which is why I am all over Shesterkin for 28+ saves in 60 minutes. And I don’t see either team notching many goals, which is why I like the Rangers U 2.5 total goals at -134.

When the Panthers allowed goals and lost games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins in Rounds 1 and 2, one area they proved vulnerable was when teams tried to confuse and contort Florida’s man-on-man defence by bringing three skaters up high. With only two Florida players defending the slot, Boston and Tampa Bay looked to heave pucks toward the net for tips and rebounds.

The Rangers have two of the league’s best net-front players in Chris Kreider and Vincent Trocheck, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve been given enough opportunities to win battles along the interior at 5-on-5. The Rangers played a lot along the perimeter in Game 5, and I see them patiently trying to jam and force their way into the slot by spreading Florida out.

While the Panthers beat the Rangers badly in high-danger chances differential in Game 5, I think the Rangers’ efforts to stretch the ice were at least an effort to pull the right lever. Ultimately, the Rangers need to weaponize the Panthers’ high-pressure forecheck, as opponents in the first two rounds demonstrated that quick exits and attacking the weak side against Florida can be fruitful. And when the Rangers tried to get behind the forecheckers in Game 5, they did have some looks.

One of the Rangers’ best chances in the first period of Game 5 was Ryan Lindgren using a flip pass to put Filip Chytil and Mika Zibanejad in a 2-on-2 rush look. It didn’t yield a goal, but the Rangers effectively parachuted out of their own end and in the chaos of the flip pass they generated multiple shot attempts. Likewise, in the first period Trocheck flew the zone for a Artemi Panarin stretch pass.

With Florida cutting down on how many odd-man rush chances they allowed after Game 1, it is important for the Rangers to look for ways to jump-start their transition. Even sending the wings toward the far blue line sometimes opened up room for the Rangers defenceman to carry the puck out himself. Feints, misdirection, and jams will be the way the Rangers punch back in Game 6.

I think the Rangers make this close with less unforced errors and by being more opportunistic. I’m not sure if they are going to win or force overtime, but the last four games have been decided by a one-goal margin.  I’ll take the puck line to avoid any extra-time heartbreak.

The Rangers’ power play was their salvation all year and now it looks to have gone cold at exactly the wrong time. The Panthers have done an excellent job defending entries and fronting pucks, and without that threat from above the circles, the Rangers haven’t been able to worm their way into much with Kreider or Trocheck around the slot and blue paint.

The Panthers’ power play has had far more success, but the Rangers’ aggressive penalty kill defends the blue line well and does a nice job forcing dump-ins. The Panthers love to feed Sam Reinhart in the slot or try the backdoor play to Carter Verhaeghe, but I would assume the Rangers will try to take away Reinhart (much like the Lightning did) and force alternatives. Ultimately, it is a rich number but, in what I presume to be a very low-scoring game, two or more total power-play goals seem unrealistic.

Picks: Rangers Puck line (+1.5) -196, U 5.5 Total Goals -134, New York Rangers U 2.5 Total Goals -134, U 6 Total Goals (Flat Line) -186, Igor Shesterkin 28+ Alt Saves 60 Mins -182, U 1.5 Total Power Play Goals -194