Rangers [1296x729]
Rangers [1296x729] (Credit: Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

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When the New York Rangers clinched a playoff berth on March 26, there wasn't a celebration. There was barely an acknowledgment of the feat in their dressing room after an overtime win against the visiting Philadelphia Flyers.

The accomplishment was procedural, a bridge to greater things.

"If you want to lift the Stanley Cup, you've got to get into the playoffs first," New York center Mika Zibanejad said. "We have bigger goals. That's Step 1 for us."

Step 2 is likely winning the Metro Division, the first time the Rangers will have topped their group since 2014-15. Step 3 could be winning the Presidents' Trophy for the NHL's best record this season. Then the real journey begins, step after step, until the Rangers lift the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994 and the second time since 1940.

Unless they stumble and fall out of the postseason, of course.

The Rangers are a confounding team, and not just because they exited the postseason after one round in 2023. On the surface, they've been dominant in the standings and solid on both sides of the puck: Through 78 games, they were sixth in goals and seventh in goals against per game. But look under the hood and one finds a team whose 5-on-5 analytics are utterly pedestrian and in some cases below average.

"The New York Rangers are a bit of an anomaly," said Meghan Chayka, co-founder of Stathletes.

"Elite special teams and goaltending have boosted average processes and results at 5-on-5," said Mike Kelly, director of analytics and insights at Sportlogiq.

We explored this imbalance earlier this season. The Rangers have only become more successful since then. With the postseason approaching, it seemed like an ideal time to check again to get a sense of how close the Blueshirts might be to capturing the Cup.

Along with Kelly and Chayka, we picked the hockey brains of Garret Hohl, a data analyst who writes The Five Hohl; Jack Fraser of EP Rinkside; and Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz. All of them sought to answer some questions about the Rangers before the Stanley Cup playoffs start, including the biggest one: Are they legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, despite what the analytics tell us?

How do you square the gap between what the analytics tell us about the Rangers and what they've done in the standings?

What's clear about the Rangers is that they have elite special teams. Through 78 games, New York was fourth in the NHL on the power play (26.4%) and third on the penalty kill (83.6%). Artemi Panarin has scored 61% of his points on the man advantage. Zibanejad and Chris Kreider have been solid contributors on both units.

They feasted on the power play under then-coach Gerard Gallant last season too, but the arrival of Peter Laviolette and his staff has improved the penalty kill year over year.

Hohl noted that the Rangers' penalty differential is also something that sets them apart: Through 78 games, they were fourth in the NHL at plus-32 in penalties drawn versus penalties taken.

As extraordinary as their special teams are, the Rangers' 5-on-5 play is a bit more concerning, analytically.

"The Rangers have a very ordinary record this season of 5v5 chance generation," McCurdy said.

This season, the Rangers are 23rd in expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 (48.6%) through 78 games and slightly underwater on percentage of shot attempts per 60 minutes (49.8%), ranking 19th overall. During their recent 13-4-1 heater, their percentage of shot attempts has jumped up to 11th in the league.

Chayka noted that the Rangers' puck possession has improved after general manager Chris Drury acquired center Alex Wennberg of the Seattle Kraken and forward Jack Roslovic from the Columbus Blue Jackets before the NHL trade deadline, on March 8. While neither trade created headlines like one for Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jake Guentzel might have for the Blueshirts, they've made a subtle positive impact already.

"Those additions have meant nearly a full minute more of puck possession per game at 5-on-5," said Chayka, noting that the Rangers' total puck possession time jumped from 15:29 at 5-on-5 in their first 62 games to 16:21 in the following 14 games with Wennberg and Roslovic.

But the Rangers are still just 21st in expected goals percentage. Their expected goals per 60 minutes is a few percentage points weaker than the average NHL team, and their suppression is a full percentage point lower than average.

"This is a little surprising for a team at the top of the standings," McCurdy said. "But while 5-on-5 chance rates are the first and most important thing about any team -- I've repeatedly called them 'the foundation of the sport,' and I stand by that -- they aren't the only thing."

No, they're not the only thing, and the Rangers are proving that -- like, for example, when these goals are scored or allowed during the game.

In baseball, not all hits are created equally. A grand slam and a solo home run both go into the HR category on the players' stats page, but obviously, one had a greater impact on the final score than the other.

It's not completely analogous, but McCurdy believes that not all goals are created equal, either.

"The regulation goals they've scored have come at relatively high-offensive-leverage moments, when they've tipped games in their favor, and less often in games that are still safely decided," he said. "The Rangers have also benefited from the goals they've allowed coming at relatively lower-leverage times than you'd expect from pure chance, so that the goaltending they've got has benefitted them more than you might expect."

McCurdy believes these two effects have added upward of nine standings points to the Rangers this season. "They're the second-luckiest team this season in this sense, after Washington," he said.

The Rangers have scored the first goal in a game 44 times, tied for fifth in the NHL this season, but they're also first in the NHL winning percentage (.588) after giving up a contest's first goal. They're 33-3-2 when leading after two periods, but they also have the highest winning percentage (.346) when trailing after two periods.

Through 78 games, no team has had won more one-goal games than the Rangers (22), and no team has had a better winning percentage in those games than their 22-4-4 record.

Chayka noted that the Rangers have some shared DNA in that regard with last season's Presidents' Trophy winners, the Boston Bruins, who led the NHL in winning percentage in one-goal games and when trailing first.

"Their playoff fate might indicate something for the Rangers," she said, ominously, referencing the Bruins' shocking first-round loss last year.

The Rangers also have feasted on the Metro Division this season.

"Team goal differentials and the standings tend to have a fairly strong correlation, but that relationship is a lot weaker this year in the Metro," McCurdy said of the Rangers. "On top of that, they have potentially overperformed their in-division goal differential. They have about a 0.78 in-division point percentage compared to 0.67 outside the division, despite outscoring their divisional opponents by a less significant margin."

Obviously, some things have broken right for New York to be challenging for the Presidents' Trophy. But the sum total of the Rangers' performance wouldn't dramatically change if their luck did, according to Kelly.

"If you ran this season back again, all things being equal, there's a good chance the Rangers wouldn't have quite as good a record, but I don't believe they would be that far off," he said. "There are a few other playoff teams that are equal if not greater examples of likely overperforming in terms of process versus results this season."

Fraser trusts the process. He believes the Rangers are better than what the public analytics models like expected goals are presenting, noting that tracking data reveals them to be the best team at passes across the slot and in the top five for preventing them, for example.

Fraser said there's about a three-point difference between public and private models for the Rangers' projected points based on expected goal differential.

"What gets them to the 115 points they're projected for now is a combination of finishing and goaltending, which has been consistent throughout the season," Fraser said. "Igor Shesterkin has been fine. But most notably, they've gotten excellent performance from a backup for the first time in years."

What impresses you the most about the Rangers, and what leaves you most confused about them?

The most common theme in the responses: While the Rangers don't excel at everything, they're also not terrible at anything.

"They've got a lot of pathways to winning games," McCurdy said. "That will make them hard to play against in the playoffs, where you'd prefer to say, 'Well, their main strength is X and our plan for that is Y.' There are too many strengths, and the weaknesses don't really stick out."

The worst that could be said about some of the Rangers' 5-on-5 metrics is that they're ordinary or slightly below average. But this isn't a team getting cratered by opponents every game then relying on Shesterkin and Jonathan Quick to drag them into a playoff seed.

Kelly believes the goaltending just needs to be is sufficient for the Rangers to thrive.

"They are virtually unbeatable when they get adequate goaltending, which, since the All-Star break, is far more often than not," he said. "The Rangers lead the NHL in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes since Shesterkin's reset at the break. They give up more chances than some other elite teams, but their combination of scoring ability -- though top-heavy -- and goaltending makes them a real threat."

Kelly noted that in the first 41 games in which the Rangers' goalies posted a positive goals saved above expected, they won 39 of them, the best winning percentage in the NHL in that category. They won 95% of those games, with no other team finishing north of 90% in that span.

That's the goal-prevention story. The goal-scoring story is equally as compelling.

McCurdy noted that the Rangers roster "is good at turning chances into goals, considerably better than league average."

There's no better example of this than Panarin, whose 46 goals in 78 games shattered his previous career high. He is fifth in the NHL in goals versus expected goals (12.44), with a 16.1% shooting rate.

His dominance has helped make the Rangers' top line with Alexis Lafreniere and Vincent Trocheck a "superb" trio, according to Fraser.

"It's unbelievable how often they manage to get the goalie moving by passing the puck; according to AllThreeZones, all three of them are in the top 15 in high-danger passes leading to a shot," he said. "What's most surprising is that Laf and Trocheck have struggled to score goals relative to the quality of their opportunities. So, the question becomes: Will their postseason opponents force them to play a more grinding style or will they start to capitalize even more?"

There's another key group that has Fraser a little more concerned: The defensive pairing of Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren, long one of the NHL's most effective duos.

"What happened to them? The on-ice goal numbers are terrific, as usual, but that team is uncharacteristically getting out-chanced by a huge margin," he said. "Can Lindgren get back on track?" 

Fox and Lindgren had an expected goals per 60 minutes of 2.37 last season, but it has ballooned to 2.83 this season.

Kelly was a little concerned about the Rangers being a top-heavy team. Their top six scorers are all over 50 points on the season; no one else has had more than 30 points through 78 games.

"Can they get some offense from their bottom six? The Wennberg line has been on the right side of things but pretty low-event in its minutes," Kelly said.

McCurdy was confounded by why the Rangers aren't even better than they are.

"How [can] their 5-on-5 results manage to be as average as they are, considering the talent necessary to succeed at special teams," he said. "I guess special teams really do deserve the name."

Which all leads back to the biggest question about the Rangers.

"Are they for real?" Kelly asked. "I think that's what we're all trying to figure out here. As mentioned, they are probably not quite what their record shows. But every time I think I have a handle on them, they surprise me."

How legitimate are the Rangers as a Stanley Cup contender?

Being the best isn't always the best thing in the NHL. The Presidents' Trophy has been awarded to the team with the league's best record since 1985-86. That team has gone on to win the Stanley Cup only eight times -- including the 1993-94 Rangers.

New York has the fifth-best odds at ESPN BET to win the championship. Stathletes gives the Blueshirts a 4.8% chance of winning the Cup, which is 11th-best among current playoff teams.

Kelly said the Rangers would be in his second tier as a Stanley Cup contender.

"I don't think they have fatal flaws, but it is a slippery slope when you rely so heavily on special teams and goaltending," he said. "But that doesn't mean you can't get to a Cup Final or even win the Cup."

Kelly noted that the Florida Panthers made the Stanley Cup Final last season with an expected goals rate of under 50% at 5-on-5 in the playoffs, an average power play and a lackluster penalty kill. The Tampa Bay Lightning rode dominant special teams and Andrei Vasilevskiy to lift the Cup in 2021.

"In the small sample size that are the Stanley Cup playoffs, elite shooting talent or luck, coupled with strong goaltending, can be enough to win it all," Kelly noted. "The Rangers are capable of both."

Hohl noted, using McCurdy's research, the Rangers are good but that the areas in which the team excels are relatively "less important" when it comes to winning the Cup.

He added that 5-on-5 offense and goaltending are the two most important indicators for a Cup champion, "and they only got two of those going for them." The next important gauges are 5-on-5 defense and the power play, he said, "and again, they only have one of those two going for them." Being great on the penalty kills hasn't been a dependable predictor of NHL champions.

That said, McCurdy feels the Rangers are "as good a bet as any other teams" to win the Cup.

"They're hardly paper tigers," he said. "Against general opposition, they have so many strong aspects to their game that they will have a good chance no matter who they play."

Well, except for one team.

"They'll match up poorly against a team like Carolina, who will be able to control 5-on-5 play against them almost entirely," McCurdy said. "[The Canes] might be able to dictate a style of play that will keep the games at 5-on-5 most of the time."

Chayka also noted that a second-round meeting with the Hurricanes could present a significant block in the road to the Stanley Cup for New York, as Carolina is the top team in the East, according to Stathletes' Power Score.

Guentzel, the Hurricanes' trade deadline coup, has eight goals in seven games against the Rangers in his postseason career.

There will be challenges for the Rangers in the playoffs. Plenty of them. But they've already shown to be better than expected. It is anyone's Stanley Cup to lift. Why not bring it back to Broadway?

"This season is so wide open that I don't have trouble imagining them getting hot at the right time," Fraser concluded.