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Rangers Must Protect the Slot Against Flyers

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The Flyers have had little problem generating high-percentage shots against the Rangers this season, and it's a trend the Rangers must immediately halt tonight.

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The Rangers' performances against the Flyers in 2015-2016 are sort of a microcosm for how the season has gone. A 2-1-1 record isn't anything to be ashamed of, but against a mediocre team that the Rangers have dominated for the last four years, one would anticipate better. More concerning is the context of the record. The two wins both came in the shootout, and overall the Flyers have out-possessed the Rangers by a decent margin; adjusting for score, the Flyers have had 52.7% of the shot attempts at 5v5 and 53.1% overall.

The frequent excuse of bad possession often comes in the form of it not accounting for shot quality, which is an argument that misses the point for a number of reasons. In the case of the Rangers vs Flyers this season, it's a non-issue from the start, as the Flyers have had the superior shot quality by a sizable margin. War-on-Ice.com has the Flyers at 66 scoring chances compared to the Rangers' 48, and 30 high-danger scoring chances to the Rangers' 18. At Clear Sight Analytics, we have the shot-on-goal breakdown in regulation through the four games this season as follows:

The Flyers win across the board, but what is particularly alarming is the significant gap in high-percentage shots on goal. That the Flyers have more than the Rangers is not good. That the Flyers have more high-percentage shots than the Rangers have mid-percentage is disastrous.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Rangers against the Flyers is that they're bleeding shots on plays across the slot. Shots directly off of a player carrying across the slot or a pass across the slot are difficult for a goaltender to stop because they afford the goaltender little time to get in position and frame himself to the shooter. Furthermore, in order to get across and in position, he has to open up his body in the process. That leaves a number of openings that the puck can go through and into the net. Here is an example of each from the Flyers this season.

Then there's the below nightmare scenario for a goaltender, where the puck crosses the slot twice.

Non-Flyers opponents are averaging 1.71 of these slot-oriented shots per game against the Rangers. However, the Flyers have averaged three-per-game against the Rangers this season. The expected save percentage, based on league averages, on the slot-oriented shots the Rangers have given up to the Flyers is .687%. Despite this, Lundqvist and Raanta have combined for .833% on them. To put it simply: Lundqvist and Raanta kept out a few more pucks than what is reasonably expected and in the process stole the Rangers a point or two that they maybe didn't otherwise earn. To an extent, that's just Hank doing Hank things. He's the highest-paid goaltender for a reason. But the Rangers can't allow this to continue. With even moderately less heroic goaltending, the Flyers likely take one or two of those games in regulation. Not even Lundqvist can not continue to bail the Rangers out on these plays at the rate he has.

Even if he did, all of that movement adds up; not in a good way. We saw Lundqvist play the best hockey of his career last spring in large part because the throat injury incidentally forced him to be well rested. This season, the Rangers' inconsistencies have provided little room for error, and so Vigneault is putting Lundqvist in net more frequently than perhaps he'd like to; Lundqvist has played in 22 of the Rangers' last 24 games. The Rangers stand little chance in the playoffs if Lundqvist is fatigued, so if he is going to be playing this frequently, then the team has that much more incentive to limit the movement he needs to make.

That can start tonight against the Flyers, whose offense is built around quick, lateral puck movement. The Flyers have chewed the Rangers up so far this season across the slot. It has perhaps cost the Rangers a point or two in the standings, and could have been more if not for superb netminding. The Rangers, as a unit, need to prioritize defending these plays. Keep good gaps and don't get baited into diving in on puck carriers. Keep sticks to the inside lane whenever possible. Make sure players on the backdoor are accounted for. If they do so, then they'll limit a big part of the Flyers' game and reduce the stress on Lundqvist's workload in the process.