The New York Rangers are in trouble.
And it’s not just because they’re suddenly trailing 3-1 in their second round series, although that obviously is a symptom of the disease.
No, more troubling is they simply don’t seem to have any kind of answer for what they’re facing in the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by a stacked top line with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin doing double duty terrorizing Rangers defencemen.
This may be the year of the comeback in the NHL, but given New York’s limp effort in Game 4, few are going to be forecasting that in this series. Despite trailing 2-1 and then 3-1, the Rangers couldn’t mount anything resembling a comeback in the third period, with just four shots on goal.
A lot of things are going wrong that are becoming the focal points here. After playing six games in nine days, coach Alain Vigneault’s troops are obviously gassed. And with only five goals in the series, the disappearing act by Rick Nash and friends is a big problem.
But the other aspect of this series that’s getting away from them is that the Penguins top line is just completely controlling the game, hemming the Rangers in their own zone and not allowing their best players any offensive opportunities.
Take Wednesday’s game as an example. Crosby was on the ice for 27 shot attempts for and just seven against at even strength (79 per cent); when he wasn’t out there, the Pens advantage was much, much more reasonable (27-21).
Vigneault’s main answer to the Crosby Problem™ in the series has been to put his top pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi out there against him and allow Marc Staal on the second pair to do mop up duty. Overall, Crosby has had 90 per cent of his minutes against one or the other, meaning the Rangers are getting him up against who they want, even on the road.
The problem then is simply that that competition hasn’t been able to get the job done – and that’s not a new issue for this team.
We only have in-depth head-to-head statistics going back to 2007-08, but that’s plenty of data for something like Crosby versus Girardi, especially because these two have faced each other a lot in the last seven years.
Taking a quick look at hockeyanalysis.com, which is a great resource for this kind of thing, Crosby has spent more time on the ice against Girardi than any other player in the NHL in that span.
And No. 2 is Staal.
According to hockeyanalysis.com, Crosby has spent 4 per cent of his even strength ice time facing Girardi and 3.4 per cent of it up against Staal in the last seven seasons, dating back to the first full year in the league for the two defencemen.
(The only other defencemen in that ballpark are Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Zdeno Chara, which makes sense given all have been top pair types in the East for a long span.)
In the case of Girardi and Staal, we’re looking at roughly 230 and 200 minutes of ice time, which is more than 10 games worth of just Crosby and enough to draw a few conclusions about how they’ve done.
The answer is “not well.”
With Girardi on the ice, Crosby has lit up the Rangers, outscoring them 15-3 with 57 per cent possession (or Corsi) that is even worse in recent years.
Against Staal, the damage has been more contained: 15-8 and only 51 per cent.
Adding McDonagh into the equation in recent years hasn’t helped either, as Crosby’s line has manhandled the Rangers with the talented young defenceman out there – 56 per cent possession – albeit over a shorter time frame.
New York’s blueline has earned a lot of deserved kudos this season, but one of the advantages the Rangers were expected to have in this series – a superior possession game – hasn’t materialized in large part due to the top pairing’s problems. The Rangers were outshot 10-3 and had just 23 per cent possession in Game 4 with Girardi on the ice, something at least partly attributable to him being a better fit against more predictable, straight-ahead type players where blocking the shot and making a quick out is the right play more often.
(He’s had a lot more success against Alex Ovechkin, for one.)
But the McDonagh-Girardi versus Crosby mismatch is a hard thing to pin down to any one aspect of their game, and it’s obviously worth noting that they’re far from the only pairing to struggle up against the Penguins captain. It’s been evident the last few years under different coaching staffs, too.
It’s easy to blame this all on the schedule makers or a nagging injury to McDonagh, but the history here speaks to a deeper reality, one that affects a lot of Eastern Conference teams these days.
Crosby may not be lighting up the scoresheet every night, but as was the case at the Olympics when goals were hard to come by, he and his linemates always seem to have the puck. The Rangers don’t have an answer for that right now – especially not with Malkin out there with him more often than not.