You are going to hear a lot from the fancy-stats community about how the New York Rangers should come out victorious when they face off against the Washington Capitals for the third consecutive time because they put more shots on net during even strength than Washington.
And it is true: They did.
During this short season, the Blueshirts took 54 percent of the total number of unblocked shots during even-strength while the Capitals were responsible for slightly more than 47 percent, the sixth-worst in the league. That appears to be a big disparity, but the raw numbers and talent levels of each team shows the gap is not nearly as precarious as it appears.
Each team played roughly 48 minutes of even-strength time per game, so the shot differential when we scale it to this number and take into account the opponents faced would look like this: New York 27, Washington 21. That’s a woeful minus-6 shot differential for the Capitals. However, what the Caps lack in possession they make up for in skill.
Washington had a 8.6 even-strength shooting percentage while New York finished 7.4 percent of their even-strength shots — neither of which is too far above or below the league average to raise an eyebrow as to their sustainability. That being said, if each team finishes their shots at their average rates this season then the Rangers’ shot advantage equates to two-tenths of a goal at even-strength per game. Or one more goal every five games.
So even though Washington can be expected to be outshot by almost six per game (including score effects) during even strength, the net goal differential based on finishing talent would be nearly zero. Which brings us to what could be the difference maker: the power play.
Washington finished with the best power-play unit in the league, scoring 44 times in 164 opportunities, including converting on 20.5 percent of its shots, which is way above average. The Blueshirts were successful on 11.6 percent of their shots, two percent below average. If we agree Washington will get worse and the Rangers better, even the most skeptical among us would have to concede the talent level on the Capitals’ power play is at least enough to sustain an average level of finishing ability (13.6 percent). In other words, taking into account the Caps regressing and the Rangers improving would net New York an approximately one-tenth advantage in goal differential after factoring in even-strength and power-play performance.
That’s not a lot.
What will help tilt the tables in New York’s favor would be limiting the number of power-play opportunities Washington gets. As it stands, the Rangers are the least penalized team in the NHL (9.2 per game), which could help neutralize the Capitals’ main advantage (8-2-1 when they score two or more power-play goals this season). But as for puck possession, it likely won’t be much of a factor in this series.