Some sports-analytics concepts can be pretty complicated to grasp, but the Deserve to Win O’Meter isn’t one of them. The online gadget, created by the website MoneyPuck.com, is used to project — you guessed it — which team in a given hockey game deserves to win. In a nutshell, its simulations factor in both how many shots each team takes and the relative quality of those shots, assuming average goaltending on both sides.
On Wednesday night, the Rangers will host the Tampa Bay Lightning in game one of the Eastern Conference Final, after beating the Hurricanes on Monday in their second game seven of this postseason. Through their first 14 games, the Rangers have prevailed on the Deserve to Win O’Meter only five times, including just twice in that second-round series against Carolina. And while a couple of playoff series is a small sample size, this phenomenon has characterized the Rangers almost all season long — without yet leading to their downfall.
Despite finishing with the seventh-best regular-season record in the NHL, the Rangers were in the bottom third of the league in a whole bunch of stats that typically signal a team’s strength. Their problem, in layman’s terms: They attempted fewer shots than their opponents and hit the net with their shot attempts less often than their opponents. Factoring in the quality of those shots, they were then expected to score less often than the teams they played. That last stat is called expected goals, and it’s the basis for a lot of useful modern analytics, including the Deserve to Win O’Meter. And indeed, the Rangers were a middling offensive team overall, especially for a squad that finished so high up in the standings.
The analytics numbers improved a bit following the trade deadline, but they’ve regressed during the playoffs. Out of the 16 teams that played in this year’s postseason, the Rangers rank last in expected goals percentage. And yet, just like during the regular season, they’re winning more often than they’re not.
So how are the Rangers one of the last four teams standing? What would a team have to do to win if its opponents were consistently taking more, and better, shots that typically would result in more goals? They’d need to prevent those shots from actually going into the net. That’s where Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin comes in. The league’s best netminder in the regular season, Shesterkin “stole” a win for his team in 20 percent of his starts (which, in analytics speak, means that his goals-saved-above-expected number was larger than the game’s final margin, minus any end-of-game empty net goals). And after a statistically shaky start to the playoffs (in which his team often hung him out to dry), he’s returned to form; per MoneyPuck, he finished the second round with an excellent 7.92 goals saved above expected.
Another thing an out-chanced team should probably do is make the most of whatever opportunities it does get to score. That could be reflected in a team’s shooting percentage, and the Rangers’ is indeed pretty good. But that statistic involves a lot of luck. Instead, the Rangers take full advantage of power plays, when they have a man advantage and their chances of scoring should rise dramatically. Driven by a small core of outstanding offensive players, the Rangers excelled at scoring during power plays, and that’s continued in the playoffs. Through two rounds, they’re converting at a 32.5 percent clip, an excellent number that’s better than all but one team.
None of this is exactly by design. The Rangers didn’t set out to break everything we know about projections. They hoped to have a great goalie in Shesterkin, but would prefer he not have to bail out his teammates on a regular basis. It’s also not a Moneyball situation in which they’ve tried to exploit market inefficiencies to win on the cheap. Rather, they’ve stumbled onto a way to win in which they rely a lot on a top-heavy roster loaded with stars who excel in the right combination of areas, regardless of what the analytics say about their roster on the whole.
The Rangers have also squeezed some offense out of their “kid line” of young homegrown players and gotten good performances from midseason acquisitions who’ve proven to be savvy, and relatively cheap, pickups. Some of their core players (especially center Mika Zibanejad) have been clutch, and not just on the power play. And they’ve also gotten straight-up lucky at times: Because of injuries, they’ve only faced their opponent’s starting goalie once through 14 games — something that will change in the Conference Final, when the Lightning will start Andrei Vasilevskiy, perhaps the only netminder who might edge out Shesterkin for the title of Best Goalie Alive Right Now.
With all these projection-defying factors working for them, the Rangers seem like a team that exists outside the normal spectrum of sports expectations, in which teams that outplay their opponents win, and those that don’t, lose. It’s a dynamic that’s usually especially true in hockey, with its culture that prioritizes the complete team over the individual. But not this time around.
As you might guess, the Rangers’ advanced stats don’t match up well against the Lightning, who are looking to win the Stanley Cup for the third consecutive year. Most experts aren’t picking the Rangers to win, either. But when no one expects you to succeed, it only makes the vibes better when you do.