After the first two games of this first round series, you would not have been remiss to believe that there was no way that the New Jersey Devils would end up dominating in any major statistical category in this series. After all, they were so thoroughly beaten after those two games that it would be difficult to turn things around that much, even if NJ came back and made this into a series.
Well, not only have they made this into a series, but they are one win away from putting away New York and moving onto the second round for the first time in over a decade. Win tonight, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief, at least for a few days. And this 3-2 lead in the series, this ever-so-slight cushion that the Devils have created for themselves, two games to close out this series, has been thanks to getting back to the hockey that won them all of those games in the regular season. And that also means coming roaring back on the stat sheet and dominating New York in some clear statistical categories.
The one I really want to point out today, and one that has really helped the Devils to control much of these last three games, is the work that is being done in high danger, both offensively and defensively. The huge win the Devils are having in this area of the ice is what is allowing them to put tough shots on Igor Shesterkin while preventing NY from getting those same attempts on Akira Schmid all that often. This is not to diminish anything that Schmid is doing. If he keeps it up, people could end up talking about him the way LA fans talked about Jonathan Quick after 2012 (sigh). All of the praise coming his way is deserved. However, we also should be praising the skaters on the ice for what they are doing in the slot, on both sides of the ice.
To showcase the absolute dominance here, check out the numbers from this series. Here is a chart of the top 10 New Jersey and New York skaters in terms of their HDCF%. The chart also shows their rank in terms of all skaters who have played at least 30 5v5 minutes in the playoffs this year. As of this writing, there were 280 skaters who qualified. Data taken before last night’s games, and comes from Natural Stat Trick.
The difference between the teams is, frankly, staggering. Nico Hischier has been the best player in the NHL playoffs so far this year in terms of HDCF%. When he is on the ice, the Devils generate more high danger attempts for, at 78.57%, than any other team in the NHL playoffs, period. That is something. But he isn’t doing it in a vacuum. Jesper Bratt is right behind him, ranking third on the list at 75.56%, and Timo Meier also comes in above 70%, sitting 5th on the list at 70.73%. That is exceptional. Even if you go all the way down the list, the 10th-best Devils skater is Michael McLeod, who still ranks 38th out of 280 skaters this postseason with a 62.50 HDCF%.
Meanwhile, the Rangers have exactly one skater who is in positive numbers. Kaapo Kakko has a 51.85 HDCF%, which ranks him 127th on the list, a little better than the midpoint. Everyone else on NY is in red figures. While I did not go all the way through the rosters, it is worth noting that NY skaters hold positions 266, 267, 268, 271, 273, and 275 on the list. And remember, that is out of 280 skaters total. Six New York skaters rank in the bottom 15 of the list. The worst, Jacob Trouba, has a HDCF% of 25.71%. When he is out there, the Devils are getting about 3 out of every 4 high danger attempts.
What the Devils are doing, simply, is forcing their opposition into low danger attempts. They are controlling the middle of the ice, the slot area, and not allowing NY skaters to generate anything from those positions on the ice. And the few that they do allow, Schmid has been brilliant at bailing them out and gobbling everything up. On the other end of the ice, the offense has been great at doing just what NY cannot: generating open ice in the slot and ripping high danger attempts on Shesterkin. And credit to Igor, who has been fantastic in this series, just like Devils fans were nervous about. He has been as advertised, with a higher GSAx than any other goalie so far. Schmid is better per 60, but Igor has 2 games on him, and he has been good. But if you keep getting high danger attempts, eventually goals are going to come, and they did for the Devils in game 5.
For the Devils to close this series out tonight and prevent a highly stressful game 7 on home ice, they need to continue to dominate in these areas of the ice, both offensively and defensively. Get as many high danger attempts on Igor as you can, and prevent as many on defense as possible. If Nico, Jesper, and Timo can continue to do this at a better than 70% clip, while NY can keep Trouba, Barclay Goodrow, and K’Andre Miller under 30%, there is no reason to think they cannot end it tonight. Let’s go!