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Sabres vs. Rangers, Second Round Preview

The New York State NHL Finals begin tonight, as the Rangers head up to Buffalo, and it's time to focus our predictive powers on the likely outcome of this series. The Sabres have been the hot team all year and their rabid fan base has been waiting for this time ever since their playoff elimination last year, but the Rangers, while mediocre for much of the regular season, turned things on down the stretch and dispatched the Southeast division champs in an impressive first-round sweep. So what the numbers say about how this one will go?

For table explanation, scroll down to the bottom of this post.

How the Sabres can score: It seems like Buffalo should get a good number of close-in chances against New York, and the onus will be on Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to keep things from busting loose. Buffalo is the hottest playoff team remaining in terms of shooting percentage in the prime 10-19 and 20-29 foot ranges, whereas Lundqvist is the hottest goalie at stopping those same shots. To me, this looks like bad news for New York. Take, for example, the Shots Factor line - in total, the Rangers give up 96% of the league average in terms of shots, which seems OK, but if you look at how they're mixed, it looks like they lock down the long-distance shots at the expense of giving up more short-range opportunities (very low values in the 50+ area, higher ones below 19). That plays right into Buffalo's sweet spot.

How the Rangers can score: Execution from close range will be crucial for the Rangers. They're expected to get basically nothing from 40 feet out, and in turn generate the most shots from the 10-19 foot range, although their shooting percentage from that area is the worst among remaining playoff teams. From mid- to long-range New York should outshoot Buffalo, and if they create traffic in front of Ryan Miller perhaps they might make something happen off a screen or rebound.

Summary: The Sabres come in at 2.29 Expected Goals per game against the Rangers 2.01, and while the New York might be expected to outshoot Buffalo 31.45 to 26.05, it's Buffalo's superior close-range sniping that makes the difference.

Outside the Numbers: Team expectations have got to be quite different on each side. In Buffalo, they've been geared towards a Cup run since last spring, while in New York, folks are thrilled they made the playoffs, let alone making it through a round or two. I just see the Sabres as being more motivated here.

Prediction: Buffalo in five games.

Table Key:
Shots For = average of shots per game by that team, from the range specified.
Shots Factor = a factor representing how many shots the opposing defense yields in that range (1.24 = 24% more than average, 0.89 = 11% less than average).
Exp. Shots = "Shots For" times "Shots Factor", how many shots are expected to occur within each range.
Sht % = The fraction of shots from within that range result in goals.
Sht % Factor = a measure reflecting how the opposing goaltender handles shots from a given range (0.74 = 26% fewer goals than average, 1.53 = 53% more than average)
Exp. Sht % = "Sht %" times "Sht % Factor", the expected shooting percentage for this matchup.
Exp. Goals = "Exp. Shots" times "Exp. Sht %", the number of goals per game expected from each range.
Values indicative of significantly higher goal-scoring are shaded green, values for lower goal-scoring shaded pink.
All figures represent exponential moving averages, giving greater weight to recent performance. Empty-net goals are excluded.