How Adam Fox Pushed the Rangers Past the Penguins
The NHL playoffs aren’t always fair. Case in point: the first-round series between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Mike Sullivan’s troops utterly dominated Gerard Gallant’s, as they controlled 67.4% of the high-danger chances, 62.3% of the expected goals and 52.6% of the actual goals at 5-on-5. Their power play hummed along at a 26.1% clip. Sidney Crosby turned back the clock and looked like the best player on earth. Jake Guentzel scored a league-leading eight goals. On most nights, Igor Shesterkin and the Blueshirts were hanging on for dear life.
Yet they still prevailed in seven games. Part of that boiled down to Crosby’s unfortunate injury in Game 5. Pittsburgh’s goaltending was abysmal as well. Another major factor was New York’s cold-blooded opportunism.
Only four teams averaged fewer expected goals than the Rangers in Round 1. They struggled to generate opportunities in prime real estate, often settling for what Pittsburgh was happy to offer them. The perimeter. In a weird way, that actually worked out for them because their blue line is paced by a star who knows how to make the most out of every touch—however innocuous it may seem at first glance.
Thanks to Adam Fox’s skill, poise and decision-making, the Blueshirts were able to overcome intense Penguins pressure and numerous deficits throughout the series. His impact at the point, in particular, is akin to that of a seasoned floor general in basketball. He consistently gets his teammates quality shots. The 24-year-old has made an art out of unlocking defenses from his spot at the blue line, using his vision to detect attractive seams and his deception to send opponents sniffing in the wrong direction:
Notice how Fox doesn’t simply understand where to pass the puck but also when to pass it. He routinely holds on for an extra half-second in order to sell a different threat and carve out daylight for the likes of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Whereas most point men feel rushed to make their decisions for fear of a turnover, Fox is so confident in his reads that he’ll engage in a game of chicken with defenders, hanging on just long enough for them to get uncomfortable. The moment they turn their back to face their mark or start puck-watching, he slings a pass to his target in plus territory.
Moreover, he doesn’t insist on making a sequence’s defining pass on each touch. He’s happy to distribute the puck out wide to pull the opposition away from the middle of the ice, thereby allowing his teammates to exploit the royal road. He’s equally adept at playmaking or facilitating from the point. He didn’t rack up seven assists in seven games by accident.
With that said, it takes more than great passing to impose your will as a point man. Your shot must be a weapon too. Otherwise, opponents can sag off you and place all their attention on potential pass recipients (see: Morgan Rielly). Though Fox isn’t known for his bomb, he demonstrates savvy shot selection, pulling the trigger when he sees traffic, the defense is shading toward the forwards or he can skate into the high slot:
Few rearguards are more effective at shooting for tips. Rather than slapping the puck as hard as possible, he takes his time to sort out the mess of bodies in front and aims specifically for his teammates’ sticks. He actually prefers wristers too, as he can release them more quickly and accurately than a full-on clapper.
Since Fox is such a gifted playmaker, the Pens seemed bewildered every time he would take matters into his own hands. His feints would get defenders to bite all over the place and he’s a more elusive skater than he appears. Ask Brian Boyle.
His ability to process traffic, skate himself open and determine the optimal shot in any given situation yielded a number of wild flurries in Pittsburgh’s slot. Oh, and three goals. It sounds odd to say because his shot is nowhere near the strongest among NHL blueliners, but he’s a proper dual threat from the point. Sprint at him to get the puck out of his hands, and he’ll slice your defense apart. Give him space, and he’ll unleash one smart shot after another. No matter what you pick, poison is still poison.
Of course, Fox isn’t strictly a point man. Throughout Round 1, he made plenty of stellar plays from a variety of locations:
Whether it was pinpoint stretch passes or sumptuous slot dishes, the New York native always had something up his sleeve. He’s not quite as aggressive as Roman Josi or Cale Makar, but when he does crash down from the point, he makes waves. In the end, his offensive contributions amounted to 10 crucial points in seven contests.
Given how frequently and thoroughly Pittsburgh tilted the ice in its favor, opportunistic offense alone wouldn’t cut it for the Rangers. Their defense would be critical too. Unfortunately, Ryan Lindgren was seemingly dealing with five separate injuries. Shesterkin (3.66 GAA, 91.0 SV%) fell well short of his Hart Trophy standards. The team’s overall posture crumbled early and often. Thankfully, Fox was there to serve as a pesky last line of defense:
This certainly isn’t textbook chance suppression. Without adequate five-man structure, gap control was a pipe dream. So Fox just…gutted it out. As the Pens attempted to bang down the Rangers’ door, the 5’11”, 183-pounder threw himself at loose pucks or lunged to take away passing lanes. Anything it took to survive.
As a result, he conceded a whopping 3.86 expected goals but only 2.30 actual goals per 60 minutes. That’s strength at the point of attack.
While New York was seldom in the driver’s seat against the Penguins, Fox rose to the occasion and fueled a furious comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. This was a lesson in puck management vs. puck possession. He made every touch count. Due to his efficient decision-making and fearless defense, he converted a 40.1 xGF% into a 57.1 GF%. In the process, he foiled a swarming Pittsburgh club that undoubtedly deserved a better fate.