Hey, here’s some good news for fans of high-scoring hockey: four of five top goal-scoring teams from the Western Conference all had the chance to make up the Western Conference Final Four this year.
Hey, here’s some bad news for fans of high-scoring hockey: their opponents have all taken 3-1 leads. Vancouver, San Jose, Chicago and Detroit have been seen over the last few years as puck possession teams that score a lot of goals, while their opponents: Los Angeles, St. Louis, Phoenix and Nashville, are seen as more defensive, trap teams.
(Nashville are a bit of a wild-card. They’re actually 7th in the Conference in goals against [they've given up more than both San Jose and Detroit for some reason] and fourth in goals for, behind the Canucks, Blackhawks and Red Wings. So you could make the argument that the Wings are actually the more defensive hockey club, but for the purpose of symmetry in the above paragraph, let’s not.)
After four games in each of the series’, five of eight have a 3-1 leader. In three of those five series’, the team with a better goals against record from the regular season is leading. Not in any of those series is the team with the highest goals for average leading. Theory: to beat defensive hockey, you can’t just open yourself up and try and trade chances. To beat defensive hockey, you must close down your system. Quick thought on that:
Supposing you come into a series with the better goaltender, somebody you can expect to get a .910 save percentage out of. If the teams trade a whole bunch of chances, the shot count will get high. Let’s say you play a wide open style against a team that generally plays defensive hockey with a .920 goaltender.
Facing a similar shot rate, with quality chances at either end, you’re forcing your goalie to make more saves he can’t make. If you have the worse goalie, you’ll want to stifle chances and play a low-scoring, low-chances game, thus increasing the likelihood of the game going your favour off of a lucky bounce or an overtime goal.
This is how Washington has managed to tie their series against Boston, by ensuring the better goalie doesn’t get his chance to shine. Remember, when a game opens up, there are chances at both ends, like Chicago seems content to do with Phoenix, except they’re forgetting the fact that, when they play with active defencemen and create 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s. Despite the fact that they recorded far more scoring chances in Game 4, (19-7 at even strength for the Coyotes, according to Defending B D‘s Josh Lile), they were beaten by a combination of Mike Smith and Corey Crawford. This isn’t new. This is the series with probably the highest amount of scoring chances but they’ve been coming at both ends of the ice.
Unless you are a team that has a better goaltender than your playoff opponent, you are much better off not opening the game up. Since the Blues have Brian Elliott, the Kings have Jonathan Quick, and the Coyotes Smith and all three ended up in separate series, there was a chance that some stifling teams would move on.
Of the eight series’ taking place, just one of them is averaging over 5 goals per game by both teams. Over the first round’ series over three years, 17/24 playoff series’ did.
Quick word on Nashville since I saw a few mocking argument about Fenwick Tied with their Game 4 victory over Detroit. I’ve addressed previously on this blog that nobody seems to worry about the fact that Nashville has a pretty bad shot differential, and I’ve seen some good banter back and forth between the “stats tell a story” and the “yeah but they don’t tell the whole story” camps on this one.
The Predators are by far the biggest outlier among playoff teams (in particular the West) of teams making the playoffs despite having bad possession numbers, and, seeing what happened to Anaheim last season, it’s pretty odd that they’d be up by such a large margin on Detroit. They’ve been out-shot by Detroit in the series, they’ve been outshot 138-91 and are being held into it thanks to Pekka Rinne’s .962 even strength save percentage.
But their possession numbers have actually been kind of good since they picked up Alexander Radulov. It’s a pretty small sample of nine games, but the difference is striking:
|Nashville Predators||Fenwick Tied|
How did the team go from one of the
team’s best league’s worst to right in the middle of that Western Conference pack with the addition of one player? The only forwards worth their salt in this lineup have been Radulov and the two guys he plays with, David Legwand and Andrei Kostitsyn. Their relative numbers (again, early) are huge. They’ve been doing their best to control the puck in a lineup where there isn’t a lot of talent to do this. Check out how badly Mike Fisher’s line is carrying play, averaging nearly 36 extra shot attempts against their net every 60 minutes.
Has Radulov helped this team turn? Was he the missing piece allowing them to become elite? I think we’ll have a few more Predators games over the next month for us to accurately judge.