Lessons Learned from the Boston Bruins Game 7 Victory

2013 NHL playoffs
2013 NHL playoffs
May 13 2013 Boston MA USA Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara 33 greets Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf 3 after overtime in game seven of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden The Boston Bruins won 5 4 Greg M Cooper USA TODAY Sports

In talking with friends and family, writing about advanced statistics seems like voodoo to some of them. Coming from a hockey background (not an elite level, I can tell you) and growing up in a hockey family (my Dad played University hockey in Canada and was once recruited by the Michigan Wolverines while my brother and I are both former high school coaches), what you know is what you’ve been taught. What I was taught as a child was hard work and doing the small things was what won hockey games. To an extent, that is correct. Doing small things like chipping the puck off the glass when the pressure is on in your zone can lead to wins, the key word being can. When the puck gets out, you need skilled forwards to track it down and try to keep it from being sent back in.

Why I say ‘to an extent, that is correct’ is because doing the small things isn’t enough if you don’t get production out of these small things. You got the puck deep? Great. The puck gets sent back out of the zone with ease? Well getting the puck deep then doesn’t matter much. You’ve only made your opposition go 200 feet instead of 130, a distance that can be covered in a split-second with a well-placed breakout pass.

To get to my point, being productive when you have the puck is what leads to winning games. Does it guarantee it? Most certainly not. There are no guarantees in sports, only probabilities. The best indicator of success in the NHL is puck possession. Toronto had the second-worst Fenwick Close% in the NHL this year (Buffalo was last) while Boston had the fourth-best in the NHL. For those unfamiliar, Fenwick Close% is a metric that measures possession as a rate of shot attempts when the score is close (e.g. tied in the first or second period, a one-goal game in the third). Four teams made the playoffs as a minus-Fenwick Close% team (Anaheim, Toronto, Minnesota, Washington) and all have gone home. Being an 11% shooting team like Toronto was in the regular season is great, but when you get out-attempted by 14 shots per game like Toronto was in the playoffs, this mitigates the shooting percentage differential.

Hockey is a game of inches and a game of bounces. That’s why a small sample like a playoff series can bring havoc to advanced stats. If Toronto scores in overtime in game 4 – they hit a post before Boston scored – and the series is 2-2 instead of 3-1, who knows what happens. But the more chances you have to get the inches in your favor, the more likely you are to win.

Let’s put it this way: if you’re at a carnival playing the ring toss and you always get three rings but your opponent always gets two, your opponent will win once in a while, all things being equal, but in the long run he will not. That is how these advanced stats work. If you are “less skilled” than your opponent, you want to keep the puck away from them and take as many attempts as you can. In a sense, this is what Boston did. Here are the Corsi stats from the series:

  • Game 1 – Boston +24
  • Game 2 – Boston +16
  • Game 3 – Toronto +6
  • Game 4 – Toronto +4
  • Game 5 – Boston +23
  • Game 6 – Boston +17
  • Game 7 – Boston +26

So in the seven games, at even-strength, Boston attempted 96 more shots than Toronto did. On average, Boston had nearly 14 more shot attempts than Toronto did per game. Is it any wonder Boston won? The Bruins had nine forwards finish with a double-digit On-Ice Corsi rating while Toronto had one forward finish with a positive On-Ice Corsi rating. Sometimes teams win despite this (the 2010 Montréal Canadiens were terrible but made it to the third round), but most often they do not.

It’s kind of funny to look back on last night’s game. I was watching it with friends (all Leafs fans) and when it got to 4-1 at about the 15 minute mark of the third period, some of them started celebrating. One of my friends, however, did not. He had seen this before over the last several years; the Leafs with a third period lead that gets blown. Is it any wonder it happened last night? The teams were pretty much even in shot attempts until around the 12 minute mark of the third period and then, well, see for yourself.

Sitting on a lead, in any sport, is dangerous. It is even more dangerous when you are sitting on lead despite getting outplayed on a macro level in the series. I can’t help but think this was a directive from Leafs coach Randy Carlyle because why else would Colton Orr get any ice time in the third period? It’s a dangerous way to live, and when you sit back against a team that has a habit of outplaying you anyway, it’s almost inevitable, as my friend was well aware.

I will tell you what we saw last night was history. A sports highlight show in Canada this morning was saying that it was the first three goal deficit to ever be overcome in the third period of a game seven in NHL playoff history. But it’s also about the numbers. Patrice Bergeron couldn’t keep shooting at a 3.8% rate much longer; Toronto couldn’t go into a defensive shell for 12 minutes and hope for the best against one of the best possession teams in the NHL without it costing them.

No fan base deserves to have their heart ripped out in the fashion that happened last night, especially one that has been waiting for years for playoff hockey. But no team deserves to win when being outplayed, either. All the narratives in the world shouldn’t sway you from this fact: the best team usually wins.

author avatar
Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');