Sometimes people can be their own worst enemy.
Many of my days are spent in front of this very computer screen where I sit now, poring through articles, spreadsheets, stat columns, opinion columns and everything in between. Doing this has given me an opportunity to dig deeper into the world of hockey, trying to figure out how this game works. Sometimes where I and others fall short in our endeavors is teaching what we know to others in a manner that is both non-confrontational and informational. This isn’t always easy.
There was a wonderful article written after game one of the Stanley Cup Finals by Bruce Arthur, a writer I have a tremendous amount of respect for. The topic of this article was the Chicago Blackhawks manufacturing luck in their overtime victory in the first game. The heart of this article revolved around how the Blackhawks took game one; the game-tying goal was a slapshot from the point that was going to miss the net but deflected off a Bruins’ defenseman Andrew Ference’s skate and went in. The game-winning triple overtime goal was a shot, again from the blueline, that clipped a stick, went off a shinpad and in the net. The Blackhawks caught a couple of lucky breaks and they won the game. Chalk it up to luck and move on, right?
Not so fast. Yes, these are lucky goals in how they went in the net. However, they weren’t lucky in the sense that both “lucky” goals fell into the Chicago column. The Blackhawks had a CorsiFor% that game (the percentage of all even-strength shot attempts by both teams that belonged to Chicago) of 62.8%. Think of this in terms of other sports: If a soccer team had 63% ball possession or an NFL team had the ball for 63% of the game clock, it wouldn’t be a guarantee they would win but you would favor them to win, all things equal, right?
This is what Mr. Arthur meant by manufacturing luck. Sure, the Blackhawks got lucky in winning game one, but they deserved to get a bit lucky, didn’t they? If one team takes 37 more shots than the other (not necessarily shots on goal, just shot attempts), they have more opportunities to get lucky.
It doesn’t always work this way. My team could take 60 shots while your team could take just 10 shots and have your team win the game 2-0. That’s the nature of sports; nothing is guaranteed but that doesn’t mean you don’t give yourself the best opportunity to win.
Giving yourself the best opportunity to win in hockey is achieved through puck possession – measured as a rate of shot attempts for/against. It is not coincidence that the #3 and #4 team in CorsiFor% in the regular season this year are in the finals. There are mitigating factors – the New Jersey Devils were an excellent possession team this year but had the third-worst shooting percentage at 5 on 5 – so not every team that possesses the puck well is going to succeed.
But you cannot argue about the success of the Boston Bruins. The core of this team won the Stanley Cup two years ago, made the playoffs last year after winning their division and are back in the Finals this year. Two years ago, Boston was just 14th in CorsiFor%, however led the league in goals against per 60 minutes of 5 on 5 and were ranked 6th in shooting percentage. They won the Cup despite not being a high possession team because of defense (it always comes back to Zdeno Chara), goaltending (Bruins fans owe a lot to Tim Thomas, regardless of how you feel about him) and a bit of lucky shooting (all these trends from the regular season carried into the playoffs). Last year, the Bruins were the 4th ranked team in CF%, as they were this year. It pains this Montréal fan to admit it, but Boston GM Peter Chiarelli has built a perennial contender that has most of its core players locked up for the next few years at least.
One Bruins player due for a new contract after this season is Patrice Bergeron. He’s not a guy that stuffs the scoresheet; he’s only cracked the 60-point mark once since the 2006-2007 season and has more than 22 goals just once in his nine-year career. Much like Marian Hossa for Chicago, though, his value lies in much more than just points. And Boston is much, much better with him than without him:
per stats.hockeyanalysis.com , Boston was a 59.7% Corsi Tied team with Bergeron on the ice this season. Just 52.1% without.
— Cam Charron (@camcharron) June 23, 2013
Bergeron is a coach’s dream. Not only does he get the points (50-60 points isn’t a bad season) but he does so much more on the ice. Over the last three regular seasons, Bergeron has:
- Led the Bruins in On-Ice Corsi twice (this year and last year). But not only has he been the best possession player on one of the best possession teams the last couple of years, but he has finished second in the entire NHL in each of the last two seasons in Corsi On among regulars (minimum of 40 games played).
- Finished 2nd, 4th and 2nd on the Bruins in short-handed Time On Ice per 60 minutes. During this stretch, Boston’s penalty kill has improved every year from 16th in 2010-2011 to 4th this year.
- Led the Bruins in take-aways twice, both 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. He also finished T-3rd on the team this year in this category.
- Led the Bruins’ regular face-off men twice in face-off%, both this year and in 2010-2011. The only year he didn’t was 2011-2012, but he finished second on the Bruins behind Rich Peverley by less than 2% and took over 1300 more face-offs than Peverley. In fact, his rank in the entire NHL in face-off% the last three years is 1st, 4th and 15th, going backwards chronologically. We can debate the value of face-off wins in small samples, but over the long-term they will lead to more chances than the opposition.
The success of the Bruins, in my opinion and in their 2011 Stanley Cup run, lay in three areas; goaltending (Tuukka Rask), defense (Zdeno Chara) and puck possession (Bergeron is the best at this out of all of the Bruins). Should Bergeron miss tonight’s game, the lack of his two-way play is going to significantly impact Boston’s ability to possess the puck (a battle they are already losing). Rask always has the ability to steal a game, which would be a bit of lucky fortune for them. But if Boston is forced to take the ice without Bergeron, the Bruins are going to need to be real lucky to force a game seven.