The NHL Playoffs wrapped up about three weeks ago and the fallout from it has been interesting to watch. The playoffs are where big contracts are earned and reputations are either made or destroyed, this year being no different. For me, sports (and hockey in particular) are really difficult to analyze on the fly because there is so much happening in a small amount of time and it’s impossible for one person to catch everything in one viewing. A player who scored a big goal at the right time could have been having one of the worst games of his career up until that point and likewise, someone under the knife for having no goals in seven games could have been playing well but not seeing any reward for it.
The nature of the playoffs in general leads to a lot of this. Averages tend to even out over the course of a full season, but not so much when you’re playing seven or fewer games against the same opponent. Thus, you’ll see a lot of instances where things like special teams, goaltending and star power catapult a team to victory even instances where they are being outplayed. When you consider how often the “better team” in hockey actually wins, playoff results have a chance to become more random than one would expect.
Watching hockey usually leaves me with more questions than answers because processing everything usually takes times and sometimes multiple viewings. What did Team X do to win the series and what factors led to it? What didn’t the losing team do that could have stopped them? Did the better team actually win?
This is what we’re going to be looking at over the next few weeks as we take a closer look at every series this post-season, starting with the Detroit-Tampa Bay series.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings: Under the Microscope
Shot/Scoring Chances Breakdown
For starters, we are going to look at the basics, which are your traditional shot metrics. It’s not the most “advanced” method but we know that outshooting the opposition at 5v5 is predictive to outscoring them and in turn, winning the game. That said, I’ve made a few additions to this. Firstly, I tracked how each shot was created (whether it came after a carry-in, a dump-in, a turnover or a faceoff), which players (if any) made a pass to set up the shot, whether or not the shot was deflected, if the shot came off a rebound and if the goaltender was screened on the shot. I also noted whether or not the shot was a scoring chance going by the “home-plate” definition used in the Scoring Chance Project from the 2011 season and tracked which locations on the ice the shots & passes came from. I should also mention that I tracked each shot individually so my numbers differ from what the NHL has on their web site, as their arena scorers omitted a handful of shots for unknown reasons.
Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, let’s look at the series stats.
So why such a decisive victory for Tampa Bay when the stats slightly favored Detroit? The first answer is Tampa goaltender Ben Bishop. He was phenomenal, posting a .950 save percentage and allowing two or fewer goals in every game, capping things off with a 34-save shutout in Game 5 to clinch the series for the Lightning. At the other end, Detroit goaltenders Jimmy Howard & Petr Mrazek combined to post a .913 save percentage. Going on just goaltending alone is a little misleading because outside of a rough outing for Howard in Game 2, Detroit’s goalies were very solid with Mrazek posting a .945 save percentage in the three games he appeared in. There’s just so little room for error when you go up against a goaltending performance like Bishop’s. Mrazek found that out the hard way, as his turnover to Ryan Callahan in the dying minutes of Game 5 directly led to Alex Killorn scoring the game-winning goal. It was an untimely error that masked an otherwise solid playoff run for him but those are the breaks sometimes.
Interesting note here is how Detroit created a high percentage of their shots off the rush or by skating the puck over the blue line while Tampa Bay was able to expose Detroit’s defense and get a good chunk of their shots off turnovers. Is the same true for scoring chances?
5v5 Scoring Chances
The five-on-five chances follow a similar trend with Detroit being even more reliant off the rush here. Tampa Bay also has a slightly higher percentage of chances created by turnovers and something else you might notice is how they nearly doubled Detroit in rebound chances. That said, this didn’t have a huge impact on the results as both teams scored the same number of five-on-five goals. Tampa may have been able to create more chances off a forecheck & expose Detroit’s defense, but it seemed to wash out in the end.
This leads us to the other area that the Lightning outperformed the Red Wings in terms of results: the power play.
Tampa Bay comes away with only a slight advantage here, as they were only marginally better than Detroit at generating shots & scoring chances with the power play. The big difference maker for them came in Game 4 where they struck three times with the man advantage. They scored only one more power play goal in the other four games but that was more than enough to give them a big lead here, as Brad Richards’ goal in Game 2 was all Detroit had on the power play all series.
Tampa Bay Shot Breakdown (Five-on-Five)
Tampa Bay had a few big injuries, Stamkos being the most noteworthy but the loss of Anton Stralman severely impacted their defense. Matt Carle was called upon to fill Stralman’s void on the top pairing and it’s pretty easy to see that he was way out of his depth. Victor Hedman did just about all he could to elevate his play, creating most of the offense from this pairing and about a quarter of the entire defense corps’ shot attempts. As for the rest of Tampa Bay’s defense, it was better than expected. You’d like to see stronger numbers for Nesterov & Coburn on the third pairing, but Garrison & Sustr did a fine job on the second pair and that should be encouraging for the Lightning.
Another player who had to step into a big role was Jonathan Drouin and he made the most of it, playing on the second line with Filppula & Palat. He led the team in scoring chances at five-on-five and was their top performer on the power play on top of that, recording three assists to help the Lightning win Game 4. The Lightning’s top-six was in pretty good shape overall with Palat being the only one in the red in terms of shot differential. Their depth forwards, on the other hand, had a rough go of it.
Callahan had a big assist to help the Lightning clinch the series but his overall offensive output was very low and you can say the same for the rest of the third & fourth lines. Cedric Paquette & Vlad Namestnikov seemed to be the only ones creating anything.
Tampa Bay Scoring Chances (Five-on-Five)
Drouin led the way with ten scoring chances, doing most of the finishing on his line while the Triplets also had themselves a very solid series. One thing you might remember is Tampa Bay creating nearly 30% of their scoring chances off Detroit turnovers and their top-six especially had a field day in that department. Nikita Kucherov had the Midas Touch all series with five goals, three coming on the power play, but Drouin could have easily netted a few with how much offense he was creating. Same goes for Tyler Johnson, who finished the series with two goals.
Tampa Bay Chances (Power Play)
Tampa Bay’s first power play unit did most of their damage with Drouin continuing his emergence, Kucherov striking oil scoring on three of his four power play chances and Hedman being a solid distributor from the point. Things are a little more spread out after that.
Detroit Shot Breakdown (Five-on-Five)
The Red Wings started off this series by having Henrik Zetterberg & Pavel Datsyuk playing on the top line but Jeff Blashill switched things up after Game 2. The biggest adjustment he made was putting Abdelkader, Glendening & Sheahan together on the third line & hard-matching them against Tampa Bay’s first line. This worked for Game 3, Detroit’s best performance, but backfired horrendously in Game 4 and the results speak for themselves here. Every other forward unit was able to tilt the ice in Detroit’s favor, but these three (plus Darren Helm) spent most of their ice time trapped in their own zone. Blashill constantly juggled his lines & made in-game adjustments to try to manufacture goals and while Detroit was able to pepper Bishop, they ultimately couldn’t solve him and were held to only eight goals over the five games.
Some of the lineup choices were interesting, as Datsyuk wasn’t matched up with anyone at home while the third line saw most of the toughs. Zetterberg drew most of the hard matchup on the road and had success with them despite no offensive results. The fourth line also gave the Wings a big territorial advantage with Tatar & Athanasiou making the most of limited minutes.
Same can be said for the defense as Blashill struggled to find the right mix. He was adamant about sheltering Mike Green & Brendan Smith while the other pairings handled the Lightning’s top forwards. Thus, Danny Dekeyser & Kyle Quincey ended up seeing a lot of minutes against the Johnson line and they weren’t quite up to it. Jonathan Ericsson also drew these assignments when he was paired with Niklas Kronwall after Game 2.
Detroit Scoring Chance Breakdown (Five-on-Five)
They say that no hard work goes unrewarded, but don’t tell anyone on the Red Wings that because their entire roster couldn’t buy a goal or an assist all series. Zetterberg was the biggest victim, being involved in 19 chances and having only one goal to show for it. The sad part is that his line was the least snake-bitten group on the team, as him, Larkin & Nyquist at least had one goal each to show for their efforts. Pavel Datsyuk, on the other hand, walked away with goose eggs across the board for an otherwise good series. Running into a hot goalie will do this, though.
Only thing I think Detroit could vastly improve on, aside from their third line, is having their defense more involved. Aside from the third pair, their defense corps didn’t do much in terms of creating or helping setup chances. Tampa Bay didn’t vastly outperform them here, but I would expect more with a player like Mike Green back there.
Detroit Chances (Power Play)
To my surprise, Kronwall was Detroit’s most effective defenseman at distributing the puck on the power play, setting up more chances than Green & Dekeyser combined. Zetterberg was also very effective in this department while Datsyuk was their main trigger-man. It ended up being a moot point with Richards having their lone power play goal of the series, unfortunately.
5v5 Zone Entries
The next area I tracked are zone entries, which are a very critical factor in winning the shot battle at even strength. Through the research done by Eric Tulsky, we know that entries done by carrying the puck into the zone lead to twice as many shots as opposed to dumping the puck in. We also know through this post done by Jen LC that more goals are scored on controlled entries compared to dump-ins. So in theory, teams that are able to carry the puck in more often than their opponents are more likely to outshoot their opponents.
For tracking entries, I counted every time the puck crossed the opponent’s blue line, which player had the entry, how they did it (whether it was by carrying the puck or dumping it in), how many unblocked shots were created off it, which player on the defending team was guarding the blue line when the entry took place and the area of the ice where the entry took place.
How did this series play out in terms of entries?
Detroit ended up with a pretty big advantage here, which is a bit surprising considering how close the shot count was at five-on-five. They ended up with more overall entries than the Lightning and their forwards were able to support each other well, forcing Tampa’s defense to back off at the line. They seemed to make a point of having someone support the puck carrier in the neutral zone so they could do this. They also had a few instances where a forward was able to coast-to-coast to enter the zone, Datsyuk & Athanasiou in particular were good at this. Detroit’s not what they used to be, but they do have a lot of skill in their lineup and it showed with how well they were to gain the line with control in this series.
Tampa, on the other hand, dumped the puck in quite a bit. It was surprising because that seems like it goes against their strengths. Even with the injuries to Steven Stamkos & JT Brown, they have no shortage of quick, skilled forwards and should be able to carry the puck in at will. Stralman not being in the lineup had some impact on this, as you’ll find out in the zone exits feature, but Detroit also did a pretty good job of disrupting Tampa Bay’s breakouts. The Lightning resorted to send the puck up the boards to exit the zone which in turn, impacted how they entered the zone as they had to settle for tip plays and get a forecheck going.
There were also some times where Tampa had to adjust and chip the puck in past Detroit’s defenders to retrieve the puck when they were in one-on-one situations because controlled entries weren’t coming as easy as they normally do for them. It wasn’t the worst strategy for them with how much success they had at generating chances off turnovers. Still, the rewards for dumping the puck in were minimal for both teams.
Tampa Bay Zone Entries (Five-on-Five)
You can see here that almost every line was playing some form of dump-and-chase at some point. The only one not in this category is Palat-Filppula-Drouin, who were also one of Tampa’s best lines at generating shots & scoring chances. It is interesting to see how often their first line was playing dump-and-chase since Kucherov & Johnson are two of the best players in the NHL when it comes to zone entries. They had moderate success here with .36 shots created per dump-in along with four chances off turnovers, but it will be interesting to see if they stuck with it for the next two rounds. Another interesting note is how much Johnston stands out here compared to Kucherov in terms of his workload in the neutral zone.
Tampa’s bottom-six also played a lot of dump-and-chase with Namestnikov being the only player to have a decent carry-in percentage. I talked about how low their offensive output was earlier in the article and the origin of it is pretty easy to spot here. The defense corps didn’t exactly do much in terms of rushing the puck up the ice either with Braydon Coburn having the highest carry-in rate on only eight total entries.
Detroit Zone Entries (Five-on-Five)
Most of Detroit’s forwards had success in the neutral zone with all but four players being able to carry the puck in on more than 50% of their entries. A little surprising to see Darren Helm up there considering how badly Detroit was outshot when he was on the ice. Everyone else’s results match-up with their shot differentials fairly well. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Larkin and Athanasiou were all very good at gaining the line with control while Glendening & Abdelkader had to dump the puck in on most of their entries.
Tampa Bay Zone Entry Defense (Five-on-Five)
Carle was Tampa Bay’s worst player in terms of shot differential and the fact that he had a hard time preventing entries was a big part of that. Detroit seemed to get the better of that matchup to say the very least. Hedman wasn’t as dominant as he usually is in this regard, too and Garrison ended up being their most effective defenseman at disrupting entries. Carle wasn’t alone in his struggles at defending the blue line as Detroit had a lot of success at gaining the zone against Coburn, Nesterov & Sustr, as well. That said, these three were much more effective at preventing shots when the puck was on their side of the ice.
Detroit Zone Entry Defense (Five-on-Five)
Dekeyser & Quincey received the bulk of the tough assignments here and they had some trouble at keeping the Lightning’s forwards in check as they were able to create a lot of shots when entering the zone on Dekeyser’s side of the ice. The rest of Detroit’s defense did an unspectacular job of preventing carry-ins in one-on-one situations with the exception of Mike Green, which was a little surprising.
Detroit handled themselves better at five-on-five than I thought they would and made it a more competitive series than most predicted. That said, it still ended in five games and Tampa Bay was able to ride Ben Bishop to a pretty quick series win. Sometimes that happens, especially when you factor in Tampa Bay’s advantage on special teams and how hot their first line was at even strength. Hard to do any real analysis when you’re working with only five games, but it’s definitely interesting to see how close this series was when you look at all the details.