Another great season for the Anaheim Ducks ended in heartbreaking fashion yet again as they fell to the lower-seeded Nashville Predators in seven games. This is the fourth year in a row Anaheim has failed to make the Stanley Cup Final after fantastic regular seasons and also the fourth year they’ve ended a series by losing a Game 7 on home ice. This most recent loss to the Predators wasn’t as lopsided as some of their previous failures, but still a deflating ending to what looked like a promising year for Anaheim.
The playoffs are a weird time to do any real detailed analysis because small sample sizes reign supreme and one mistake or bad game can end your team’s season. The Ducks know this feeling all too well and this year, head coach Bruce Boudreau took the fall as Anaheim decided to fire him. Boudreau has taken some heat for past playoff failures (i.e. a shockingly bad 1-7record in Game 7’s) and for how poorly the Ducks started this year, but he has proven to be a terrific regular season coach. Some might say that is meaningless because his teams haven’t gotten it done in the playoffs, but he still holds an impressive resume.
You also have to wonder how much Anaheim (and Washington’s) post-season failures were on Boudreau being “outcoached” and not just some bad luck, running into a better team or his players hitting a dry spell at the worst time. Boudreau has been commended for the coaching job he did this year after brining Anaheim back from the Western Conference cellar to first place in the Pacific Division and turning the Ducks into a puck-possession powerhouse to boot. Therefore, the idea that a coach of his caliber would either forget how to do his job effectively or a team as strong as Anaheim would suddenly fall apart under pressure seems pretty silly.
That said, it never hurts to peek under the hood and see what went wrong for a team when they fall below expectations, especially since it ended up costing someone their job. Was poor coaching Anaheim’s downfall or was it something beyond that?
It will be difficult to find a series more even than this one. Anaheim had a slight advantage in most of the shot categories as well as scoring chances, but not the point where they were dominating Nashville. Things were pretty much a stalemate at five-on-five and the Ducks actually had the advantage in goals when factoring in special teams play. Nashville had slightly more power play time, but Shea Weber’s goal in Game 2 was all they had while the Ducks struck four times with the man advantage. When you have a series this close at even strength, special teams are usually the deciding factor. That wasn’t the case here, so what gives?
Looking at things game-by-game might help a little.
Neither team could hold a strong territorial advantage for a long stretch of time, as they seemed to trade good and bad games. Oddly enough, Anaheim ended up winning both games which they played the worst in from a possession standpoint (Games 4 & 5) and lost in Game 2, which was statistically their best game. It’s hard to pin-point whether or not it was a home/road thing because Anaheim had mixed results on home ice and were even with Nashville on the road in terms of scoring chances. Although, the Game 7 numbers are a bit skewed because Nashville had a 2-0 lead in the first period and sat back for the rest of the game.
One thing that does stick out a bit is that the Ducks had some trouble generating scoring chances. The same argument can be made for Nashville who were even with Anaheim in chances on home ice despite having a slight territorial edge. In fact, the case is even more extreme with the Predators since they were held to fewer than 10 scoring chances in all but two games. This has been the MO for both of these teams during the regular season, as they are both Top 10 in the NHL at suppressing shots at even strength. Nashville was pegged as a “sleeper” team by many people for this exact reason because while they were only a wild card team, they came out of a very strong Central Division and were pretty similar to the Ducks in regards to how strong they were at territorial play. They were pretty close to Anaheim with a 53.6% Score Adjusted Fenwick on the season. So, the fact that this series was so close isn’t that surprising all things considered. Nashville was able to go blow-for-blow with the Ducks and that combined with some timely goals and a couple of strong games from Pekka Rinne, earned themselves a seven-game series victory.
It is interesting how Nashville was able to match up so well with Anaheim, though. After not being able to buy a goal for the first part of the season, it was noted that Boudreau had the Ducks playing more of a defensive system where they clogged up the neutral zone and created chances on the counter attack. It worked well, as Anaheim was among the league’s elite from January onward. Flames defenseman Mark Giordano called Anaheim’s system “the biggest trap they’ve seen all year” when Calgary played them in early January. How effective was this system in the playoffs, though? Was Nashville able to beat it?
Going by just the shot attempts alone, it looks like Nashville did alright. They had games where they couldn’t generate chances but so did Anaheim and it’s hard to say that either team dominated through any stat. This is where looking at each team’s performance in the neutral zone can help out. Anaheim’s biggest strength is their ability to limit shots & that starts with a strong defense in the neutral zone. A good forecheck obviously helps too (after all it’s hard to give up shots when the puck is never in your zone) but limiting entries & especially carry-ins goes a long way to preventing shots and turning that into offense the other way.
Nashville has a lot of skill, especially on defense, and no shortage of terrific skaters, so they seem like a team that would prefer to carry the puck in to generate offense as opposed to dumping or chipping the puck in. Below we’ll look at how effective they and Anaheim were in this regard.
Overall, the zone entry stats are pretty similar to how the shot battle went. Both teams were pretty close in terms of how often they entered the offensive zone with the Ducks having a slight advantage in most categories. One thing that stands out here is how often both teams were forced to dump the puck in as neither could enter the zone with possession on more than 50% of their entries. Nashville especially was forced to play a dump-heavy game as the Ducks made it tough for them to skate the puck up the ice.
That said, it didn’t hinder Nashville’s gameplan too much from the looks of things. They weren’t getting killed in the shot battle and when they had to dump the puck in, they were able to create more shots per entry than the Ducks. Granted, .5 shots per entry isn’t that much but in a short, close series like this, any advantage can help. Nashville was also more efficient at creating shots off faceoffs despite having 20 fewer draws in the offensive zone than Anaheim.
You could make the argument that Nashville beat Anaheim at their own game because it looks like the Ducks got the Predators to do exactly what they wanted, but Nashville figured out a way to make the most of it. They’re a pretty fast team and if Anaheim was going to keep forcing them to dump the puck in, the most they could do was use their speed to their advantage by beating their defense to loose pucks or forcing turnovers, which leads to chances or offensive zone faceoffs. Their success rate wasn’t as high as when they were able to carry the puck in, but they were creating more shots off uncontrolled entries & faceoffs than Anaheim, which helped even the shot gap just a little. The fact that they defended their own blue line pretty well also contributed to this.
Next up we’re going to look at some individual matchups & player performances for both teams.
5v5 Shot Attempts (Corsi)
Anaheim had a defensive mindset going into this series and with that, some of their better players are the ones who didn’t give up anything when they were on the ice. The Getzlaf line (which included some combination of Stewart, Perron & Garbutt on the wings) are the key standouts here with all three wingers generating a lot of shots to boot. The defense pairing of Hampus Lindholm & Sami Vatanen also did a very good job of limiting shots, although the Ducks weren’t creating as many shots of their own when they were on the ice.
On the other end of the spectrum is the line of Ryan Kesler, Andrew Cogliano & Jakob Silfverberg. These three were trusted with shutting down Ryan Johansen, spending a good chunk of their ice time matched up against the Preds top line, you can see how well that turned out. They weren’t completely unproductive, as they contributed three goals at five-on-five and Kesler added a couple on the power play, but they also spent a lot of time in their own end and got woefully outshot. The Bieksa/Fowler pairing also drew this assignment (with Simon Despres playing alongside Fowler in Game 1) and the latter had some similar results. Bieksa missed Game 1, so his results look a little better because he wasn’t part of the shellacking Fowler took in that game (-16 Corsi).
Life was all well and good if you weren’t on the Predators fourth line, who took nearly all of their draws in the defensive zone (including a few of them against Anaheim’s top line) and the results were predictable. Having a faceoff specialist like Paul Gaustad (and apparently Cody Bass now) on your team can be a help at times but if that’s all they provide, then you might want to re-think about deploying them in such a defensively heavy role.
The good news for Nashville is that most of their other lines did pretty well for themselves with Ryan Johansen & Mike Fisher’s lines leading the way respectively. Johansen’s line didn’t exactly light up the scoresheet at even strength but they contributed well in other areas and Nashville’s third line picked up some of the slack, Colin Wilson leading the way with five points.
Now that this is out of the way, let’s move onto scoring chances.
Getzlaf led the Ducks in scoring chance contribution despite having only two on his own. The Ducks probably wanted him to shoot more, but he did a very good job at setting up his teammates with Perry & Perron being on the receiving end for half of them. It’s a little interesting that half of Perry’s chances were setup by Getzlaf, seeing how he spent a majority of the series with Rickard Rakell & Nate Thompson. Perry was also on the lower end of the offensive spectrum in terms of shot attempts too and I can’t help but think that linemates played a role in it. Perry has spent about half of the season with Rakell & I understand wanting to create matchup problems, but not having these two together was one confusing move by Boudreau. Using a defensive forward like Thompson on the other wing was also curious.
It was quite a series for Colin Wilson, who might have been Nashville’s best forward. Not only did he lead the Predators in five-on-five points, he also was very productive at creating scoring chances, both in terms of setting them up and finishing them off. He and Viktor Arvidsson made a very nice combination for the Preds on their third line, as you’ll notice both find themselves in favorable positions on this graph. Wilson was also one of their players who did a solid job of creating chances on the forecheck when Nashville was forced to dump the puck in, which was a key for the Preds.
Another nice combination for Nashville was their powerful first line duo of Ryan Johansen & James Neal. The former was one of the Predators best passers and four of his primary assists went right to Neal’s stick. When Johansen wasn’t setting him up, Neal did a fine job of creating chances on his own and finding the soft spot in the defense, leading the Preds in chances and shot attempts at five-on-five. Filip Forsberg’s play also elevated after he replaced Calle Jarnkrok on this line in Game 6, as he had the primary helper on two of Neal’s scoring chances while Neal returned the favor on one of his. Forsberg struggled to do much on Mike Ribeiro’s line (especially without Craig Smith), so loading up the first line helped Nashville quite a bit.
Onto zone entries…
Five-on-Five Zone Entires
Here’s the overall numbers for a refresher.
Like most teams, the Ducks struggled to create offense at even strength when they couldn’t get the puck into the zone with possession. This is the one thing their shutdown line of Cogliano, Kesler & Silfverberg did well. It’s a little surprising considering how badly the Ducks were outshot when they were on the ice, especially when you consider how many entries Cogliano & Silfverberg had relative to their ice time. Regardless, it was one saving grace that let them tread water just a little bit. The three transition goals they scored also helped.
Getzlaf’s line was also solid at being able to carry the puck in, although I would expect someone with Getzlaf’s skill to have a higher entry rate. Both him and Perry are known for how well they work on the cycle game, so maybe dumping the puck in suits his skill more, but the new linemates changes things a little. Referring to the chances chart, you’ll notice that his line created almost all of their chances off carry-ins or in transition, so this was the type of game that was working for them. Garbutt’s speed was a factor, but they were doing this when Chris Stewart was on the right wing for the first two games, as well.
The rest of their lineup played mostly a dump-heavy game with the two exceptions being Jamie McGinn and Nate Thompson, who shockingly had the highest carry-in percentage on his line. It’s nice to see him do something with his promotion but at the same time, Thompson being the best player at carrying the puck in on his line is troubling given the two guys he was playing with. Rakell & Perry have been a mainstay for Anaheim but things just weren’t clicking for them this series. They had trouble finding open spaces on the ice, often getting hemmed into their own zone and when they did get it out, they couldn’t translate much of their entries into offense. Add in the fact that they didn’t have many entries to begin with and this line was just ineffective.
With the exception of the second line, the Preds utilized a lot of dump-and-chase to enter the zone and I mentioned in the previous post that the Ducks sort of forced them into it. Anaheim had the neutral zone blocked off, so the dump-in was the only play on a lot of instances and the results weren’t terrible for Nashville. The line that seemed to do it the best was their third line of Arvidsson, Fisher & Wilson with the latter being their go-to player for zone entries. Wilson’s game was at another level this series, as he was able to create offense no matter how he entered the zone and proved to be an incredibly versatile player for Nashville. Without his line, it’s hard to say Nashville even pushes this series to seven games.
Their first line’s numbers are pretty similar to Fisher’s with the wingers dumping the puck in on the majority of their entries and Johansen excelling with a small workload. Anaheim had the middle of the ice blocked off, so Johansen deferred to his wingers unless the coast was completely clear and it wasn’t a terrible strategy, as Jarnkrok and Neal both did a solid job at generating offense on the forecheck. That said, Peter Laviolette’s decision to bump up Filip Forsberg to this line was a very smart one, as that gave Nashville a more dynamic player on Johansen’s left wing. It added some unpredictability to their attack and Forsberg wasn’t doing much on Ribeiro’s line either.
Nashville’s defense also played a big role in their attack with Roman Josi being the obvious standout. Josi entered the zone as often as some of their forwards and was more effective at entries than their entire fourth line to boot, so having that extra later in your attack can work wonders. The second pairing of Mattias Ekholm & Ryan Ellis had a considerable role in the neutral zone as well with Ellis doing a fine job of jumping into the play when needed. Key difference between them and the first pairing is that the two defensemen split the duty while Josi did most of the work in the neutral zone otherwise.
Weber plays a much more conservative game and it seems to be part of Nashville’s system with how often Josi is relied on to carry the puck up the ice. These two had a rough series from a possession standpoint and it was related to more of lack of offense than anything, so I do wonder if relying on one guy to do all the work had something to do with it. It’s not even that Weber didn’t carry the puck in much, he barely touched the puck in the neutral zone all together.
We have ourselves yet another close series and the results matched the stats this time around. Was Anaheim right to fire Boudreau as the result of this, though? If I’m looking at things Boudreau might have done wrong this series, I’d look at some of his line combinations since it took him so long to reunite Perry with Getzlaf and how he stuck with matching Kesler against Johansen despite the former getting caved in from a territorial standpoint. Calling either a fireable offfense is a tough because Rakell & Perry had so much success in the regular season and Kesler’s line generated a few goals, which masked some of their flaws.
Overall, it looks like the Ducks had a pretty good strategy, the Preds had an answer for it and the Preds got a great game out of their goaltender when they needed it the most (Game 7). Laviolette deserves a lot of credit for adjusting his lines in Game 6 and finding a way around Anaheim’s neutral zone defense, though. Seeing how much trouble that gave teams during the regular season.
Nashville is also a pretty comparable team to Anaheim, so it’s not like this was a huge upset or anything. That’s the nature of the business, though. Results conquers all and unfortunately for Boudreau, he found himself on the wrong end of this picture again.
(Corsi & zone start stats taken from War-on-Ice’s series tool while it was still up.)