Next up in our look at the playoffs is the first round matchup between the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks, a thrilling seven-game series that no shortage of close games or exciting plays. St. Louis ended up coming out on top after appearing to be in control early on in the series. They had a 3-1 series lead, taking both games in Chicago, and appeared to be in good shape to close things out before Blackhawks won the next two games and it took a late goal from Troy Brouwer for them to finish things off.
Most predicted this to be a pretty even series. Chicago wasn’t the even-strength powerhouse they were in years past, but they were still the defending champions and that reputation takes awhile to fade away. They also boasted one of the best power plays in the league, which carried them through part of the season, and still boast a number of high-end forwards in their top-six. The Blues, however, had a fantastic season despite dealing with a barrage of injuries throughout the year. They were one of the best teams in the league at five-on-five shot differential and have enough forward depth to do some damage in the post-season. It seemed like a matchup that could go either way with the Blues having a slight advantage among analytics people.
Things weren’t easy, but the Blues managed to get over the first-round hump that has troubled them for the last three years. How hard of a series was this for them, which players helped lead them to victory and which players on the Blackhawks gave them the most trouble?
Much like the other series we’ve looked at, the team that won the shot attempt battle ended up losing. It’s a weird trend, but small sample sizes tend to throw things out of whack. We’ve been over this a few times. Anyway, it’s pretty interesting that the Hawks had the territorial advantage (albeit not by a lot) in this series given how both team’s regular seasons went. Chicago was more reliant on their power play than anything else during the regular season, but they showed signs of how they looked last year during a few games. Even with the depth concerns, they had a pretty good showing at even strength.
That said, the Blues didn’t play that poorly despite being on the losing end of the shot battle, they were barely outchanced at even strength and did a pretty good job at making things tough on Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford. As it states on the chart above, a higher percentage of their shots were scoring chances and they were more efficient at getting Crawford to move around. They also doubled up the Hawks in shots that were deflected. The Hawks had the edge in terms of volume, so one would think that should have evened things out but they got outscored 13-10 at even strength. I hate to play the “small series” card again, but that’s what happens sometimes. Although, this was more of the Blues outscoring them rather than the Hawks running into a hot goalie, granted Brian Elliott had a few very impressive games.
How each team created their offense is also interesting to look at because both teams were heavily reliant on carrying the puck in, similar to most teams this post-season. The Blues have a reputation for being a heavy team that does their damage on the forecheck, but they had success in the transition game, as well. Where the Blues lived up to their reputation is the amount of chances they created off turnovers, which made up almost 1/4th of their overall shots. You’ll also see they were way more efficient than Chicago in this regard, which makes sense considering some of the Hawks depth problems on the blue line. However, the Hawks also had some good results on the forecheck with how much offense they created off faceoffs, creating almost three times as many shots than the Blues in this area.
Entries in general are an interesting topic for this series because on paper, you have two pretty different styles clashing. The Blues are known for being a big, heavy team and being more content with dumping the puck into the zone than a team like the Blackhawks, who are more likely to carry the puck into the zone than your average team. Now, I think the Blues have drifted away from this style over the past year or so, with Vladimir Tarasenko emerging as a star, Robby Fabbri being on the team full-time and Paul Stastny being healthy, they have more skill in their top-nine than they did the last two years. Still, they had some focus on playing a physical game, especially after Game 1 and seemed to put some emphasis on getting the puck deep to start most of their entries. How did the final results shake out?
5v5 Zone Entries
Both teams were efficient at carrying the puck into the zone with the Hawks having the edge in the end in terms of how many shots they were creating per entry. It’s pretty easy to note that St. Louis had more emphasis on dumping the puck in on their entries, as they did it more often than Chicago and got the puck back on more of their dump-ins as well. With that in mind, the Blues had a higher Carry-in percentage than any other team I’ve tracked in the Western Conference playoffs so far, which means that the transition game was effective for them and just as big of a part of their offense as their forecheck.
Something else to take notice of is how many of each team’s goals came off carry-ins, which isn’t uncommon at all. When over 50% of your shots are coming off carry-in alone, then it’s not too surprising that most of your goals are scored this way, too. The Blues might have gotten three goals off dump-ins, but that was a fraction of their offense and Chicago could barely get anything at the net when they were forced to dump the puck in, too. It is also interesting to see how few goals the Hawks scored off entries in general. They had 10 goals at five-on-five all series with only six of them coming off entries while the other four were off faceoffs. We’ll expand on that more in a bit.
Blues Zone Entries
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is known for playing a pro dump-and-chase game but you can see that some of their most skilled players had the freedom to be more creative when entering the opposition’s zone. Their second line of Jaden Schwartz, Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko stands out the most, as all three players carried the puck in at an above average rate. Lehtera had a much smaller role than Schwartz or Tarasenko, but he made the most of whenever he got a chance to enter the zone. Tarasenko & Schwartz were the main drivers on the line, though.
First liners Patrick Berglund & Alex Steen were very impressive in this series, as well. Both were relied on heavily for zone entries and they were very effective at gaining the line with control like they were supposed to do. This can be said about most players in the Blues top-nine with the exception of David Backes & Troy Browuer. The latter wasn’t as good as the rest of their top forwards at carrying the puck into the zone and the former was about as effective as their fourth line in this regard. It’s a weird observation since I think Brouwer & Backes have enough skill to be carrying the puck in on at least 50% of their entries, but they resorted to getting the puck deep more often than not. Perhaps this is what Hitchcock wanted them to do, but the divide between these two and the rest of their top-nine is a little interesting.
The Blues defense was also given more leeway in the neutral zone than I expected as their top pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo carried the puck in at a very high rate. Bouwmeester didn’t have the biggest role here, but Pietrangelo stood out in a big way with how often he joined the rush and made plays at the blue line. It’s a little interesting to see the team’s shutdown pair have so much offensive freedom, but Pietrangelo’s always had very good puck skills and it was nice to see that part of his game on display this series. Him having a higher carry-in rate and role in the neutral zone than noted offensive defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is something I was not expecting.
Going back to the dump-in vs. carry-in debate, you might remember that the Blues had more recovered dump-ins, so Backes & Brouwer having such a low carry-in rate might not be the worst thing in the world. However, you might also remember that the Blues didn’t create a lot of shots off dump-in plays, so it wasn’t the most optimal strategy either. It likely depends on the game state because if they were dumping the puck in to drain the clock & protect a lead then it’s probably no big deal whereas that wouldn’t be the case if they were doing it while playing from behind. Just for fun, here’s a look at who led the Blues in recovered dump-ins and how many shots they created off them.
The Blues were creating more offense off dump-ins when Fabbri, Schwartz and Tarasenko were the ones coming up with the puck, which probably isn’t a surprise. You want the puck in the hands of your most skilled players at all times, so seeing these three create the most out of low-percentage plays isn’t too much of a shocker. It also might explain why Hitchcock elected to put Fabbri and Backes on the same line in Games 4, 5 & 6. If Backes was constantly being forced to dump the puck in, then why not have someone who can get to the puck and make plays with it as the first guy in? Backes and his normal linemates were having trouble creating offense this way, so changing things up wasn’t a horrible idea.
Blackhawks Zone Entries
The Hawks weren’t as deep as the Blues when it came to having forwards that could carry the puck in at a high rate, but their best players were way more efficient at it. There are very few teams in the league who can say they have three players with Carry-in rates over 70% and the Hawks are obviously one of them. Having top-end talent like Chicago does can make up for some of your other shortcomings and it’s especially true when you ride your star players as hard as Joel Quenneville did this series. He loaded up the first line for the final three games of the series, double shifted Toews more than a few times and tried to create some matchup problems by putting Marian Hossa with Marcus Kruger and Andrew Ladd. As a result, you have Chicago’s top forwards standing out in a huge way on this graph and the rest of their forwards clumped together, with the exception of Brandon Mashinter & Dale Weise. Richard Panik is another exception and he had a strong showing after he was promoted to Toews’ line, showing that he could be more than a support player.
What also stands out to me is how small of a role the Hawks defense had in the neutral zone, as their forwards were forced to do most of the work. This is likely a system thing because the Hawks defense’s role is to get the puck to their forwards in the neutral zone rather than skate the puck up the ice. So, most of their defense looks more like “passengers” in this graph even though that’s not exactly the case, the Hawks just don’t rely on their defense much for zone entries. Erik Gustafsson is the one who somewhat broke away from this mold and I don’t really have an explanation for it.
Speaking of defense, that brings us to our next feature.
5v5 Zone Entry Defense
I mentioned in my debut post that I was tracking which defenseman were guarding the blue line when a zone entry occurred and whether or not they allowed a carry-in, but it’s something I’ve yet to do a feature on. Since zone entries were such a big part of this series, I figured this would be a good time to start.
For clarification, a “Target” is how often an opposing player attempted to enter the zone while a certain defender was guarding the blue line. Carry-in% is how often the defending player broke up the entry and Break-up% is how often they negated the entry. The second chart shows how often each forward targeted a defenseman on a zone entry, regardless of the result.
This is the one thing Pietrangelo struggled in. As good as he was offensively, he allowed a carry-in almost 76% of the time he was targeted and a good chunk of them came against the Hawks top players. Panarin in particular seemed to pick on him. Hitchcock places a lot of focus on matchups and getting Bouwmeester & Pietrangelo against the Hawks top line seemed to be his top priority. Bouwmeester saw about as much of the same players and had more success at not allowing them to carry the puck into the zone. However, the Hawks created almost twice as many shots when they entered the zone against him than they did Pietrangelo. It’s hard to tell if this is just random noise or something indicative of their play because they were both on the ice at the same time for the majority of the series.
The Blues’ two young defensemen Joel Edmundson & Colton Parayko stand out here in a big way with how few carry-ins they allowed but there are a few things to consider. Edmundson wasn’t targeted that much at all and didn’t see much of the Hawks top players either, so you can argue that he was sheltered a bit. This doesn’t apply as much to Parayko because even though he didn’t the Bouwmeester/Pietrangelo assignments, he still played a decent amount of minutes against some very tough players. Quenneville placing Ladd & Hossa on the “third line” played into this factor. That being said, both players did well for a couple of rookies.
Let’s all take a moment to marvel at how good of a defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson is. The Blues ran into a black hole whenever they tried to enter the zone against him and when they could get through, they weren’t creating much offense. Hjalmarsson’s offensive contributions were almost non-existent but he did his job at the other end of the ice. You can see that he spent a lot of time against one of the Blues’ top scoring lines (Schwartz-Lehtera-Tarasenko) so it wasn’t like he was schooling a bunch of fourth liners either.
After him, there’s quite a big drop off in terms of preventing carry-ins. Keith had some success at breaking up entries and preventing shots, but the Blues didn’t have many problems getting the puck by him at the blue line. St. Louis also seemed to make a conscious effort to avoid his side of the ice and target Brent Seabrook (or whoever was playing alongside of him at a given shift) instead. There’s also a huge drop off after Keith in terms of targets but that’s mostly because Quenneville rode his top four defensemen hard all series long with most of them taking a few shifts with the spare depth defensemen that made up the non-existent third pair.
It was fitting that this series came down to a one-goal game because that’s probably the outcome it deserved. St. Louis had the advantage after four games, but the Hawks were quietly playing some very strong hockey and eventually saw a reward for it in the next two games. It was a pretty stimulating matchup because while the Hawks clearly have more high-end talent, the Blues had the advantage in depth and one would think the latter would come out on top in the playoffs where matchups are such a huge factor. On the scoreboard, that appears to be the case but it would be interesting to see what would happen if you replayed this series over. St. Louis had some trouble containing the Hawks in a few areas and Brian Elliott covered up most of their mistakes, which is good enough to win you a series when things are this close.