Bruins Have Edge in Advanced Stats, But What Is That Worth?

In theory, advanced stats are a better indicator of what will happen in the future than anything else we have. Metrics like Corsi (differential in 5-on-5 shot attempts) and Fenwick (same as Corsi, but without blocked shots) are based on shot attempts, which are considered more indicative of long-term success than goals. This is because looking at shot attempts provides a much bigger sample size than just looking at goals, and it more or less shows us how much a team possesses the puck.

The thinking is that a cold shooting team that’s possessing the puck and generating a lot of chances will eventually start scoring, and a hot shooting team that isn’t generating a lot of chances will eventually cool off. These metrics also take special teams out of the equation since most of the game is played 5-on-5.

Advanced stats told us that last year’s Kings weren’t your typical eight-seed. They finished the regular season second in Corsi and fourth in Fenwick Close (when a game is within two goals), so their Stanley Cup run wasn’t a surprise to those who put faith in those stats. Those metrics also predicted the Wild’s massive drop-off last season. Even when they had the best record in the league, they were near the bottom in Corsi and Fenwick. Sure enough, they wound up missing the playoffs.

So if Corsi and Fenwick can tell us who might be better or worse than their record indicates, can it also tell us who should be the favorite in any given playoff series? Well, if you picked every playoff series based solely on who had the better regular-season Corsi, you’d be 9-for-12 so far this year.

That would be good news for the Bruins. Although they’re considered the clear underdogs in their upcoming series against the Penguins, the Bruins were actually much better than the Penguins in terms of even-strength shot attempts during the regular season, and they’ve continued to be much better during the playoffs.

According to hockeyanalysis.com, the Bruins ranked third in the NHL with a Corsi percentage of 54.4 during the regular season. In layman’s terms, 54.4 percent of all shot attempts during Bruins games came from the Bruins, while just 45.6 percent came from their opponents.

The Penguins, on the other hand, ranked just 18th in the NHL with a Corsi percentage of 49.0. In other words, they actually gave up more shot attempts than they got. Even if we take blowouts out of the equation (since teams that are up by multiple goals tend to pack it in and not attempt as many shots), they were still under 50 percent. According to behindthenet.ca, they had a Fenwick Close of 49.9 percent.

In the playoffs, Corsi favors the Bruins even more. The Bruins are at 55.9 percent through two rounds, while the Penguins are at 46.7 percent. Only two Bruins have a negative Corsi in the playoffs, while just six Penguins have a positive Corsi. Even when you take into account that the Penguins have had some blowout wins during which they probably let up a bit, that’s still a pretty noteworthy disparity.

There’s a catch here, though. Remember how I said you’d be 9-for-12 if you picked all the better Corsi teams? Two of the three series you would’ve gotten wrong are the two Penguins series. Both the Islanders and Senators had a better regular-season Corsi than the Pens, and both out-chanced them in their respective series as well. Yet the Penguins have only lost three games. Furthermore, they’ve scored more goals than anyone else in the playoffs.

So why are the Penguins scoring so much if they’re spending more time in their own zone than the offensive zone? Two reasons: 1) Their power play — which doesn’t factor into Corsi or Fenwick — is operating at a lethal 28.3-percent clip. 2) They’re scoring on 12.9 percent of their shots.

The takeaway from that first number is pretty simple — the Bruins have to be disciplined this series (and they have been so far in the playoffs). Even with Torey Krug significantly improving the Bruins’ own power play, they could be in big trouble if this series turns into a special teams battle.

If you give power plays to a team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang, they’re going to score. The Bruins’ penalty kill is good, and Tuukka Rask is great, but no one’s holding the Pens’ power play off the board for any prolonged period of time. The Bruins’ best chance to win, much as it was against the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup final, is to keep this series 5-on-5.

That second number — the 12.9 shooting percentage — is an interesting one. The league average is around 9 percent, so common sense might tell you that the Penguins are due for a regression. That’s probably true — especially since neither of the goalies they’ve faced so far has looked good at all — but the question is how far they’ll actually regress. During the regular season, they still scored on 11.3 percent of their shots, good for second in the NHL.

Part of that, again, is their power play. They generate great looks on the man advantage, so they wind up scoring on a relatively high percentage of their shots when they have one. But even 5-on-5, their mark of 10.2 percent ranked third in the league.

The Bruins, on the other hand, have been and still are well below the league average when it comes to shooting percentage. They scored on just 8.2 percent of their shots during the regular season, and are scoring on 8.3 percent in the postseason.

And therein lies one of the problems with these advanced stats. They tell us who creates the most scoring chances, but they don’t tell us who makes the most of them.

The Penguins have eight regular forwards who scored on 12 percent of their shots or more this season: Crosby, Kunitz, Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke, Brandon Sutter and Jussi Jokinen. The Bruins have two: Brad Marchand and — wait for it — Daniel Paille. (It is worth noting that David Krejci and Nathan Horton are both well above that mark in the playoffs, but then you also have to add Iginla to the club for the Pens.)

So while the Bruins should have the advantage in terms of possession and shot attempts, that might not mean much if the shooting percentages don’t change. It would be easy to ignore the shooting percentages if the two teams had been close during the regular season and the Penguins just happened to be hotter in the playoffs, but that isn’t the case.

If the Bruins are going to change those percentages, they have to find a way to bury more of their chances. That means getting bodies in front of Tomas Vokoun, who has been great since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury in the first round.

At the other end, the Bruins need to force the Penguins into taking low-quality shots. The Penguins’ shooting percentage will probably drop a little just because of the simple fact that Rask isn’t a sieve, but the Bruins can make it drop significantly if they keep the Penguins to the outside and don’t give their talented shooters time to pick their spots.

 

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