The Numbers Game: DOOOOOOM

Damn you Mike Kostka's finger! - Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

How the Boston Bruins, one of the league's best possession teams, is losing the puck-control battle to the worst possession team to make the playoffs.

One glance at the Corsi figures for the two teams (here and here) and you may come away thinking the Bruins are overall in control of this series, victims of puck luck and opportunism. A cause for optimism, you might think, having the puck enough to outshoot an opponent is generally a good thing. Perhaps we're in good shape tonight after all. You would be dead wrong. The Boston Bruins, outside of a few data-skewing factors, are losing the puck-possession game to the worst possession team to make the post-season.

A LITTLE BACKSTORY

Entering the series, Boston held the fourth best FenClose league wide at 54.35% to Toronto's second-to-last 44.01. In other words, 56 percent of the time, the Leafs were outshot but managed to make the playoffs on the back of a league leading 11.5 shooting percentage - league average sat at 9.11, Boston falling a full percentage point under. Meanwhile, they managed a 9th place SV% at .917. You may recognize these stats combining to form PDO, and you guessed it, the Leafs lead the league with the highest (read: unsustainable) PDO. Boston sat very close to a level 1.0. Were the season to wear on to 82 games, the Leafs very well could have been clawing for their lives to make the 8th seed.

THE SERIES

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum ACC. The Leafs shooting percentages crashed to Earth, with only three players modestly outpacing the collective season average. But their possession has rebounded by 4% at Close - and that's not even the whole story.

One should be wary of throwing out data in all statistical evaluation, particularly when the sample sizes are as miniscule as the playoffs offer. At the same time, especially in such instances, you should be applying extra scrutiny to the margins of that data as extremes on either side have that much more impact on the total picture. Don't omit them, but question them.

I don't want to chart fatigue you, but I direct you to the Fenwick timelines of each game in the series for an illustration of the flow of play. (Game 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). One of these things is not like the other. Game one is a pure possession curb-stomp, every subsequent game a close affair - games 2, 5, and 6 characterized by neck and neck play and late Boston shot surges. We'll come to that in a moment. Immediately we can see two things: Game 1's dominance skews the overall picture in Boston's favor, enough to add five shots to each additional game in their column, and surges from behind significantly impact the games' final shot outcomes, providing an inaccurate picture of in-game possession. Take away the 30 event difference in game 1 (which I don't advocate doing, but for the sake of argument) let alone the last two trailing surges and these teams have equal shots.

ALL TIED UP

With the series knotted, the score to be likewise when we open play this evening, lets keep this all 50 Shades and look at tied-up situations only. Here is the most damning figure of the bunch. When even, the Boston Bruins are controlling the play just 48% of the time. For regular season perspective, this would place them on par with roughly Florida or Calgary in this measure. Not exactly good company to keep when your season's on the line. For contrast, Toronto's game is akin to Ottawa and Vancouver's - regular season Vancouver that is, let's not be mean.

Granted, the alarmist comparisons above comprise similar dismal performances over a much larger stretch, but you can't exactly refute this as an inconsequential sample given the amount of time spent under these conditions this series. Over the past two games, we've seen a lot of ice zip-zip, forming one of the largest pools to examine.

"DOMINANT" THIRD

Turn your attention to the other columns on that chart and you'll see the Bruins performing pretty well with a lead and reaaaally well from behind. You may choose to believe that controlling the puck 85% of the time is a positive sign of resilience, a team with the heart to battle back, but I'm afraid most consider this "score effects." We are without doubt facing a team content to retreat into a shell with a two goal lead, and the past two games have shown picture perfect examples. Look at the timeline from games 5 and 6 again and note the sharp upward trajectory for the Bruins after Toronto's second goal. You may choose to be encouraged by game 5's third period surge but I will view this as a too little too late reaction, peppering shots on a defense that isn't about to take a single risk for the rest of play.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

So how the hell did these two teams essentially swap their regular season possession performances? Well, there's no easy answer.

First, we should give some credit to the opposition, particularly two figures on their defense. Jake Gardiner has made a tremendous impact on the Leafs overall ability to move the puck, emerging as a legitimate top four, as has less heralded part-time partner Cody Franson, who is actually outpacing his counterpart in CorsiRel. Gardiner, it should be noted, was grossly mishandled throughout the season by Toronto's coaching staff and management during the season. Albeit given a mere 12 games, he was on track to positively crush his teammates in possession, coming out a 30.5 CorsiRel over that short span. That tremendous asset that was sitting on the shelf is now in full use thanks to Carlyle favorite Mike Kostka's broken finger. If only he'd played through the pain. What a puss.

The Bruins as it happens have a comparable player in their lineup, who was finally inserted and grossly misused last night. Dougie Hamilton possesses similar offensive capabilities, if not yet as developed defensive habits, but received a mere 10 minutes and a criminally negligent 10 powerplay SECONDS in his first showing. Carlyle had the sack, without even having his back up agains the wall, to skate his young offensive defenseman over 17 minutes in his playoff debut. With Hamilton effectively unused, the Bruins lack anything resembling a puck mover, with Chara and I guess Redden offering the greatest offensive potential. And nobody fleet of foot. Given the younger legs of the competition, this approach might want to be revisited.

Granted, not all this can be laid on the shoulders of a standout performance and coaching mismanagement. From a systems perspective, the Bruins seem to be abandoning the forecheck that served them well in the regular season, offering little challenge to the breakout particularly early over the past two games. There's a tentativeness to this approach, seemingly focused on not losing rather than winning. This is perhaps the easiest to change, but it may take some tweaks to personnel, such as increasing Hamilton's use and swapping out a couple forwards, which brings me to:

Nuke the 4th line. Click that link to see why. They're the only players on this team getting outshot outright. They're getting double-digit slaughtered while everyone else is positive. And no, they aren't facing the toughest Quality of Competition, they're creating it, handing the opposing line positive Corsi against. This line has produced nothing (Paille's goal was a shorty), and one of them is relied upon only to play 7 minutes a night. There are better options that aren't dressing, and there's no reason to ice a pugilist in a game 7 even if Carlyle is intent on doing likewise. His fourth line is a weakness, and we should be exploiting it rather than handing them the puck.

Can the Bruins turn things around? We're looking at a small sample, and we have remaining the smallest sample of all. All it takes is one game of reversion back to their old ways, but it'll take a little help fromt he coaching staff to make it happen.

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