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NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Preview Using Possession Stats

Could shots and possession be the best hope for a Pens' upset? Photo by Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

Could shots and possession be the best hope for a Pens’ upset?
Photo by Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

This past regular season, the NHL took massive strides in growing their advanced statistics community. From teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins to Original Six powerhouses like the Chicago Blackhawks, more than 20 teams currently utilize some sort of advanced statistics in their organization. So why not use some of these statistics to evaluate just how the playoffs may play out in our very own Eastern Conference?

When we first came up with this idea at The Point of Pittsburgh of using advanced metrics to look at the eight playoff seeds in the East, I had this grand idea of large graphs and using three or four stats to give an idea of what they each can say.

I have since figured out that’s probably not the best path. As such I’ve decided to focus on the following eight teams: New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, and Pittsburgh Penguins with regards to one, very huge aspect of advanced statistics.


Possession statistics are many and varied but the oldest, therefore the most tested and reliable, is the Corsi statistic. Corsi, or Shot Attempts or SAT as we will call it from here on out because the NHL tracks it under that name tracks shots attempted by a team but that’s not all that the NHL does with it. They take the raw number of shots attempted by a team (including blocked shots and shots that just miss the net which don’t count as shots on goal) and can find how much more they or their competitor are shooting and therefore driving play.

For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ SAT differential (written on the chart as just SAT) takes the number of goals for, shots for, missed shots for, and team blocked shots the Penguins had, then subtracts the number of goals against, shots against, missed shots against and opposition shots blocked from that. The number for the team on the season is a positive 352. The stat is done at 5-on-5.

So back to those eight teams, here they are with their SAT numbers:

1. New York Rangers: -61 (3603, 3664) (20)
2. Montreal Canadiens: -229 (3495, 3724) (23)
3. Tampa Bay Lightning: +423 (3564, 3141) (4)
4. Washington Capitals: +176 (3590, 3457) (15)
5. New York Islanders: +413 (4022, 3609) (5)
6. Detroit Red Wings: +433 (3301, 2868) (3)
7. Ottawa Senators: +39 (3539, 3500) (18)
8. Pittsburgh Penguins: +352 (3530, 3178) (9)

What these numbers make abundantly clear is that the only reason the Rangers and Canadiens find themselves where they do at this moment in time, number one and two respectively in the Eastern Conference, is lights out goaltending. They also show that the Senators are trending in the right direction, as they were in the negatives at one point this season.

So let’s break these down by match-ups, shall we?
Rangers vs. Penguins
The Penguins-Rangers series of 2014 was the catalyst for a lot of off-season changes for the local NHL team last summer. Blowing a 3-1 lead to lose a series you should have won will do that. This year, the Penguins didn’t muster much in the way of wins against the Rangers, their sole win came in a bizarre called back shootout goal in December. The advanced stats of those games show the shot differential as 140 for the Penguins and 126 for the Rangers, giving the Penguins a slight advantage in shots taken.

In regards to SAT, the Rangers come in at a -61 while the Penguins come in at a +352. This means the Penguins control play more. However, the Rangers’ top goalie Lundqvist can make the difference in any game, though Fleury is coming off a career year with ten shutouts so this could turn into a goaltenders duel. The Penguins have been noticeably snake bitten, taking more shots in the last month than most of the league and getting nothing for them. They should be due the dividends, but who knows. The SAT surely favors the black and gold though.

Montreal vs. Ottawa
The Ottawa Senators were once 14 points out of the playoffs. They were looking like a pipe dream and rebuilding was touted as the mantra. Then Andrew Hammond skated into the goal crease and an improbable series of events, including Mark Stone going on an epic scoring streak, helped get the team in. Meanwhile, the Canadiens have posted abysmal possession stats all season but have been held upright at every turn by Hart and Vezina Trophy favorite Carey Price. This should be interesting as the Senators are a young squad running hot, while the Canadiens are the storied team looking to restore glory to their name.

The Hamburglar has been one great story but this team is going to come crashing down at some point. Hammond’s unconventional at best but the Canadiens possession is absolutely horrific. Montreal comes in at a staggering -229 SAT. That’s got them sandwiched between basement dwellers Edmonton and Arizona — that’s just really not good. Ottawa is a +39 which, yes, is still low but is still positive. This sounds like the makings of a series with lots of turnovers and crazy saves. The advanced stats say this should go to Ottawa by a nose and if this series doesn’t go seven I think that would be shocking.

Washington vs. Islanders
With the Islanders loss to the Blue Jackets to close out the regular season, the Washington Capitals secured home ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This series is sure to be the fastest one in the East with both teams skating impeccably well. It’s going to be a close match-up for the eyes with both having talented scoring threats in Ovechkin and Tavares. However, the Isles have been limping lately and they lost a great defenseman in Travis Hamonic in their penultimate game against Pittsburgh.

What do the stats say though? Both teams are in the positive in SAT, the Islanders with a +413 and the Capitals with a +176 but that’s actually a monumental difference. The Isles are in the top five in the league in SAT driving possession easily with additions like Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and Nikolai Kulemin. The Capitals are in the middle of the pack, ranking literally right in the middle at 15 of 30 teams. This series should hold a lot of attention with it’s speed but probably won’t last more than five games and should, theoretically, go the Islanders way.

Tampa Bay vs. Detroit
The Tampa Bay Lightning were a lot of peoples’ pick to come out of the Eastern Conference early in the season, but they will have their hands full with the Detroit Red Wings. Make no mistake, backing into the playoffs does not cheapen getting in and getting in for 24 years straight (two years longer than their first round match-up has even existed in this case) is stunning. These aren’t the Red Wings of yesteryear, but they do have young talented guys like Abdelkader and Nyquist both chomping at the bit to take down a higher seeded team in the Lightning.

Possesion-wise this will be the closest match-up in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay is +423 while the Detroit Red Wings are +433. That’s the beauty of a 2-3 seed match-up. These two teams are actually going to be pretty evenly matched. There will probably be a lot of close battles and the scorecard will be so close, but that’s what’s going to be fun about it.

So if we go straight by possession statistics, the first round winners would be the Penguins, Senators, Islanders, and Red Wings. Will this be the case? Due to the nature of the capricious beast in hockey, probably not.

Leah is a hockey and city life contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. She is a 2013 graduate from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.