Breaking down the Stanley Cup final with advanced statistics paints a picture of two teams that are as closely matched as can be. Following tremendous regular seasons for both Tampa Bay and Chicago, advanced statistics predicted these two clubs to make strong pushes in the playoffs. In the end, however, it’s the Lightning who have the fancy stats edge over the Blackhawks.
It’s been the year of the fancy stats, so it’s only fitting this year’s Stanley Cup final combatants were the top regular season possession teams from their respective conferences — sorry, Los Angeles, I meant of teams that made the playoffs. It’s a convenient end to a season in which the NHL’s numbers game finally went mainstream, further validating their use considering how invested both teams are in the movement. When adjusting for score effects, the two teams were separated by just 0.2 percent in shot attempt percentage this season and were second and fourth in the league. With a difference that small it doesn’t matter what order you put them in (Tampa Bay came out ahead for what it’s worth). The two are similar teams that play a similar game and achieved similar success as a result. Basically, the difference between the Lightning and Blackhawks is so minuscule that figuring out who the stats favor is likely a fool’s errand because the conclusion is more than likely “flip a coin.” So, let’s flip seven of them, one for different parts of the game: offense, defense, puck possession, shot “quality,” goaltending, depth and clutch factor. Whoever comes out on top will be the 2015 Spreadsheet Cup Champion, a highly coveted honor that I just made up.
OFFENSE The Lightning shot the lights out at 5-on-5 during the regular season, combining quantity and quality on their way to being one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league. They aren’t getting either of those things during the playoffs and that has led to a dramatic drop-off in production. While their powerplay has been red-hot, their abysmal shot rate will likely catch up to them soon. Chicago on the other hand has been consistent throughout the year and are finally getting some bounces going their way. It was an anomaly that a team as talented as the Blackhawks had such a low shooting percentage, but it has righted itself during the playoffs. They’re not as dynamic as the Lightning, but the sheer volume of attempts Chicago generates on a consistent basis gives them the edge, especially considering the difference in the Lightning’s post-season play.
DEFENSE The Lightning have been able to continuously suppress shots at an elite level throughout the season. With Ben Bishop bouncing back in the playoffs after a mediocre season, the Lightning have the two most important components of a championship team — steady defense and good goaltending. The problem comes down to special teams where they give up far too many chances. Suppression has been a big issue for the Blackhawks this season as they haven’t been anywhere near their lofty standards. Corey Crawford has masked that problem, but against an offensive powerhouse like the Lightning, things could get ugly.
Edge: Tampa Bay
PUCK POSSESSION Tampa Bay and Chicago were both top-five possession teams this season, but seemed to falter down the stretch. The Blackhawks have recovered to an extent in the playoffs, but the Lightning were getting routinely caved in during the earlier rounds, especially against the Canadiens. Tampa Bay seemed to be back on the right track against the New York Rangers, but they’ll face a tough test against Chicago. What’s interesting is how both teams have changed their play to the score in the playoffs. Tampa Bay seems to go into a hard defensive shell when up by two or more, which is a strategy that will be extremely ineffective against a never-quit Chicago team. The Blackhawks have a similar strategy, but not to the same extremes.
SHOT “QUALITY” Over a full season the effects tend to wash out, but in a short series quality matters just as much as quantity. Considering the current data available, it’s only fair to put quality in quotations because really it’s just location. There’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s still important to look at where the shots are coming from as shots from close to the net go in more than outside attempts.
This is where it’s apparent what went wrong with Tampa early on in the playoffs: their inability to get to the net. The Lightning were one of the better teams in the league at getting to the high danger zone and they got back to that against the Rangers. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, got outshot in every zone, but only narrowly up close. The biggest gap was from the perimeter where shots generally only go in about one of every 40 times.
Edge: Tampa Bay
GOALTENDING Tampa Bay and Chicago can limit chances to the outside as much as they want, but if Ben Bishop and Corey Crawford aren’t up to task, it won’t matter. Crawford had a phenomenal regular season by outperforming expectations, but it hasn’t translated to the post-season. His save percentage is similar, but he has seen lower quality chances. Shots from in close have been tough on him and he’s let in a few bad ones from a distance, but he’s been exceptional in mid-range. Bishop’s playoffs have been similar except he’s been much weaker in close than an average goalie, and worse than his regular season numbers too. His resurgence has mostly come from mid-range shots where he too has been exceptional.
DEPTH The lineup below uses War On Ice’s newly minted wins above replacement formula (prorated to 82 games) which aims to quantify how many wins a player would get over someone who’s, well, replaceable. It’s the one number stat that many have been waiting for in hockey, but it’s still very much a work in progress. At a glance, it’s evident that this is where the Lightning really shine, especially up front. Every forward line is capable of making a positive contribution on the ice and they match up well with Chicago’s lineup, which looks especially thin at center. It looks good on paper, but that hasn’t been the case during the playoffs. Most of the bottom six has been essentially invisible. The top six guys have 45 of the Lightning’s 55 goals. The bottom six have just four. That’s ugly stuff that needs to change. On defense is where both teams struggle, according to WAR. The top pair for both teams are exceptional, obviously, but beyond that it’s a whole lot of “meh.” This makes sense on the Tampa end from watching them play, but I do wonder what Brent Seabrook did to deserve such a low rating. It’s not as bad as Kimmo Timonen’s though, and I think the eye test will agree with that one.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Whether you believe in it or not, certain players do seem to elevate their game when it matters. The argument essentially comes down to whether it’s something you can count on to continue and the answer is usually no. With that in mind, this isn’t meant to be predictive of who will be clutch in the final, but rather who has stepped up (or dropped off) their game at this point. To measure this phenomenon, I took the standard score (think bell curves) of each player from the regular season and compared the difference in the playoffs for three important stats: points, possession and scoring. For Tampa Bay, the biggest improvement has been for depth defensemen Nikita Nesterov and Andrej Sustr who improved across the board in relation to their team. Sustr was a possession boat anchor during the regular season, but is treading water now, which is a good sign. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman show up here thanks to some decent improvements in possession that have translated to a lot of goals. When Hedman is on the ice in the playoffs, Tampa Bay has scored 77 percent of the goals at 5-on-5, which is crazy. On the Chicago end of things there’s Antoine Vermette, who has been much better since becoming a healthy scratch. Seabrook and Duncan Keith have been predictably great, and Andrew Shaw has stepped up his scoring a lot. The goats of the two teams are more interesting. For Chicago, it’s four players who are getting throttled territorially and there’s Marian Hossa, who seems to simply be getting unlucky. Those four dropping so low is a big concern and they’ll need to step up their play big time during the final. Tampa Bay has some predictable players at the bottom, but the most glaring is Cedric Paquette. He’s been worse in every facet to the point where it’s difficult to understand what he’s still doing in the lineup, especially with the uber-talented Jonathan Drouin waiting in the wings.
Edge: Tampa Bay
THE VERDICT Anyway you slice it, it’s a close one, but tally it all up and you get a 4-3 final for the Lightning. The two teams are pretty much equals at every level that it’s hard to accurately justify an edge for either team as their opponent is usually just as good. Really, the real winner is everyone who gets to watch what should be a fantastic series. So sit back and enjoy what will likely be a seven game thrill ride between two of the league’s best.