Colorado did the unthinkable last night – no, not beating Vancouver; that was very thinkable. What the Avs did do was pass the St. Louis Blues for first place in the Central Division. These are the same Avs whom we predicted would not even make the playoffs in our summer Yearbook and if you look at the advanced stats, shouldn't be in the playoff picture right now.
On one level the Avs have been lucky – but you have to be good to be lucky and Colorado is good. Coach Patrick Roy – a Jack Adams candidate in his rookie year, to be sure – admitted as such last night. As noted by NHL.com reporter Kevin Woodley, Roy was well aware how poorly the Avalanche has fared in puck possession metrics. Colorado ranks 25th in the league when it comes to Corsi, the measure of all shots directed towards the opponent's net (including blocked and missed attempts) versus those against. But as Roy pointed out, they've also got Semyon Varlamov, one of the best goaltenders in the NHL and that's how they have managed to stay on top. Sure, the Avs have been playing with fire, but they've locked up a good post-season slot and didn't get burned. And the playoffs are all about having a hot goaltender, so for now, no harm no foul.
Interestingly enough, Montreal is basically the Colorado of the East: A great goaltender (Carey Price) bailed out a team that actually ranked below the Avalanche in Corsi. Toronto was also in that boat until the levee broke and Jonathan Bernier's heroics couldn't save the Maple Leafs from a whirlpool of losing. Corsi won't determined the outcome of one game, but it does a pretty good job of predicting long-term results, as the Maple Leafs eventually found out. The other bottom Corsi teams were basement-dwellers Florida, Buffalo and Calgary. At the top? Los Angeles and Chicago.
If I've learned anything this season it's that goaltenders are the bane of advanced stats, but that does not minimize the lessons of metrics such as Corsi. The New Jersey Devils, for example, were one of the best possession teams in the league, ahead of even Boston and San Jose. But Martin Brodeur's .900 save percentage torpedoed the team, as did a baffling 0-12 record in the shootout.
This season has easily been a watershed in the acceptance of advanced stats. The talking heads who dismissed it look foolish and old and hopefully the proponents of the evolving field can chill out a bit (they're an excitable group) knowing their work is opening eyes. If you have the puck, you can't get scored on; a pretty simple mantra and one that sounds pretty close to what Detroit has been doing for now 23 straight seasons of playoff hockey.
In the meantime, Roy and the rest of Avalanche management can head into the post-season knowing that Varlamov is already battle-tested by a season full of way too many saves – and that no matter how far Colorado gets in the playoffs, puck possession is probably something to look into this summer.