Many pundits expected the young, talented Colorado Avalanche and the more experienced Minnesota Wild to play an extremely close first-round series. But who knew it would turn out to be the season's most epic clash between the dinosaurs and the advanced stats nerds?
The numbers are practically poetic in their extremity. In the first round, Colorado has performed the worst of any team, according to advanced statistics, and Minnesota has performed the best of any team. Each team's rank is influenced by the other's, so it's probably more accurate to say Minnesota "has the most lopsided margin over its opponent" than to say the Wild are the "best."
Fair or not, an Avs Game 7 victory reaffirms the idea that "fancy stats mean nothin,' " whereas a Wild victory confirms what we members of the new wave have predicted for months: Colorado's poor puck possession will be its undoing.
We saw it with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were winning for a while even when their Corsi and Fenwick numbers were right at the bottom of the league with the Buffalo Sabres. The stats told us Toronto's goaltending was masking its horrific ability at controlling where the puck is. As soon as Jonathan Bernier got hurt and James Reimer's game tanked, so did the paper tiger Leafs.
Yet the Avs confounded the stat brigade all season long. If the NHL draft order was based on Corsi and Fenwick, they'd have a plum selection. Instead, they won the Central Division over Chicago and St. Louis. Go figure.
A look at the stats so far in these playoffs shows the Avs have been astoundingly weak in puck possession, generating scoring chances and preventing scoring chances. I use Extra Skater for the data, sorted by 5-on-5 "close" situations. Corsi close and Fenwick close are the ideal measuring tools because they only track shots directed at the other team's net (Corsi includes blocked shots, Fenwick doesn't, both include shots that miss the net) when the score is tied in any period or within one goal in the first or second periods. "Close" factors out blowouts, when a team way ahead will take its foot off the gas and allow more chances, skewing the possession numbers.
Colorado's advanced stat ranks out of 16 playoff teams (5-on-5, score close)
Goals for %: 13th
Corsi for %: 16th
Fenwick for %: 16th
Shots for %: 16th
Shooting %: 8th
Save %: 10th
Minnesota's advanced stat ranks out of 16 playoff teams (5-on-5, score close)
Goals for %: 4th
Corsi for %: 1st
Fenwick for %: 1st
Shots for %: 1st
Shooting %: 7th
Save %: 9th
The reason why Colorado remains competitive in the series: being opportunistic and relying on the high-end talent of players like Nathan MacKinnon to deliver precision strikes when needed. The possession stats suggest Minnesota should annihilate Colorado, but note that two crucial ones, shooting percentage and save percentage, are almost the same between the two teams, hence Colorado only being outscored 10-6 under the "close" parameter.
The advanced numbers suggest any team relying on clutch saves and well-timed shots instead of puck possession will run out of luck, as the Leafs did, so the stat junkies should bet the house on Minnesota. The purists will tell you Colorado has the crucial "clutch" intangible, showing up "when it counts."
Whatever happens, the stat war adds one more interesting layer to Game 7. Should be fun. Who ya got?
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin