Much has been made of how the Montreal Canadiens managed only a single point in five regular season games against Tampa Bay. The Lightning didn’t just outscore the Canadiens 21-8 over the five matches, but outshot them 38-24 on average. This disparity was a microcosm of Tampa Bay’s comparatively superior puck possession numbers throughout the season. Can we expect this trend to continue in the playoffs?
I used Fenwick puck possession statistics in my analysis. Fenwick is a team or individual’s ratio of on-ice shots (hit or missed, but not blocked) to the on-ice shots both for and against. Therefore, the more shots taken, and the fewer shots taken against you, are indicators you are controlling the game.
Fenwick is used as a situational statistic. If you think about it, how relevant is assessing puck possession of a player while he’s on the powerplay or shorthanded. Consequently, puck possession stats are often measured in 5-on-5 situations. I have charted below the top and bottom five NHL teams in 5-on-5 Fenwick over the 2014-15 regular season. For reference, I included the 20th place Montreal Canadiens.
This chart displays how much the Lightning excelled at controlling the puck, not only versus the Canadiens, but all-season long. Analysts can further assess players and teams in certain key scenarios such as when the game is within one goal in the first two periods or tied in the final period – a scenario referred to as 5-on-5 Close. Therefore, I have repeated the 5-on-5 chart, but narrowed below to only 5-on-5 Close situations
The Lightning remain dominant, but the Canadiens do shift from 20th to 17th overall. It’s a subtle move at first glance, but there are two noteworthy shifts:
- Montreal creeps past the 50% mark which means they control the puck more than not in 5-on-5 Close situations; and
- The increase from 48.9% 5-on-5 to 50.7% 5-on-5 Close was the second highest increase among all NHL teams.
So, what does this all mean?
Think about how everything ramps up in the postseason. Every shift is met with increased pressure. I propose that the importance placed on each playoff shift is comparable to a shift in “Close” situations during the regular season. The truth cannot be hidden as to how Montreal struggled with puck possession. Yet the team’s improvement as the pressure mounts cannot be overlooked during the playoffs.
If we can ignore the exploits of their Hart nominated goalie, will the Canadiens be able to outlast the Lightning during the series if they aren’t controlling the puck? They will need certain players to step up. And they should look no further than those who excelled in 5-on-5 Close situations through the season.
The following chart ranks Montreal forwards from the biggest to the smallest increase from 5-on-5 Fenwick to 5-on-5 Close Fenwick.
Several of the largest increases were from players like Torrey Mitchell, Jacob de la Rose and Brandon Prust who see 10-13 minutes a night. Mitchell’s ice time is up to 12:18 from his regular season average of 10:03. A bit is attributable to overtime, but Michel Therrien could very well be reacting to Mitchell’s penchant for puck possession in pressure situations. However, the same logic doesn’t hold true for de la Rose and Prust who have seen a drop in ice time.
At the other end of the spectrum, David Desharnais and Dale Weise have increased their puck possession in Close situations, but not nearly as much as other teammates. Desharnais has a seen a drop in playoff ice time by just over a minute compared to the regular season and he is -2 after his strong +22 showing in 2014-15. This makes me wonder whether Therrien should employ the same ice management strategy to someone like Tomas Plekanec as well.
A similar story can be seen with the defence.
The tremendous uptick in Greg Pateryn’s puck possession during pressure situations should ease the minds of Montreal fans should he see action at key moments of the playoffs. Likewise, fans will be comforted seeing proof of how P.K. Subban handles more pressure-packed situations. On the other hand, is Jeff Petry an appropriate solution to assume over 22 minutes of ice/game? Perhaps he is, since these figures include a significant part of the campaign with the Edmonton Oilers.
Montreal may still lose the puck possession battle to Tampa Bay. Of course, they will have Carey Price to fall back on. But my analysis of puck possession in a situation such as 5-on-5 Close does indicate that the puck possession gap between the Lightning and the Canadiens is likely to shrink during the series and that Montreal has several contributors they can count on to ramp it up.
Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.