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What to expect when two top defensive teams play for the Stanley Cup?


"The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.” ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

The combatants approach the centre of the ring at the sound of the bell. It’s round one of a seven round bout. The rivals encircle each other bobbing and bouncing. Who will show the first sign of vulnerability? Each is more comfortable defending, watchful of their opponent letting their guard down and making that crucial mistake at the inopportune moment. Who will go on the attack? Who will throw the first punch?

On occasion, there are Stanley Cups where defense is secondary such as the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins/Detroit Red Wings series, but for the most part, they say it’s offense that sells tickets and defense that hangs banners. For the fourth consecutive season, teams with top quartile defenses (based on goals against) will vie for Lord Stanley’s mug. It’s New York versus Los Angeles. It’s The Big Apple versus Tinseltown. Will this be a Hollywood big-budget action flick or the slowly developing Broadway drama?

Both teams have built reputations for themselves as strong defensive units based on their regular season play over the past several years. Will they stick to what got them there? Will they feel each other out? Or will one team step up and attack?

I have studied the historical statistics of the Stanley Cup Finals dating back to 1980 when the NHL expanded to 21 teams and from 12 to 16 playoff qualifiers. To give some context, I will share with you what types of teams (offensive or defensive) reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Then, in an effort to shed some light on what we can expect this year, I will examine trends from past Cups involving top defensive squads in comparison to the 2013-14 Kings and Rangers.

WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE IT TO THE CUP

I’ve said it. The garrulous guy sitting down from you at the bar won’t stop saying it. And you know you’ve heard the TV guys on the panel go on and on about it. “You can’t make it to the Stanley Cup Final unless you have strong team defense.”

But does everyone know what they are talking about? Year after year, it sure appears so. The following charts summarize the quality of offensive power and defensive prowess based on regular season performance for teams that have reached the Cup Final. The first chart breaks down each Stanley Cup participant’s offensive standing into quartiles. Over the 34 Cup Finals (including this season) since 1980, 39 participants (or 57%) had a top quartile offense based on goals for.

Bob -defense -1 

The figures above compare to 43 teams (or 63%) who have brought their top quartile defense (based on goals against) to the final series. The breakdown of defense by quartile is summarized in the following pie chart. (Note that 1st quartile means the fewest goals allowed.) Of course, you would also expect some Stanley Cup finalists to have the best of both worlds – 21 teams reached the Cup Final with both a top quartile offense and a top quartile defense.

Bob -defense -2 

Bottom quartile defenses advancing to the Cup Final are also scarcer than that of bottom quartile offenses.  Only three teams (including the 1993 Kings) have reached the Cup Final with a 4th quartile defense compared to five with a 4th quartile offense. It’s worth noting that two of those five ineffective regular season offenses were Darryl Sutter’s 2012 and 2014 Los Angeles Kings.

Therefore, by a small margin, the value of a great defense outweighs that of a great offense in reaching the Final. As mentioned, this has become quite the common occurrence. The 2014 Stanley Cup features two teams that have relied on superb defense for the majority of the regular season. In fact, the New York Rangers have been top 10 in goals against since the 2004-05 lockout, or more specifically, Henrik Lundqvist’s rookie season. During that period, they never cracked the top ten once in offensive production. It doesn’t mean they always think defense first – the Rangers were second in the NHL in shots per game this season.

The Los Angeles Kings are entering the Final after finishing the regular season first in offense and 25th in defense. They have also been a top 10 defensive team for the past five seasons thanks to young superstars like Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty. Their disparity between O and D is nothing new. In 2011-12, the year they took home Lord Stanley, the Kings allowed, and tallied, the second fewest goals. In between, they bumped up their goal scoring to top 10 levels for the lockout shortened 2013 season. So, Darryl Sutter knows his team can turn on the red light if need be.

DEFENSE v. DEFENSE

What we have this year is defense versus defense. Based on Stanley Cup history dating back to 1980, what can we expect when two top defensive teams face off against each other? Since 1980, two top quartile defenses have battled for the Stanley Cup on 12 occasions. The table below lists each example.

Stanley Cup Finals: 1980-2013
Between Two Top Quartile Defenses (Based on Goals Against)

Year

Champion

Better Off. Win?

Better Def. Win?

Runner-up

2013

Chicago Blackhawks

Yes

 

Boston Bruins

2012

Los Angeles Kings

 

 

New Jersey Devils

2011

Boston Bruins

 

Yes

Vancouver Canucks

2008

Detroit Red Wings

Yes

 

Pittsburgh Penguins

2003

New Jersey Devils

Yes

 

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim

2001

Colorado Avalanche

 

 

New Jersey Devils

2000

New Jersey Devils

Yes

Yes

Dallas Stars

1999

Dallas Stars

Yes

 

Buffalo Sabres

1995

New Jersey Devils

 

Yes

Detroit Red Wings

1989

Calgary Flames

Yes

Yes

Montreal Canadiens

1982

New York Islanders

Yes

 

Vancouver Canucks

1981

New York Islanders

Yes

 

Minnesota North Stars


When both teams excel at D, does the better defense shine through? In these 12 examples, two victors (the 1988-89 Calgary Flames and the 1999-2000 New Jersey Devils) had both the better offense and the better defense. All in all, the better defense lifted the Cup four times. Likewise, on eight occasions, the top scoring team emerged as champs. In fact, six of these eight not only had top quartile offenses but they were among the top three for goals scored the season they won. And then there were two Cup-winners – the 2011-12 Kings and the 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche – who overcame opponents with better regular season totals in goals for and against.

In the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers have the better offense and the Kings the league-best defense. In New York’s case, they only have a second quartile offense (18th overall). Among these 12 examples, no below median offense has won the Cup when they were the better offensive team in the series.

DRILLING DOWN

I decided that I should drill down further than simply goals for and against to see if there are any other factors that could predict this year’s winner. I have reviewed the following four post-2004-05 lockout championship teams that survived a defense vs. defense Stanley Cup Final:

Team Hits: The Red Wings, Bruins and Blackhawks were all in the bottom ten in hits. The only exception was the 2011-12 Kings. This tells me that the big hitting teams overly exert themselves during the grueling second season leaving little in the tank come the Finals. Wouldn’t you know it; the Kings are back on top of hits again this year whereas the Rangers are middle of the pack.

Penalty Efficiency Ratio: Penalty efficiency is a statistic that measures the time a team spends on the power play compared to time spent killing penalties. Obviously, you want to be on the power play more often. These four Cup winners all had better penalty efficiency ratios. For example, last season, Chicago had the fifth best ratio and Boston the second worst. This year, the Kings and Rangers are tied. Both teams have spent slightly more time on the PP than the PK.

Goals Against 5-on-5: I realize that I have already narrowed my focus to top quartile defenses; however, the 5-on-5 track record of the four examples cannot be overlooked.  Each of these four Cup winners was among the top three defenders when playing 5-on-5 in their championship season. During 2013-14, Los Angeles not only allowed the fewest 5-on-5 goals but they were 12 fewer than the next team and nearly 30 fewer than the Rangers.

Team Plus/Minus: This metric has become less popular to assess individual players, but its predictive ability on a team basis can't be overlooked. Among these four examples, Chicago, Boston and Detroit had the league’s top team plus/minus the season they won the Cup. Los Angeles was 13th in 2011-12, but they were four notches above New Jersey. This season, Los Angeles and New York are both a net-plus for the regular season – the Kings rank 5th and the Rangers are 11th.

Many of these factors are either neutral or point west towards California. But these factors are based on the long regular season. Things can change over 82 games. Alain Vigneault has had time to assess. Martin St. Louis and Marian Gaborik have acquainted themselves to new systems. And coaches react to early playoff deficits (an 0-3 1st Round hole to San Jose, for example) with adjustments to their regular season game plan. So, what can we learn from playoff hockey?

PLAYOFF HOCKEY

Again, I looked at the four recent examples of Stanley Cup Finals in which top quartile defenses faced off against top quartile defenses and compared their playoff goals for and against to that of the regular season. Could we identify changes in strategy? The following graphs summarize my findings. The first graph examines goals for per game.

Bob -defense -3 

As you can see, most Stanley Cup finalists are quite consistent between regular season and playoff hockey. They stick with what got them there. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. With the exception of last year’s Stanley Cup between Chicago and Boston, the eventual Cup winner increased their scoring more than their opposition did. And no one did that more than the 2011-12 Kings – increasing output by just over a half-goal per game, to be exact, from 2.29 to 2.85 per game.

The sudden offensive outburst worked so well two seasons ago that Los Angeles has sought and found the extra gear during this year’s playoffs too. The Kings have elevated scoring from 2.42 to 3.48 per game. That’s more than one goal per game! On the other hand, the New York Rangers are steadily keeping pace with their regular season production and this level of production has been all they’ve needed to take down Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal.

The same analysis can be done for goals against. Once again, most of the results indicate consistency between regular season and playoffs. However, it’s the few outliers that are the most relevant to this year’s Stanley Cup Final.

Bob -defense -4 

Most teams advancing to the Cup Final have done so by tightening up their D, but none more so than the 2011-12 Kings. Quick reached instant superstar status as he backstopped Los Angeles to the Cup. Along the way, he helped cut the team’s goals against per game from (an already elite) 2.07 to a paltry 1.50. Unlike goals for, the Kings have not been able to duplicate 2012’s success on the defensive end during this year’s playoffs. Their improbable 2014 playoff run has included a few missteps and breakdowns and, as a result, their team goals against has risen from 2.05 to 2.85 per game. The Rangers, similar to the goals for analysis, have improved incrementally and are an illustration of consistency.

The puck will drop between two clubs built to excel at defensive hockey. One appears set to let down their defenses and attack; the other prepared to sit back and rely on what has brought them this far. To date, the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs have been full of thrilling action and constant drama. Are we about to witness a spectacular Hollywood ending or an unforgettable Broadway performance?

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

 



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