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First impressions

Sunday, 28.04.2013 / 6:41 PM / Features
By Thomas Drance
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First impressions
At the time of this writing we don’t Vancouver’s postseason schedule, and won’t until the conclusion of the final regular season game later tonight.

But the Canucks matchup is set and next week Vancouver will open the postseason with a first round series against the San Jose Sharks, who the Canucks memorably defeated in the Western Conference Final back in 2011.

Over the course of the week, and before the puck is dropped in Game 1 (presumably on either Tuesday or Wednesday), this series will be analyzed to death. The Sharks and Canucks generally play exciting games, and so I’d expect a very intriguing fast-paced series. I’m not really ready to make a prediction (and picking against the Canucks on the team site would seem to be bad form, but I reserve the right to do so later in the week!), but I am ready to dive into the matchup and the underlying data, and give you my first impressions.

A Lucky Break

Over the past two seasons, two seasons in which the Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy, Vancouver had been pretty unlucky in drawing first round matchups. In 2010-11, for example, the Chicago Blackhawks were the eighth seed, but by the predictive metrics (these types of “puck possession metrics” have proven to be more predictive of future performance than a club’s place in the standings, or even their goal differential) they were the third best even-strength team in the league. They took the Canucks to overtime of Game 7.

In 2011-12, the Los Angeles Kings were again the eighth seed, but by the predictive metrics they were the third best club at even-strength, and by far the best team in the league after acquiring sniper Jeff Carter at the trade deadline. The Kings defeated the Canucks in five and rolled to a Stanley Cup victory without ever having to play in a seventh game.

So the Canucks were due for a break in terms of their first round matchup, and in avoiding the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings, and drawing the San Jose Sharks in Round 1 instead, they probably got one this season. This isn’t to say that the Sharks aren’t still a bit of a juggernaut – they most assuredly are – but they’re a better matchup for the Canucks than the Blues and Kings would have been for one simple reason: home ice-advantage.

A lockout-shortened season, to some extent, acts as a bit of a pollutant for the underlying data. In particular, every club in the league only played twenty-four home games and twenty-four road games (in general I prefer a sample size of thirty games when evaluating teams). As such we have less certainty about the quality of each team’s “true talent” at home and on the road than we would over the course of an 82 game season.

Still, the sample is sufficient for us to conclude, with a reasonable degree albeit not complete certainty, that having home ice advantage in a playoff series against the Sharks gives the Canucks a bigger edge than they would otherwise possess in a first round series against the Blues or the Kings.

To illustrate this point we’ll use Fenwick Close – a metric that counts up all goals, shots on goal, and missed shots both for and against in a one goal game state, and expresses the differential as a percentage. Fenwick is basically unblocked shot differential and it does well to tell us how well each club controlled play at five-on-five, with the result of any particular game in doubt.

Team Fenwick Close%
Vancouver at home 54.93%
Los Angeles on the road 56.66%
St. Louis on the road 56.49%
San Jose on the road 50.93%

By this metric, which again is more predictive than wins or goal differential, the Canucks were a pretty dominant team within the friendly confines of Rogers Arena. That bodes well for the team and is doubly impressive considering how banged up the Canucks were all season long. Judged against the rest of the league the Canucks were the third best home-team among all NHL clubs that made the playoffs this season (behind only the Presidents’ Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks and the defending champion Los Angeles Kings).

Even still, the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings were far and away the two best road teams in the entire league in terms of unblocked shot differential. Against those two clubs home-ice advantage wouldn’t have mattered very much, but against the Sharks the Canucks should have a clear advantage at home. You need four wins to advance to the quarterfinal round of the NHL postseason, and the Canucks will play four games at home against the Sharks in their first round series. Homeice advantage could be key.

Goaltending

On the one hand, in drawing the Sharks in the first round the Canucks are primed to capitalize on home-ice advantage (in theory anyway). On the other, the Sharks might be the only Western Conference playoff team this season against which the Canucks won’t enjoy a decided advantage in goal.

Generally speaking the Canucks have had a good deal of success shooting on Antti Niemi in the past, but Niemi has had a Vezina worthy season in San Jose this year. Overall the Canucks and Sharks were tied for seventh in the league in team even-strength save percentage this season (both clubs posted a .928 through 47 games). But we can safely throw “team even-strength save percentage” out of the window now that it’s the postseason, since Niemi will, barring an unfortunate injury, start every game for the Sharks.

Niemi has been just absurdly good for a Sharks team that, for some reason, struggled to manufacture goals this season. His personal even-strength save-percentage over 43 starts this season sits at .930, good for ninth in the NHL among regular starting goaltenders. In terms of “Goals Versus Threshold” (GVT) a stat tracked over at PuckProspectus.com and is similar in theory to “Wins over Replacement” in baseball, Niemi was the league’s single most valuable player with a week left to play in the season. Niemi was worth .692 goals per game to the Sharks this season, a stratospheric number that shouldn’t be ignored.

Vancouver’s situation in goal is sort of in flux at the moment, since Cory Schneider’s injury status remains unknown. Schneider was actually slightly better than Niemi in terms of even-strength save-percentage this season (.931, good for eight among regular starting NHL goaltenders), but not quite as good by GVT, though he was close. Schneider was worth .627 goals per game through 29 games played, and there’s no doubt that he was spectacular this year.

Based on Niemi and Schneider’s respective performances this season, if Schneider is in Vancouver’s line-up for Game 1 of the postseason, then the goaltending matchup is a pure wash. If, however, Roberto Luongo starts the postseason between the pipes for the Canucks, that edge arguably tilts modestly towards Niemi (at least based on this season’s performance).

All of that said, in terms of “demonstrating a consistent ability to post an elite even-strength save percentage over a large sample of games,” Roberto Luongo is the second best goaltender in the NHL at the moment, behind only Henrik Lundqvist. Even if Luogno struggled somewhat this season relative to his usual godly-standard of puck-stopping, with a .920 even-strength save percentage, I’ll take his track record in roughly seven-thousand even-strength minutes over the past six season as more indicative of his “true talent” than his play in eighteen starts this season.

Ultimately it’s not like Vancouver is in a tight spot in goal if Roberto Luongo starts the series in net for the Canucks. But the point remains: this is the only Western Conference matchup the Canucks could’ve drawn where they won’t enjoy a decisive advantage in goal.

Head-to-Head

If you’re an avid reader of Canucks content, you should probably prepare yourself to hear a good dose of handwringing over the coming week about the teams’ 0-2-1 record against San Jose this season. Take my advice and disregard it.

It’s not just that the playoffs are an entirely new season, and regular season accomplishments don’t really play into it, it’s also that any club’s performance over a three game sample tells us next to nothing. Moreover, though the Canucks failed to gain two points in any of their previous games against the Sharks this season, they pretty handily outshot the Sharks at even-strength, and the two teams tied in terms of even-strength goals in the series (each club scored five a piece at five-on-five).

Again, we’re talking about just a three game sample and three game samples don’t tell us much. But it’s also worth noting that the Sharks haven’t faced a Canucks team this season that included a couple of pretty good forwards named Derek Roy or Ryan Kesler. There are, admittedly, some good reasons to think the Sharks could defeat the Canucks in a seven game series this spring, but their 3-0-0 regular season record against Vancouver this year isn’t one of them.

Can we drop the puck yet?

Stats in this piece sourced from timeonice.com, NHL.com, puckprospectus.com, and behindthenet.ca.