What some stats don’t say about a playoff run

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens - Game Four

Sometimes I enjoy looking at statistics, like who’s winning the scoring race…. or seeing Jaroslav Halak on top of save % thus far.

I’m writing this not as a statistician or wanting to figure out formulas…. I’m writing this because when I’ve looked at certain stats as a fan, I was always struck with a first impression about the stat.

I thought I’d look at the plus/minus stat a little bit to see how teams these playoffs were shaping up and look at a few years past. Over several games the plus/minus stat can show in a general way how a team performs 5 on 5 and can also give a hint at which players are better offensively/defensively. Obviously it doesn’t give a true look at your best defensive or offensive player, because the stat itself is a bit of a balance between the goals scored while your on the ice for and against your team. So a higher scoring player may end up with a higher plus/minus stat then a better defensive player in some cases.

Basically, it’s a glimpse of how the team is doing 5 on 5 while each player is on the ice.

I thought I’d write a little blurb on this because I read a great article on the Corsi stat over at Lions in Winter. The article’s name is “Putting the Corsi in it’s place“. It’s a great read.

So every time I used to look at a team’s plus minus I had an impression it was (or should) be telling me who was the better team. Or who was the “winner”. Not necessarily so. At least in my opinion.

In regular season I believe a team can be lucky. In the playoffs I think the better team will win. I could open a can of worms with that statement for sure. But this is what I mean. I don’t mean by better team that it has the most skilled players (sometimes it may, sometimes it may not)…. simply put I think in the playoffs the team that will play “together” being opportunistic within a strategy to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses end up being the better team. 4,5,6,7 games in a row against the same team, you get to know the players habits, the team’s strengths and weaknesses quite well… you get to know how your opponent’s coaches  will try to counter your moves.

Luck disappears. Heart, work ethic, will to win, coach ability… these things begin to matter much more then 1 regular season game. It is quite different.

Here’s what the Habs stats focused on the plus/minus look like thus far.

Habs stats after 11 games in 2010 playoffs

Habs stats after 11 games in 2010 playoffs

Looking at these stats a couple of things come to mind right off the bat.

Hal Gill

I’m not at all surprised that Hal Gill is at +4 at 5 on 5. He’s been clogging up the shooting and passing lanes…. using his long reach to frustrate opponents so far.

Marc-Andre Bergeron

I’m not at all surprised that MA Bergeron is currently at -10 while 5 on 5. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s seen Bergeron give up the puck on occasion. He also has a hard time to defense bigger forwards as they tend to bump him off the puck easily.

Where he is quite valuable is on the power play where he gets a fair bit of playing time.

Mike Cammalleri

I’m a bit surprised at his -3 but at first sight my impulse is to think “He’s scored 8 goals so opponents have scored 11 during that ice time” (without taking into consideration the assists)… well, not quite. That’s a small example of where things get a little murky. Cammalleri scored 3 of his goals on the power play, so that brings the numbers to his scoring 5 goals at 5 on 5 and opponents scored 8 during that ice time…. then again, with his 5 assists, how many of those points where on power play goals?

Stats can be fun. Ultimately the ones that count the most are the score at the end of the game, and the win/loss number during the series.

Then of course, it’s just plain numbers. Who were they paired with…etc.

Now for fun, let’s add in the plus/minus stats for both the Penguins and Capitals.

Washington Capitals

Capitals stats after 7 games in 2010 playoffs

Capitals stats after 7 games in 2010 playoffs

Against the Washington Capitals I “feel” as though I’m looking at the team that won the series, or the “better” team. It certainly is reflective at a team’s strength at 5 on 5.

And again, just looking at the plus/minus in mind it gives me that impression. But what it doesn’t tell me is who won a game. It doesn’t tell me which team got penalized the most, which team were better on the penalty kill, which team had the best scoring opportunities…etc.

To be quite honest, looking at the plus/minus stats for the Capitals, I’m not surprised at all. They were the top scoring team in the league this year.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins stats after 10 games in 2010 playoffs

Penguins stats after 10 games in 2010 playoffs

When I look at the Penguins plus/minus numbers one thing does kind of surprise me. The thing that surprises me is Jordan Staal’s plus/minus number.

He lead the team this season with +19, and now is at the bottom with -5 in the playoffs. Staal is also regarded as a good defensive player.

I hadn’t watched all of the Ottawa/Pittsburgh series and I haven’t (and am not going to) dig into his pairings in that series.

I’m just surprised.

2008-2009 playoffs

2008-2009 playoff plus/minus leaders

2008-2009 playoff plus/minus leaders

The plus/minus leaders in 2008-2009 leave me with the impression that Detroit should have won… and I’m sure some will argue they should have…. as people do about any series.

I still like statistics and I really enjoy the work done over at En Attendant les Nordiques.

Today I try to go past that “first impression” that I get from certain statistics.

Like I mentioned earlier… 2 things ultimately matter. The score at the end of the game and the win/loss number in a series.

And there’s a slogan that I’ve kind of grown fond of. “Good teams find a way to win”.

Improbability doesn’t mean impossibility.

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