It is rare that professional teams can outperform their peers in a particular area for a long time. If a team has a strategic advantage, the rest of the league will study them and adjust their coaching strategy to compensate. If a specific talent or skillset is undervalued, a clever GM might be able to gain a short-term advantage, but again if the other teams are following along the market should correct the valuation.
As a result, when I run across a team that is a substantial outlier in any area then I take notice, and when that outlying result comes in an area that I mostly attribute to luck then it is especially interesting.
Here are the top 5 teams in games won by a one-goal margin since the lockout (not including this season so far):
1. New Jersey, 109
2. Dallas, 89
3. Vancouver, 87
3. Nashville, 87
5. San Jose, 86
5. Carolina, 86
5. Anaheim, 86
And here are the top 5 teams in winning percentage in games decided by one goal:
1. New Jersey, .740
2. Carolina, .709
3. Nashville, .690
4. Detroit, .673
5. San Jose. 670
The Devils are at the top of both of those lists, and it's not even close. That begs the question, just what are they doing differently than everyone else in the league?
The simple answer, and the one that 90% of journalists would probably respond with, is that the Devils have Martin Brodeur in net. There is, however, one fairly significant piece of evidence that suggests there is more to the story than that, namely New Jersey's record in one-goal games in 2008-09. Despite losing Brodeur to injury for almost 4 months, the Devils posted the best close game record they have ever had, going a remarkable 25-5-4 in one-goal games. Compared to an average team, New Jersey picked up an extra 12 points by winning the nailbiters, which made the difference between them winning their division and finishing as the #7 seed.
I looked at New Jersey's record since the lockout when leading, trailing, and tied after 2 periods. If they were a particularly clutch team, we would expect them to have a lot of wins in games that were tied heading into the third. The Devils did do well in that situation with a .644 winning percentage, good for 6th best in the league since the lockout. However, the Devils actually played a relatively low number of games that were tied after two, which was somewhat surprising for a low-scoring team. The team won a total of 36 games where they were tied after 2 periods, which was right about the average number (the Devils ranked 16th in the league).
New Jersey was also pretty good at coming from behind. Their winning percentage of .250 ranked 6th in the league, well above the average of .200. The Devils won 26 games that they trailed after 2 periods, which was tied for 4th in the league. It is likely that many of those wins would have been one-goal wins, although the average team won 20 so this would only account for part of their close game success.
By far most of New Jersey's wins came in games they were already leading after two periods. The Devils went 130-6-7 when ahead after two, for a .934 winning percentage that was the league's best. Only Detroit, San Jose and Ottawa converted a higher number of second intermission advantages into victories. However, none of those teams had anywhere close to as many one goal wins as New Jersey.
This indicates that New Jersey's terrific one-goal game record is mostly from their ability to get ahead and hold onto the lead. The Devils outplay the other team early, get a lead, and then try to close out the game by protecting that margin rather than trying to extend it, a strategy that if successful leads to a lot of one-goal victories.
I have scoring data broken down by period for the last two seasons from the Hockey Summary Project to support this thesis. New Jersey's offence dropped in the third, with the Devils ranking 25th in the NHL in third period goals (empty-netters removed). Their shots taken also dropped, from an average of 10.3 shots per period in the first two (6th in the league) to an average of 9.4 shots per period in the third (15th). This was from a greater focus on defensive play, as the team also was able to cut down on the number of shots against (from 9.5 per period to 8.8 per period in the third).
Despite fewer shots against, the team's GAA actually went up in the third period, from 2.27 in the first two to 2.34 in the third. This was because the team save percentage dropped from .920 to .911. This suggests that shot prevention, rather than clutch goaltending, was the main reason the team was so effective at preserving leads. Keep in mind that New Jersey had a relatively high success rate in mounting comebacks, which shows that they had the ability to score if they wanted to. Instead, the Devils traded offence for defence, and the reason they won so many games by a single goal was because they scored fewer late insurance goals than other strong teams.
New Jersey was actually outscored 128-124 in the third period over the last two seasons. The team's positive goal differential came entirely from its success in the first two periods. I looked at a few of the other top teams in winning close games as well as some of the worst teams, and their records usually could not be explained by their third period save percentages or shot ratios. In fact, few teams were particularly clutch in terms of their percentages. In general the teams that outshot and/or out-"percentaged" their opponents in the first two periods had good records in close games, while teams that got outshot usually did not.
Announcers and writers often focus on the late "big save" that supposedly "won the game". However, most of the time that is giving too much credit to the goalie. The reason that save looks important is that the team had already built a lead in the game. The goalie does have to make the saves to keep the team ahead, of course, and if they are facing sustained pressure sometimes they need to be excellent to keep the other team off the scoreboard, but since the average shot has a 91% chance of being stopped the odds are very much in favour of the leading team. Because of this goalies have a very high success rate in holding off the other team late in the game, in the same way that baseball closers usually manage to "save" the game when they enter in the ninth inning with their team already in front.
New Jersey has won a lot of close games by outshooting and outscoring the opposition early, and then locking down the game to reduce scoring chances in the third period. Their goaltending should get credit for its strong overall performance, but it does not appear to warrant any additional recognition for "making the big saves".
It looks like the Devils have kept their "competitive advantage" going this year, with all three wins this season coming by a shootout or by a one goal margin. They will likely need to continue to excel at winning the close ones to stay competitive in a tough Atlantic Division.