Thursday, October 15, 2009

Close Games

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.


Anonymous said...

this is the most useless blog yet.

I 'm not even a Brodeur fan, but jeez.

What exactly are you arguing? That he has 557 wins, 4 vezinas, 10 all star appearances, a calder trophy and a gold medal due to his team's defensive system, and nothing more?

Yeah, I'm sure Andrew Raycroft would be on the road to the hall of fame if he was drafted by the devils too.


Triumph said...

f the haters, this is a great piece, and one i should've done myself, as i've noticed new jersey's ridiculous record in one-goal games.

the devils are also great at the shootout, something which i don't think you note here.

Triumph said...

adroit question though, as i linked this to njdevs -

one person noted that the devils are historically awful at scoring empty net goals, an assertion which while i don't have the statistics at hand, seems accurate. i am assuming you did not take this into account.

Anonymous said...

Do me a favor and get a life.. cry me a river oh brodeur is bad..ur pathetic wit this blog.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

To the Anonymouses who probably haven't read any of the blog other than the title, please read the line directly below it. The argument is not that Brodeur is a bad goalie, but that he is more or less the same as Curtis Joseph with better puckhandling skills and better teammates, or Ed Belfour with more games played.

Triumph: Good observation, shootout performance definitely affects the one-goal game record and the team's empty net scoring record would as well. I removed empty netters when I looked at third period goal and shot differentials, but they would still affect the team's record. I'll see if I can get a chance to look to look at empty net goals for/against and shootout record and maybe try to adjust close games to take that into account.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Also I just wanted to clarify what I'm saying about Brodeur in this post. I'm not saying he did nothing to help his team win the close games. His play was above average late in games, and he was often very good early in the games to allow New Jersey to get ahead.

The reality is that New Jersey was outstanding at winning close games and at holding on to leads, better than everyone else in the league, and that does not happen just because of one guy. The main reason for their terrific record appears to be shot prevention, but goaltending, team discipline, and team defence were also contributing factors.

Sunny Mehta said...

Very interesting that SV% went down in the third period. Kinda reinforces the idea that there's very little teams can do to suppress shot quality. However, teams do seem to be able to slow the game down a bit so that overall shots are decreased for both sides.

I'm curious how effective this tactic really is wrt protecting a one-goal lead.

CG, can you tell me how many games post-lockout the devils were leading by one goal going into the third, and how many of them were won in regulation and lost in regulation?

Lawrence said...

CG: Well I admire your tenacity with these subjects I wonder if your zeal for proving Brodeur's 'team-effect-benefits' get in the way of really finding something rich to share with other goalie's.

You raise good points, but sometimes, and I mean this as constructive criticism, it feels like you are scouring the statistical depths to find any little nugget of information that you can turn into a post with which you ultimately use to compare Brodeur to Joseph. I'm always hoping that I will read something on this blog that will make me see goaltending in a different light, or perhaps, even make me a better goaltender.

I've tried you suggestion to anonymous of reading more posts, and we've had some learningful debates (for me at least), but ultimately you've lost me. Now, when I come back from time to time, it's more of the same picking at New Jersey and trying to defeat the "Brodeur Myth."

Look, I don't find it surprising at all that his sv% goes down and GAA goes up in the third, because of "playing to the score" effects. When you're in goal leading by one, do you not feel an extra push by the other team with 5 minutes left? Or when the pull their goalie? It's essentially a power play, and pk sv% is most often lower than ev ev%, no?

Again, it appears to me that the idea of a 'clutch save' really irks you on some level, but as a goalie yourself, I can't get my mind around how you think that. Some saves are better and more important than others.

Scott Reynolds said...

CG, I appreciate the post a ton but I'm not sure it really answers the question of "why are the Devils so much better than everybody else?" Don't most teams use this same strategy when they get ahead in games? Are the Devils just much better than other teams at using this strategy or do you think they've been lucky to get so many wins? Perhaps they've been unlucky not to score in the third period more often and thus have fewer two-goal wins than we'd expect? If it is in fact because they're simply better than other teams, which players or coaches do you give that credit to?

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Sunny: Unfortunately, I don't have that data available.

Scott: It's primarily a case of them not winning games by 2 goals or more (and winning a lot of games in OT as well). I'll be putting a follow-up post up with some more explanation.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Lawrence: Thanks for the feedback. I have a particular interest in Brodeur, as you know, and I'm trying to make sure I focus on other topics as well, so hopefully you'll find something of interest. I haven't actually done all that much lately on New Jersey since our huge Luongo vs. Brodeur debate. If some other team had 109 one-goal wins since the lockout then this post would be about them instead of about the Devils.

The idea of a 'clutch save' doesn't really irk me. Clutch saves happen, of course. When Marc-Andre Fleury stops Nicklas Lidstrom with 2 seconds left in game 7 of the Cup Finals, that's a clutch save. My problem is with the conclusions people make from watching those clutch saves. There is a difference between clutch performances and clutch players. The thing that really irks me is the idea that because a goalie has a lot of wins, it must means that they are making a lot of 'clutch saves' and must be a 'clutch goalie'.

If there's evidence to support that, then that's one thing. I haven't seen much evidence to support major clutch effects, but it might be there for some guys, who knows. Otherwise I'm skeptical of claims that someone or other is clutch, because most of the time I think it is a case of a goalie getting credit that should be going to the rest of his team.

As far as playing to the score, a team that trails late in the game generally pushes forward on offence. However, the leading team also focuses more on defence. What generally happens is that the shot rate goes up, but I don't think we can assume that the shots faced are more difficult to stop. If anything the evidence suggests that those shots are easier than average to stop, since the trailing team is more likely to put pucks on the net from everywhere.

Lawrence said...

CG: I do totally agree with you on the 'conclusions' that are often made about goaltending which can lead to endless debates about how 'good' a goalie is. SOme of my irks are:

Huge sprawling/extremity save = great save vs potentially out of position and likely to lose vs the averages save.

Saves goalies should have vs most goalies think they should save every shot, so what team breakdowns occurred to cause the goal?


I, again, do really appreciate the effort and time you put into this blog and if I could only have the same discipline and 'numbers modeling' skills I would likely try my hand at it. I also appreciate how difficult it must be to come up with posts of interest for everyone time and time again. I haven't read over the whole archive (of course) but if you would indulge some suggestions, these are ideas I would love to know more about:

1. Numbers to support/disprove the goaltender evolution. 20 years ago Allaire changed everything when he made a comment about ~90% of goals going in the net in the bottom 12 inches of the net, and was crafting butterfly goalies to handle this. Now with the butterfly slide we are seeing something of a goaltenders revolution. More goaltenders with higher sv% than ever before... is there truth to this?

2. Henrik Lundkvist. If I'm a young goalie, I may wonder how Lundkvist is so good? He is this 'goal-line' keeper who, by our current understanding, defies logic with his 'deep in the net' performances. Does he HAVE something other goalies don't have, or does he KNOW something other goalies don't know?

3. Puck handling and shot prevention. Is there any truth to this. As a goalie who has significant struggles handling the puck (I can clear the zone, but couldn't shoot it the length of the ice for example) what is the numbers benefit to this skill?, is it possible to measure?, do goalie's like Luongo (who shoot like me) make more saves than goalies who shoot like Turco? Do they need to because of their inability?

etc. etc.

seventieslord said...

As you know, I fully support this blog. But I have two pieces of feedback about this post:

1) I think it's only fair that an adjustment be made for the "powerplays" that the Devils face by being ahead by one goal late. Assumedly, the trailing team would pull their goalie every time they get a chance (let's say 90% of the time) and for an average of about, say, 45 seconds. This is unique to the Devils because they have won, by far, the most one-goal games. This means that in every 3rd period in which they lead by a goal, they face a 45 second PP. This can add up and have an impact on 3rd period sv%.

2) Would a game in which you're leading by a goal and then score an empty netter count as a one-goal game? It should.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Lawrence: The late '80s/early '90s transition from predominantly stand-up to predominantly butterfly is certainly worthy of a post. I have done some information gathering on it, but it is a fairly complex issue. It's something I hope to get to at some point.

Re: Lundqvist, I'm not really a style analyst or a scout, but any style is based on tradeoffs. A goalie who plays deep and makes saves from his knees tends to give up very little along the ice, has an extra split second to react to shots and is better able to deal with lateral passes. The evidence is pretty good that it works for Lundqvist.

I haven't done any posts on Lundqvist specifically, but I've had some extended debates in the comments with few Brodeur fans who hate Lundqvist's style (and, more than likely, the New York Rangers). I think Lundqvist is a top goalie, and he's sure looking like it this year so far.

Shot prevention is something I have done some work on. Try these two posts, for example, about shot prevention for Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour.

And by the way, shot prevention is one of the reasons why I always hope there are some people who read this blog who disagree with me and aren't afraid to come out and say so. I argued for a long time with Bruce on this issue, and I have to admit that he was more right than I was. We still disagree over the magnitude of the effect, but I think we've both learned more from it and that's what we're shooting for here.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

Seventieslord: In the follow-up post to this one, I showed that the main reason for New Jersey's one-goal record is really their winning games in overtime or shootouts. I also tried to adjust for the fact that empty net goals skew the one-goal and two-goal win records, because that is definitely a problem with the analysis.

Bruce said...

And by the way, shot prevention is one of the reasons why I always hope there are some people who read this blog who disagree with me and aren't afraid to come out and say so.

CG: I ain't afraid. :)

I argued for a long time with Bruce on this issue, and I have to admit that he was more right than I was. We still disagree over the magnitude of the effect, but I think we've both learned more from it and that's what we're shooting for here.

Thanks! Absolutely, I have learned a ton from that discussion and more generally on this blog. I think our opposing (although ever cordial) viewpoints on shot prevention have served to advance the discussion. It certainly helps that you are open-minded enough to listen to logic and reason. :D