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Analytics vs. stat dinosaurs: Lightning/Canadiens series will tell us who's right

Matt Larkin
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Andrei Markov and Alex Killorn. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Analytics vs. stat dinosaurs: Lightning/Canadiens series will tell us who's right

Matt Larkin
By:

Will puck possession trump goaltending, or vice versa? The Bolts/Habs series puts major bragging rights on the line between the analytics crowd and the purists.

This should be a fun one.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens offer plenty of entertainment value as a series matchup for pure hockey reasons. You get the best goalie player in the world in Carey Price; superstar Steven Stamkos; elite defensemen P.K. Subban and Victor Hedman; and tenacious speed demons Tyler Johnson and Brendan Gallagher. This series promises to be fast and furious, and both teams have enough grit to make things nasty and physical.

Adding another layer of excitement: the analytics debate. This series is the battle for bragging rights in 2014-15, folks. The most dominant possession team in the NHL matches up against the team all the stat heads claimed was lucky all year and too dependent on goaltending. Let the social media warfare begin.

Plenty of Montreal backers, at least according to tweets and blog comments, hate the analytics argument against them. It states the Canadiens' lack of shot attempts makes their victories unsustainable, because sooner or later Price has to have a bad game and, when he does, the goal support isn't there. We saw it happen with Toronto from 2012-13 to 2013-14 and, in particular, with the Colorado Avalanche between their Central Division title in 2014-15 and missing the playoffs this season.

Just the slightest regressions in Varlamov's numbers and playing time (because of injury) were enough to sink Colorado this year. It didn't happen to Montreal because Price had one of the best seasons by a goalie in the past 15 years, a campaign that will likely net him the Hart Trophy on top of the Vezina. The question is: will Montreal's inevitable regression happen next year – or in the next couple weeks against Tampa Bay?

To paraphrase our resident analytics guru/THNer with by far the most badass profile photo, Dom Luszczyszyn, no team will test Montreal more than Tampa Bay will. The Lightning's 55.82 Shots Attempts Close percentage, per NHL.com, trailed only Detroit's for the league lead, with Shot Attempts standing in for Corsi. In Unblocked Shot Attempts Close, a.k.a. the NHL's version of Fenwick, the Lightning ranked first in the NHL at 55.40 percent.

The Habs in those two categories finished 15th and 16th. Not as exaggerated as Colorado over the last couple years or even Calgary this year, but winning the Atlantic despite average possession numbers suggests Montreal overachieved.

Before the non-stat-heads' eyes glaze over, let's review a bit of analytics 101. What does "Close" mean when tacked onto Shot Attempts or Unblocked Shot Attempts? "Close" means teams are within one goal in periods 1 and 2 or tied in period 3. It's more accurate than non-Close because it factors out score effects. If a team is up 6-1 in the third, it will take its foot off the gas, the other team will generate a bunch of shot attempts and the possession numbers will skew in a way that doesn't reflect how the game really went.

So Montreal generated 40 more shot attempts in Close situations than they allowed this season. Tampa generated 228 more. The Bolts also posted the league's best shooting percentage at 10.7 percent. It's no wonder they led the league in scoring. No team put more pucks toward the other team's net, and no team was more accurate in getting those pucks past goaltenders. Back to Montreal: a solid 11th in shooting percentage, but 20th in goals because of the mediocre shot attempt totals. See the house of cards starting to wobble for the Habs here?

They have a deficiency in doing all things offensive compared to the rest of the playoff field. Worse yet, that deficiency really showed in their matchups with Tampa Bay in the regular season. Montreal had only 35 percent of the shot attempts and lost all five games. Yuck.

Still, though, goaltending is the great equalizer. Can Price help Montreal overcome the Bolts? Here's a look at Price's stats in the five meetings:

1. Four goals allowed (in 40 minutes), .826 save percentage, Habs lose 7-1
2. Four goals allowed, .889, Habs lose 4-2
3. One goal allowed, .972, Habs lose 1-0
4. Three goals allowed, .909, Habs lose 4-2
5. Four goals allowed, .907, Habs lose 5-3

The glass-half-full perspective for the purist crowd is that Price's spotty play against the Bolts is actually a good sign. He's been amazing more often than not all year, and Tampa happened to catch him primarily on off nights, so the results will be different this time around. The glass-half-empty angle: Montreal scored eight goals in five games. Tampa had seven in the first matchup alone. Even if Price was outstanding in every one of those contests, Montreal still could've gone 0-5.

Make no mistake: Price's play, plus that of his counterpart Ben Bishop, will significantly impact the result of this series. Ottawa finished plus-3 in Shot Attempts Close against Montreal in round 1, but it didn't matter with Price allowing two goals or fewer in four of six games and posting a .939 SP. He was the primary reason Montreal advanced. And "the best goalie will again be the best goalie" is a reasonable expectation.

That said, Tampa Bay is a different beast. Our theory is the Habs' inability to generate chances will put too much weight on Price and, if he slips just a couple times, it will be enough for Tampa to win the series. That's why we have the Lightning prevailing in six games.

Whatever happens, though, the analytics crowd and the old-school thinkers will bank on this series to be the one that supports their philosophy and wins this year's debate.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

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Analytics vs. stat dinosaurs: Lightning/Canadiens series will tell us who's right