Ryan Suter takes a shot on Jake Allen. Image by: Getty Images
The Wild are doing everything right, and they're controlling play at a historic level, but they just can't beat Jake Allen.
The Minnesota Wild deserve a better fate than the one they’re about to get. No team has looked more dominant these playoffs and yet here they are, down 3-1 to the St. Louis Blues.
The playoffs can be extremely cruel and the Wild are feeling that with their season inexplicably on the line. Every game so far has been a shooting gallery with the Wild setting up base camp in the Blues zone and rarely finding themselves outside of it. After adjusting for score and venue, the Wild have out-attempted the Blues by 23, eight, 25 and 16 in the four games this series at 5-on-5, good for an average of 18 extra shot attempts per game. They’re doing everything right, but for whatever reason, they can’t solve Jake Allen who is single-handedly winning this series for the Blues.
This is an entirely different series without Allen and his .966 save percentage, a truly absurd mark. The league’s best goalie this year, Sergei Bobrovsky, was at .931 for the season. If Allen had that every game, here’s what the scores would look like (eliminating the empty net goal in Game 3, since the Wild wouldn’t have been down).
Game 1: 3.6 - 2 Minnesota
Game 2: 2 - 1.7 St. Louis
Game 3: 2.9 - 2 Minnesota
Game 4: 1.9 - 0 Minnesota
Even if Allen was having a Vezina calibre playoffs, it wouldn’t have been enough to keep this series close and at his season or career average of .915 it would look even more lopsided. That the current series result is flipped in the complete opposite is entirely thanks to his superhuman play. Full credit to him, he’s been phenomenal, but that’s what he’s needed to be to stop Minnesota from moving on to Round 2. With the way they’ve played that should be where they’re heading – teams controlling play this well don’t lose often.
From 2007-08, the year Corsi first started being tracked, to 2015-16 there have been 44 series (out of 135) where one team earned 55 percent or more of the shot attempts after adjusting for score and venue – 34 of them (77 percent) have won their series.
Of those 44 series, only six had a shot attempt advantage greater than 60 percent. In 2007-08, the Stanley Cup winning Red Wings, one of the greatest teams ever, did it three times while the other three came from the Sharks in 2009-10 and then the Blackhawks in 2011-12 (the only team to lose with such a large edge) and 2012-13.
For added context, the highest Corsi percentage in a season is 59.9 percent by those same 2007-08 Red Wings and only three teams ever have been above 58 percent (Detroit 2008-09 and Chicago 2009-10). Those three teams went 54-21-7, 51-21-10, and 52-22-8, a .638 win percentage on average.
It’s a rare sight to see one team dominate another territorially to this degree, and that’s especially true in the playoffs where it’s the best of the best. It’s a testament to the current level of parity in this league that we haven’t seen such a huge mismatch in the past three seasons. That is, until this year’s Wild who are currently at 60.1 percent against the Blues. That makes seven teams with a Corsi percentage north of 60 percent in a series, and the Wild look like they’ll be just the second team to ever lose with such a large advantage.
The last time it happened, it was the goaltending of Mike Smith that kept the Blackhawks in check, stopping 95 percent of shots he faced that series, though an .893 from Corey Crawford at the other end sure didn't help. No matter how much a team can tilt the ice, goaltending is the biggest X-factor and we’re seeing that first hand with the Wild.
But while Minnesota is busy pumping the St. Louis net with shots, there’s some detractors out there saying it doesn’t matter because a majority of their shots come from the outside. Fortunately for them, there are ways to check how good the team’s shots are using expected goals, which weights each shot by their probability of finding twine.
As it turns out, the Wild’s expected goals percentage is even higher than its Corsi at 61.6 percent, meaning that not only are they getting the lion’s share of shots, they’re also getting the better quality chances, too. Of the 44 series above 55 percent in shot share, on average the teams that won had an equal expected goal rate while the 10 losing teams were two percent lower. Poor shot quality is to blame most of the time a team is padding the shot clock in a losing series, but that’s not the case with Minnesota.
And yet it doesn’t matter one bit. Not when Allen is playing the way he is. If you can’t solve the goalie, no amount of quality chances against him will matter.
Bruce Boudreau learned that firsthand back in 2010 when his juggernaut Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals met its maker: a plucky Canadiens team led by the superhuman antics of Jaroslav Halak. But even that series had Washington with a smaller shot advantage, expected goals rate and a lower save percentage from the opposing goalie.
It’s hard to imagine anything worse than being Halak’d, but this series against the Blues is arguably on a higher level than that and it’s a shame it won’t be viewed that way. It’ll just be another item on the list of playoff choke-jobs for Boudreau, an unfair rep he’s gained from big expectations and bad luck. There’s really nothing more this team could’ve done better in this series from a tactical standpoint, they’re simply not getting the breaks. That’s just the way it goes sometimes and there’s no need to build a narrative around it.
This series is also not over just yet. The Blues still have to win one more game and while it’s very likely they can manage a single victory over the next three games, the Wild can make things difficult if they keep playing the way they have. Allen probably can’t keep this up forever.
Still, the chances of a reverse sweep are pretty slim – it’s only happened four times in the history of the league. Two of those times were in the last seven seasons though after only having it happen twice in the previous 70. With hockey’s chaotic nature, low-scoring and league parity it’s arguably more likely to happen these days then it was back then. It’s even more likely if the team down 3-0 is arguably stronger, which is how it’s looked for most of the series despite the results and how most people saw things before the series started.
The Wild were big favourites going into the series at 67 percent. Their chances of coming back are higher than an average team in the same spot. After Wednesday’s victory they’re one step closer to a comeback with their chances rising from 11 percent to 21 percent. It’s a long shot, but it’s definitely not impossible. They’d be relatively heavy favorites in Game 5 and Game 7 and slight favorites on the road for Game 6, it’s just a matter of taking advantage of that edge in three straight games.
At this point, it’s still extremely likely the Blues move on to the second round; being down three games is a big hole to come back from. Just don’t be surprised if the Wild can make things interesting. They’ve been extremely dominant so far and the breaks just haven’t gone their way. In a short series the whims of the hockey gods can change quickly. So hold off on the hot takes and eulogies for now, the Wild don’t deserve their current fate and they aren’t dead yet either.