Monday, April 16, 2012

Lots to Say on Bruins/Caps

This may be only semi-coherent, and it is quite long, but it's the fruition of the past day and a half mulling over the past 2 games, studying some stats, and just trying to make sense of it on the fly, much like the Bruins are trying to do with the Caps as this series moves forward.

Behind the jump, I talk about the good, the bad, and the maybe for the Bruins so far looking back but mostly trying to look forward. Ultimately, I think there's reason to not be as distraught as I have been.

Okay I've had all day to think about it. In the morning I was very mad at the Bruins. Then I stopped being mad at them and started being annoyed in general at the way this series is going. I am one of the fans who are pretty much panicking despite the fact that it's not nearly as bad as it seems in my head. In fact, it's far better than the way I'm perceiving it. I knew the Caps would be tough, but not this tough. Why does it feel like it's a dire situation when it's a 1-1 series with both games decided in OT?!

The lack of goals is the biggest thing. The inability to score is not only frustrating, but it's like a disease that can spread t

The Capitals have been playing pretty well through 2 games, so the Bruins have had 2 games to experience, get used to, review video of, and now adjust to the surprisingly stringy defensive system the Capitals are effectively executing. Who the hell would have thought the Capitals could sustain such solid defense that Claude Julien would compare it to Tampa Bay last year? Last year's sreies with Tampa was such an obnoxious nightmare because of the whole "chess game" aspect of it, and "head games". I think maybe Claude got a little too obsessed with matching Seidenberg and Chara against Ovechkin, and they were on the ice way too much. As much as Bergeron's line has been pissing me off for failing to capitalize on the countless perfect scoring opportunities they have had, they have been important in helping shut down Ovechkin.

But that's the thing with team sports...there are other guys on the team that are threats, and on the Capitals, they are both on the line that matches up against Krejci's line - the Bruins worst defensive line. Backstrom and Semin are just as threatening as Ovechkin. Fans like me who don't follow Washington that closely tend to forget that last year, and years before, the Capitals had RIDICULOUS shooting percentages and scored a lot of goals. They have notoriously failed in the playoffs presumably because relying solely on offensive firepower just doesn't cut it in the playoffs. This is a lesson the Pittsburgh Penguins are learning right now.

So I have been very shocked...even impressed with the Capitals defensive strategy through the first 2 games. Holtby has been great without a doubt, but honestly, the Capitals playing the way they are defensively - something I don't recall ever seeing from them before - has made it so hard for the Bruins to get to the net. First of all, the appalling number of shots blocked by the Caps already is evident of a strong team defensive strategy being properly executed. But beyond that, they have forced the Bruins shots to come from bad areas. Holtby has given up the rebounds at times, but the Caps have had such a strong net-front presence that the Bruins can't get to the rebounds first.

If you watch Pouliot's goal from Saturday (sidebar: GOOD LORD that was majestic!), notice how fast and strong he crashed the net. He had to get through 3 Caps players and then lunge forward to get his stick on the puck to make that goal happen. It was flat-out hard work against a team playing solid defensively. Why was it just Pouliot, or his linemates as well, the only ones on the team seeming to be working so hard? Well, they're a 3rd line, so they face a weaker defensive pairing and forward line match up. Having a good 3rd line - and 4th line for that matter - is a game breaker, series breaker, and as the Bruins showed last year, it is a heavy determinant in winning a championship.

That being said, Washington's 3rd line isn't bad. And their 4th line definitely outplayed the Merlot Line in game 1. The Bruins, I guess, are doing what they always do...take their sweet time in showing up 100% to a playoff series. I just pray it's not too late when they finally wake up.

And then there's the commonality between the Caps and the Bolts: shutting down the neutral zone. Good lord, it is frustrating to watch such sloppy neutral zone play. Notice how overly agitated Bergeron was in Saturday's game, constantly stirring up scrums after whistles in a manner that is very  uncharacteristic of him. I do like feisty Bergy, but I don't like frustrated Bergy.

Will the Caps be able to keep up the solid defensive play long enough to win the series? It's still hard to wrap my head around the thought that their defensive corps is flat-out getting the better of Bruins forwards. But then there's the good news...well..."good" news. The Bruins haven't played very good in either game. The Caps have played well, making the Bruins  play even worse. They've seen the Capitals playing pretty well (no idea how close it is to the Caps "best", although in defensive terms, I'd imagine it is pretty high up there in standards) for 2 games now. The Caps, however, haven't faced the best of the Bruins yet. Not even close.

I typically refer to Krejci as a clutch player because, well, he is clutch. Scoring in the playoffs and in important games is far more valuable and defining of a great player that can put up 60 goals in the regular season, but not necessarily step it up a notch in the second season. Rising to that higher level is the hallmark of the best players (think of Tim Thomas' run last year. That was the most clutch goaltender performance I've seen in a long time). The fact that Krejci isn't showing any signs of ascending to any higher level is what makes me nervous. He could have a breakthrough goal at any moment, but I definitely think the lack of chemistry between Peverley and Krejci/Lucic is more difficult for Krejci than we realize. I don't want to talk about how much we are suffering without Horton, cause it goes without saying, and it's just so depressing to think about. But this is a good example of why. Horton knew his role on that line and he had chemistry with Krejci and Lucic. He executed his role well - putting himself in the right spot for his linemates to set him up and then actually succeeding in getting the shot off and into the net. It was a thing of beauty watching every goal Horton scored last year. He is a classic goal scorer, and Krejci is a classic playmaker.

That's why, I think, it's an awkward and difficult adjustment for Peverley and Krejci. Peverley is usually the 'playmaker'. He and Krejci are both talented and creative with the puck, and they are both constantly making things happen. But when they are both thinking 'pass', it's a pretty frustrating situation because obviously they are getting nothing done. Lucic has been skating well, and I think along with the Caps good defense and the missteps with Peverley due to lack of chemistry, it's just not clicking. Yes, I know Peverley stepped into Horton's spot on the 1st line in the Finals last year. He did fantastic - but the Bruins were 2 months deep into the playoffs and were in a completely different state of mind than they are now. They had already played 3 games against the Canucks, and they had the benefit of getting goals that some other goaltenders who aren't Luongo may have saved. I guess we can only hope that as the series goes on, the Bruins pick up the play. Claude called out the first line today, but I don't have a feeling of certainty that it will guarantee results. Peverley's speed is also pretty useless when the Bruins can't get anything going through the neutral zone, obviously.

I don't necessarily think this means that Claude needs to change lines. The most common thing I am reading is to shake things up by putting Seguin in Peverley's spot. I have no idea if this will happen. I personally feel like it wouldn't be prudent to replace a great defensive-minded forward like Peverley with a guy who isn't producing offensively and is not very strong defensively. Playing with Bergeron makes Marchand and Seguin look really great as defensive forwards too, but I think that if you put Seguin on a line with the 2 guys who have been the worst Bruins in their own defensive zone all season (worst in Krejci) will make them extremely vulnerable. They are already vulnerable and have suffered from the matchup of Backstrom, Semin, and Johansson (I think. I'm confused about the lines because of how Ovechkin was all over the place last night. Fucking line matching..). Keep in mind that Backstrom was out all season for Washington, so any struggles they may have had aren't necessarily an issue now.

I know I was so engulfed in the Chara-Seidenberg-Bergeron vs Seguin saga that I was completely blindsided when Semin and Backstrom seemingly came out of nowhere on a completely different line and played so well. While Bergeron matches up well against Ovechkin's line (for the most part; he was able to get the better of Laich for the most part in game 1, but not so much in game 2), too much energy was wasted chasing around Ovechkin's shift changes. Bergeron was on the ice against a lot of different Caps forwards and in the faceoff circle, the Bruins were significantly worse than they had been in game 1. Bergeron was over 50%, but the Capitals overall beat the Bruins in faceoffs in game 2. And thus it begins; while Bergeron can be that important defensive forward, and Chara and Seidenberg can shut down the top line, the Capitals counter with a line much stronger than you would think. The Krejci line usually goes up against the other teams top line just because that's how it usually goes along with the flow of defensive matchups. But the Bruins expended so much energy on Ovechkin that the Capitals top 2 defensemen were well prepared to step in and return the favor by shutting down the Krejci line. Alzner had something like 7 blocked shots in game 2. The Capitals blocked 27 total shots in game 2. That's ridiculous. That is both good defense, and poor offensive awareness. The fact that a disproportionate number of the Caps blocks have been against the Bruins power play further worsens the blow. The more the Caps block shots, the more the Bruins seem to just aim right for the Caps players instead of at the net.

But here is where I am able to find some hope. I mean, we can sit around and HOPE that the players saying they need to play better will actually come out tomorrow and play better. But if you recall, I have done an extensive amount of babbling about those advanced statistics such as the Corsi number, and even though I don't quite understand it myself, I think the general idea of how and why the Corsi number can be a good predictor of future success can be applied here in favor of the Bruins.

These numbers generally need a much larger sample than 2 games to draw from to have reasonably accurate representations in numbers, but I think the multiple overtimes and the elevated intensity of the playoffs allow me to make a good case here. The general idea around this group of stats is that the single most accurate predictor of future success for any team is rooted in a number that adds a variety of factors - not just total shots on net, but also attempted shots, whether they be blocked, missed, deflected, etc. The point is that the ATTEMPTED SHOTS are a high number, even if half of them didn't get on net. It's a far better representation of play and predictor of future play than something like shooting percentage or save percentage (all based in luck), raw +/-, or just the number of official shots recorded on net.

The Caps were used as the perfect example of why a ridiculously high shooting percentage cannot be sustained over time (this example was used in a post I discussed last month that linked the original genius writers, but alas I won't go fetch it right now..). Over time, your shooting percentage will gravitate towards the norm, and this is the idea I used in my post about why the Bruins were coming out of their slump in March. It's so accurate. The Bruins had an unnaturally high shooting percentage in the first months of the season, then a ridiculously low percentage in January and February. In the end, the Bruins shooting percentage was about on par with the rest of the league. Again, this is why offense alone will never win a Championship.

If you're scoring goals in bushels for 2 months, it's just the way the universe seems to work that it evens itself out by being rendered unable to score for 2 months. Another example of this is the Penguins right now. They are scoring a lot, yes, but obviously the Flyers are kicking their asses. The Penguins were such a feared and favored team going into the playoffs cause they finished a very strong season on a very high note by putting all other teams to shame with their offensive output. But now they are being hammered by offensive bursts from the Flyers, and the Penguins seemingly forgot how to play defense, presumably because they were scoring so much for so long or whatever other reasons you can name. This is also why I think the Flyers won't be able to continue scoring at the rate they are scoring at right now, although they were pretty consistent in being at the top of the league in goals scored all year (it's just a matter of whether or not they can score more goals than they let in, even if it's 9-8.)

Anyway, my point is that the numbers from the first two games make a very strong case for the Bruins actually being in pretty good position going into game 3 despite their struggles. I did some rough math this morning about it, and I'm not going to try to get into it right now cause my brain is fried, but if you take into consideration the extra time played and look at the numbers as "per 20 minutes", the Bruins have outshot the Capitals in shots on net both games, but their Corsi was only narrowly better than Washington's in game 1. In game 2, however, the Capitals 39 total shots on net and the Bruins 44 total shots on net are misleading. The Bruins had a lot of possession and a LOT of CHANCES, evident in the Corsi numbers. The Capitals blocked 27 shots, and the Bruins still got off 44 on net. They also missed about 10 shots according to the official stat sheets, which doesn't provide an easy way to count attempted shots that are deflected or hit the post.

Basically, this indicates that the Bruins will likely find more success soon if they are able to continue with the trend of attempted shots. It's incredibly infuriating when so many shots are blocked, but having puck possession is valuable, and when you're blocking a shot, you are still at a disadvantage because you are the one on defense (case in point - Backstrom shot was blocked shortly before he got the puck back and buried the OT winner). If the Bruins play better and put themselves in position to continuously pummel shots at the net, even if half of them get blocked, the Corsi very, very strongly predicts success for the Bruins. At some point. That's the's a good predictor of future success, but the Bruins have to make sure they aren't eliminated before that future comes, right? Given how significantly the Corsi increased for the Bruins in game 2, it certainly looked like they are in the right direction.

I took into account that the total number of shots was higher simply because they played 20+ extra minutes in a double OT game. The Bruins still had more weighted shots per period and shots attempted per period than the Capitals, despite the fact that the Bruins had 4 power plays in game 1 to the Caps 2 PPs but in game 2, the Bruins only had 2 power plays and the Caps had 3. Even with fewer advantages (man advantages, really), the Bruins aggression on offense and chances generated - or potential chances - significantly increased from game 1 to 2. The Caps, if anything, were just as good if not better on the defense in game 2, but they were still on their heels for most of the time. As I praised Alzner (also, Green) earlier for their effectiveness in keeping the top scorers off the score sheet and blocking lots of shots, the fact that they had to be in a position to be on their heels and block shots - on even strength for that matter - shows that the Bruins are making progress in wearing down the defensive fortress, or figuring out a way around it.

To generically quote Claude and I'm sure every other coach and hockey analyst ever, making adjustments through a playoff series is constant and is the only way to win. I am truly hoping that the Bruins will show an ability to make adjustments and then reap the benefits from that. It's what they did against every team they defeated in the postseason last year. And if anything, while making those adjustments, the Bruins as a whole are also waking the hell up and turning their clocks to postseason play.

I hope I was able to get at least SOME of my thoughts to make sense, but I fully realize how poorly this is written and how many mistakes there are. I'm over tired, and my brain is fried, but I really just had to talk that one out - for myself more so than anything else. But if you have read it all, please let me know what you think about the series going into game 3! Unless you're a Caps which case, I respectfully must avoid you until the series is over. Anyway, here's to a better effort and better results for the Bruins in game 3.

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