Crushing It: The New Jersey Devils & Even Strength Possession in the 2012 Playoffs

Dainius Zubrus was on the ice for 4 goals for and 0 against at evens. Here's one of the goals for: scored by Dainius Zubrus (and it won Game 4). (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

One of the key points you should see and hear about the New Jersey Devils is their even strength play. The Devils pounded the Philadelphia Flyers in four straight to eliminate them in five games. The Devils stood out in 5-on-5 against the Florida Panthers, as the Florida really hung in the series because their power play got hot (9-for-27). No matter who they will play in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Devils will definitely have an edge because they've been so strong at even strength. Even if you're not familiar with stats like Corsi or Fenwick, just seeing the Devils hold opponents to so few shots on net in periods and absolutely swarming them in their own end at times would be enough to confirm who's been better in the most common situation in hockey.

Of course, the stats help quantify the Devils' strength. The Devils weren't a bad team at all when it came to possession in the regular season. In close-score team Fenwick%, the Devils finished tenth in the NHL at 51.08% according to Behind the Net. That's pretty good. However, the Devils upped their game in the playoffs. While the population size is smaller; the Devils have posted the third best close-score team Fenwick% at 56.21% - the highest among all active playoff teams. LA is the closest team and they're not really close since they're about 51%. If you look at the other situations, you'll see the Devils have been well above 50% in all score situations except when they're up by one. Even there, 47% with a lead is quite good; only four teams have done better in this postseason - and the only active one is New York. In short: the Devils have been crushing it in terms of possession at evens.

It's been enough that user zoobroken had the following request in the comments to Matt Evans' recent post about the team's performance in the playoffs:

Do you think it would be interesting / possible to compare Corsi for each line by series? I wonder if we have enough data now to spot any meaningful trends. It definitely seemed to me that the third line was giving up more shots that I’m used to seeing in the last few games.

Remarkably, breaking it down by player and sort-of organizing it by line and pairing is even more impressive than the team's performance. Please continue on after the jump to see how the players did in each series at even strength in terms of possession.

All of the following numbers came from the excellent Corsi charts from Time on Ice. Here's an example of one of them, game 4 against the Flyers. It's my favorite one so far this postseason. In any case, the script Vic Ferrari wrote counts all goals, shots on net, missed shots, and blocked shots both for and against that player when they're on the ice in a 5-on-5, non-empty net situation. Corsi is the summation of all of these numbers for and against; the higher the number, the better. Fenwick is the summation of all of these numbers except for blocked shots. Like Corsi, higher is better. I refer to both stats as puck possession since it's the best way we can approximate possession; the underlying assumption is that an attempt on net means the puck is in the other team's end of the rink - somewhere the Devils have been a lot this season. Lastly, I am aware the population size is small (seven and five games), but I think you'll agree that the Devils have been crushing it when you see these numbers.

Here's the summation of all seven games from the Florida series.

Devils_corsi_by_player_florida-nj_2012

A few observations from this chart:

  • Peter DeBoer really didn't change his lines too much in this series. The lines and defensive pairings were mostly the same throughout the game.
  • As bad as Anton Volchenkov was on particular plays, he didn't creamed too much in possession. +9 isn't too bad. Yet, I wouldn't praise him too much. He also got soft minutes in addition to limited ice time, and he still finished well behind Peter Harrold (+27).
  • Andy Greene and Mark Fayne were bosses on the blueline. Positive numbers across the board and only one goal against between them at evens.
  • Bryce Salvador got to suffer the most in terms of possession. A positive goal differential is quite good considering the Panthers did their best against them.
  • In retrospect, we know now Ilya Kovalchuk was hurt at some point in this series. That he ended up the only forward in the top nine with a negative Fenwick and shot differential can be seen as evidence that something was up with him. Interestingly, his linemates Travis Zajac and especially Zach Parise did well regardless.
  • The Patrik Elias line was quiet in terms of production, but they were screamingly good in terms of possession. Dainius Zubrus and Elias were the standouts in that regard.
  • David Clarkson had the best shot differential at evens and the lowest amount of shots against in this series. Yes, David Clarkson. I felt that third line was a bit too quiet until Game 7, but over the whole series, they were consistently piling up small positives to result in a larger one. They certainly didn't get beaten up.
  • The fourth line got hot (look at the goal differential) and didn't get uniformly beaten in possession. Having Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, and Steve Bernier out for long stretches could result in getting pinned back; but they more than made up their worth all of their goals.
  • For a team count, the goaltenders are the one to look at. An even strength shot differential of +21, a goal differential of +7, a team Fenwick of +25, and a team Corsi of +50. That's quite good. So is holding the opposition to less than 20 shots per game at evens (Florida averaged approximately 18.57).

If you thought that was good, then here's the summation of all five games against Philadelphia:

Devils_corsi_by_player_philly-nj_2012

More observations:

  • Game 1 was the only one in this series where the Devils were out-attempted and out-shot at evens. They were a -17 in Corsi. The next four games in Corsi: +28, +16, +24, +7. Forget "Fear the Fist," the Flyers feared the forecheck.
  • There was some more flux in the lineup. Kovalchuk played in four of the five games; Adam Larsson entered the series in Game 2; Peter Harrold was on defense in Game 1, played wing on the fourth line in Game 2, and has been scratched since; and Ryan Carter missed Game 4 and was replaced by Tim Sestito.
  • Greene & Fayne did quite well in possession, though they were present for more goals against in this series. The bigger effort did came from the pairing of Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky. They were about the same as Greene & Fayne in Fenwick, but superior in Corsi by not having to block as much. They also benefited from not being on the ice as much. Zidlicky was doing very well in Game 5 before Wayne Simmonds took him out; I wonder how much higher it would have gone without the hit?
  • Larsson stepped into the third pairing role and did quite well. I think this chart help explains why Harrold has been on the bench since Game 2. Volchenkov continued to suffer in a more limited role. It didn't seem as bad since he wasn't torched for goals against as much; still, getting to only +3 over five games in a series where the Devils were superior to their opponent is underwhelming.
  • Now that I think about it, imagine how great the Devils would be on defense if Henrik Tallinder was healthy and active for this postseason run?
  • DeBoer didn't always keep Clarkson, Elias, and Parise together; but they were together quite a bit. Based on the last series, it made sense: put three top-possession guys together and hope they can be even better. The chart proved DeBoer's decision correct.
  • Elias was a beast in possession.
  • Kovalchuk definitely played better after getting scratched in Game 2 and the fact he got to positive Corsi and Fenwick numbers is a testament to that. Zajac and Alexei Ponikarovsky did quite well in their own right.
  • Dainius Zubrus was also a monster in this series. Only Parise and Elias had higher total Corsi values, and Zubrus can brag he wasn't scored on. The Flyers didn't even get to 20 total shots against him when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 situations. That's really impressive for a top-nine forward.
  • Adam Henrique motored a lot and got a good amount of breakaways he didn't score on. It's OK, though, he was a positive player in possession. Petr Sykora was the weak link on that unit, but he didn't hurt the cause at all. In fact, that line allowed fewer shots on net (67) than the other two (Elias line: 84, Zajac line: 87) in the Philadelphia series.
  • The fourth line definitely cooled off with only one goal at evens - and that was Gionta out there (I think) in the midst of a line change in Game 2. All fourth liners got beat in possession overall; but I don't have too many complaints. Carter and Bernier were kept to an average of -1 per game of less; and Gionta only averaged -3 per game. They're not winning their match-ups, but they're not actively hurting the team or forcing DeBoer to bench them throughout the third period like the fourth line we saw in the regular season. I can live with that.

Overall, there can't be too many complaints about the Devils driving the play at evens. Going into their next series, it'll be important that the Devils try and keep this up. I think their Corsi numbers will be fine given that either opponent has been hyped up to block a lot of shots. To that end, I'm hoping that the Devils can swarm the goaltender with shots on net and continue their excellent defense. If they can keep that up and not suffer elsewhere (e.g. the penalty kill, bad goaltending moments, etc.), then they got a good chance as any regardless of who they'll play in the Eastern Conference Finals. As Mike Babcock famously said, possession is everything and right now, the Devils have been crushing it in possession in the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

What do you make of these numbers? Are you more or less impressed in a particular Devil or unit after seeing these numbers? Do you think DeBoer should keep the same lines from the Philadelphia series? Can the Devils keep this up in the Eastern Conference Finals regardless of who they'll play? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' possession performance at evens in the comments.

Thanks to zoobroken for the request that led to this post; thanks to Vic Ferrari at Time on Ice for having the scripts for the Corsi charts available and running all season through the playoffs; thanks always goes to Gabe Desjardens of Behind the Net; and thank you for reading.

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