Digging Deep

Other than Don Cherry’s obnoxious suits, the only thing unsexier in hockey is blocking shots.  No one remembers who blocked the puck from ever getting on net.  They only remember a shot if the goalie had to make a save on it. 

The reason I bring this up is because after watching Game 5 on Saturday night, I came away especially impressed with the Hawks ability to prevent the Flames from ever getting their shots towards the net.  During the first period, the Hawks snuffed out a decent number of opportunities by getting their body on the puck.  In total, they ended up with four in the period, the most impressive being Matt Walker’s (whose block turned his middle finger into Mike Ricci’s nose).  After the game, I went back and checked the play-by-play from this series to see if there was any correlation between blocked shots and Hawks’ defensive dominance.  Here’s what I found:

  • The two highest totals of blocked shots came from Games 3 and 4 when the Hawks blocked 13 shots in each game (26 total for the mathematically challenged).  However, Hawks defensmen only accounted for 12 of those blocks.  That’s important because when the defensemen are blocking shots, more often than not, they’re blocking a prime scoring opportunity as the shot is likely coming off the forward they’re covering.  When a forward blocks a shot, its usually the result of a shot from the point.
  • The Hawks only blocked 5 shots in Game 1 with Duncan Keith notching three of them.
  • In Games 2 and 5, the Hawks blocked 11 shots each.  Of those 22 total, defensemen accounted for 18 of the blocks.  Those were, arguably, 18 quality saves that Nikolai Khabibulin never had to make.     
  • Brent Seabrook led the Hawks in Game 2 with 4 blocks.  Matt Walker led with 3 blocked shots in Game 5, his most impressive being the one that put his finger in another area code.

So what can we take away from this?

First off, the Hawks defense is not only at it’s best when moving the puck and using their speed to their advantage, but also when they’re getting their body in front of the puck.  Games 2 and 5 were the Hawks’ most dominant wins of the series.  Is it strictly a coincidence that the defense also led the charge in shot blocking for both of those games? 

Probably not.  Other than the first period of Game 2, the Hawks have controlled the Flames in the defensive zone only giving up one goal in the other five periods.  A lot of that has to do with the defensemen being in the proper position to negate any chances the Flames are generating off their offensive zone time, which would include among other things, ta da, blocked shots.

So if the Hawks are to avoid a Game 7 with the hated Flames, look for their defensive corps to again take the brunt of the blocking.  Anyone can step in front of a Dion Phaneuf shot that will probably go wide anyways, but when Brent Seabrook knocks away an Olli Jokinen wrist shot from 25 feet out, that’s just as good as a Khabibulin sprawling save. 

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To hell with sample sizes, here’s something Hawk fans have never had the opportunity to do: Compare the playoff stats of the first three players drafted in the ’04 Entry Draft.

  1. In 6 playoff games thus far, number one pick Alex Ovechkin has three goals with four assists and is a +5.
  2. Number two overall pick Evgeni Malkin has four goals and five assists in 6 games but has a +/- of 0.   
  3. The third overall pick, Cam Barker, is right behind both with three goals and three assists in 5 games and a -1.

While its not at all fair to compare Barker to those two Russian monsters, it is quite nice to see him right on the tail of both players in the scoring department.  Something tells me he won’t be there for long, so we should enjoy this while we can. 

–Perhaps we have found a use for Matt Walker just yet.  His three shot blocks in Game 5 were rather large.  If his big frame can act like a puck magnet and prevent Khabibulin from having to make a save, then he may become a piece of the puzzle just yet.  Not a nice piece or a big piece or an important piece, just a piece.  

Of course, Walker nearly made a tragic ‘Matt Walker mistake’ in the first period when he stepped up at the blue line only to have the Flames player chip it over to the wide open Mike Cammalleri.  If it weren’t for the hand-eye coordination of Patrick Sharp who batted the puck out of the air, it could’ve been a 1-1 game rather quickly.

–Hockey sabermetrics leave a bit to be desired.  While baseball can brag about VORP and OPS, hockey is still looking for their defining statistic.  Corsi ratings are usually a pretty decent way to see how evenly (or unevenly) matched the game was, but there are still times when its not even close to being correct.

Game 5 is a perfect example.  If someone simply looked at the Corsi without watching the game, they would probably think the game was heavily in favor of the Flames.  Only 8 Flames registered a minus rating.  Meanwhile, only 4 Hawks had a positive rating.  Dion Phaneuf led all players with a +10 rating.

Well, as anyone who watched the game could tell you, it was hardly a close game.  The Hawks spent the majority of the first two periods in Calgary’s zone.  I would venture for the entire game, the offensive zone time was about 65-35 in favor of the Hawks.  The Flames only registered three shots on goal in the first period, notching 20 for the whole game. 

Corsi is what we have now, but if you’re good at math and enjoy hockey, there is a formula out there for you to discover.  Unfortunately, I barely passed my college Calculus course so I’m hardly the right man for the job.

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