So I promised my next post would delve more into the overall stats of the team and while I don’t do it often, I’m going to break that promise. Unfortunately with work being as busy as it is and the fact that we’re pretty consistently being asked to do 18 hours of OT up until the new year (and possibly into January), I’m pretty far behind in terms of tracking games. So far I have the Icebreaker challenge, PSU series, UND series, Michigan Series, and the Friday night Mich St. games tracked. My hope is that over the Gophers’ break I can swing back and do the Clarkson series and Notre Dame as well.
Back on topic, I decided to write about the Michigan series for obvious reasons, this was a series that probably should’ve ended in a sweep given that they had a 3-0 lead midway through the 2nd period of the Friday night game and a 6-3 lead partway through the 3rd period of the Saturday game, which had previously been a 4-0 lead earlier. The topic of blown leads has been talked about with this team in the past, last year the team blew a 5-2 lead and ended up losing to SCSU in OT in their first home game of the season. Last year vs Notre Dame was another where they blew a smaller 2-0 lead in a more important game to end their season. There was a similar trend with these games, the team made less controlled plays through the neutral zone both in terms of entering the opponent’s zone as well as exiting their own zone.
All stats here are at 5 on 5 and show the Gophers controlled entry and exit percentages by period in the game vs SCSU. For a brief recap, what happened in this game was the Gophers scored 1 in the first and had a very productive 2nd period where they outscored SCSU 3-2. Their 5 on 5 play wasn’t particularly amazing, especially in terms of exiting the zone, but they managed to get 2 goals off power plays. They then got a 5-2 lead early in the 3rd off of Novak’s goal. After this point they managed to get controlled entries on 30% of their entries (6 out of 20) including in OT.
The Notre Dame game was similar:
In this game the trend isn’t quite as obvious but before Notre Dame made it 2-1 late in the 2nd, the Gophers were entering the zone cleanly about 57% of the time. That went down to about 45% of the time after ND scored goal #1, a trend that got worse in the third period. This one wasn’t so much about failing to protect a lead, it was that they became more conservative towards the end of a game they had mostly been dominating territorially during the first half. The clean entry percentage went way down and the percentage of clean breakouts was down as well. Now this was partially due to Notre Dame all out defending towards the end of that game and going into their classic shell much like they did last Friday. For them being conservative actually worked well in this one because their goalie was on fire made a few huge saves on odd man opportunities and other quality scoring chances. But at the same time you can see evidence of less controlled plays by the Gophers and this became a huge problem when their powerplay didn’t produce any results in the third.
After seeing a 3 goal lead in the first home game and a smaller lead get blown in the final game of last season, it was a bit disheartening to see 3 and 4 goal leads blown in one weekend on the road vs Michigan this season. Looking at the data gives us some idea of what the team was doing and what caused this to happen
On Friday there isn’t a super clear trend to how the Gophers chose to defend the lead, if anything this was a game where they played somewhat sloppy at 5 on 5 all game and it came back to bite them in the ass later on. The one thing that’s apparent though is that the Gophers got worse in the third period in terms of exiting their zone cleanly. The zone exit number you see there is the percentage of the time in which they cleanly exited the zone. The entry data is the percentage of the time they attempted a controlled entry, the vast majority of the time which they completed (I can post these numbers as well if people are interested). Michigan was kinda ugly at exiting the zone all game but the Gophers had some costly turnovers in the neutral zone. They also got power plays late in the tied game as well that they managed to score on, including in OT. But one part of their gameplan where they were overall better was zone entries, the entry numbers you see there is the percentage of the time in which each team attempted a controlled zone entry either via carrying it or passing. You can see that Michigan more often than not throughout the game was attempting to carry the puck in and it paid off, they outchanced the Gophers at 5 on 5 and had a 9-6 advantage in that area.*
Saturday the Gophers had a 4 goal lead as well as a 3 goal lead with about 16 to minutes left in the game.
The trend in Saturday’s game is more obvious, the Gophers got really conservative in the third period and the entry percentage in the third doesn’t quite do justice to how much they were dumping the puck. After Pitlick scored to make the score 6-3, the Gophers had 5 controlled entries on 22 attempts the rest of the period for a 22.7% rate. For those of you who are fans of the Minnesota Wild, if you put an entire team of Ryan White on the ice for a period you would probably achieve this result. For a Gopher frame of reference, Jack Ramsey gets a controlled entry 28% of the time in the games I’ve tracked this year.
Now as I’ve stated in a previous post, controlled entries are far more efficient and you’re far more likely to get a shot or a scoring chance off a controlled entry than if you dump the puck and I cited previous studies that have shown this to be true. They can be more dangerous, a turnover at the blue line can cause a break the other way in which the other team potentially gets an odd man rush or a clean entry themselves that generates either a shot or a scoring opportunity. But with risk comes reward and for a team that is smaller and faster, it probably makes sense to try and generate controlled entries whenever possible. Completely changing your game plan to dump the puck twice as often is probably a mistake and the shot data bares this out. At 5 on 5 Michigan ended up with 49 shot attempts to the Gophers’ 37. After Pitlick scored in the third, Michigan had a shot attempt advantage of 15-5 and the shots on net were 8-2. Oddly enough during that time the scoring chances were an even 2-2 (all of this data pertains to even strength play) and Michigan got 3 goals to the Gophers’ 0 to tie the game and bring it to OT.
Now I’m not going to pretend to have any insider knowledge of the team or know what the coaches are telling the players. It’s entirely possible that the coaches were telling the players to carry the puck in more often late on Saturday’s game, or on the weekend as a whole, and they’re choosing not to do this. But in interviews Don Lucia consistently stresses the importance of “getting pucks deep” and reading between the lines, I have to assume he means dumping the puck when he says that. And obviously that’s what the team ended up doing late in Saturday’s game as well as more often than Michigan overall on Friday. We all know how it turned out and the Gophers currently sit 7 points behind Notre Dame in the Big Ten Standings. Now I will say that Michigan does play on an NHL sized rink and the Gophers are more used to playing at home on an Olympic sized ice sheet that is 15 feet wider and more conducive to clean zone entries. If I had to guess, this plays into the coaches’ gameplan for the weekend. The problem is it’s just not a very efficient one for the reasons I outlined and while the results of the weekend aren’t solely due to dumping the puck, in my opinion it definitely played a big part. Whether this is the coaches’ doing or entirely on the players, hopefully we see less of it as the season goes on and we improve on making controlled plays. In the games I’ve tracked this year the Gophers are getting controlled entries far less often than last year, 39% of the time to be exact. For a frame of reference this would be lower than any team in the NHL and much lower than the last year’s rate of 48% in the games I tracked (mostly home games but the games vs Duluth and Notre Dame on smaller surfaces had similar numbers, i.e. 47.7%). In the NHL that would be more towards the middle of the league.
To be fair, this was one weekend out of a 32 game season and if you include the games I cited from last year, we’re talking 4 games out of a 54 game sample. These games were picked for the very specific reason that the Gophers blew big leads in 3 of the 4 games and one was picked because it ended our season last April. With such a small cherry-picked sample I’m not going to pretend that this should necessarily be considered a trend. But at the very least, in these games, it’s a bit disturbing to see what appears to be an important factor in these blown leads as well as the fact that the third period was their worst in all of them mostly because they decided to throw the puck around at both ends of the rink more often than not.
On a more positive note, the Gophers have been playing better at 5 on 5 in two of their last three games, even if they had some trouble scoring. It’s hard to score 6 goals on 27 shots like in the Michigan series or 4 goals on 26 shots like they did against Harvard on Friday, eventually you’re gonna run into a good goalie like the various Notre Dame goalies we’ve faced over the last year or so. And if the Gophers play like they did this past Friday vs Notre Dame, they will most certainly win far more games than they lose and be a contender. This team has a ton of skill and all it takes is them playing well at the right time of year to win it all.
Thanks for reading!
*One note with the Friday Data, I was relying on the University of Michigan’s stream to compile this data and there were multiple issues. The camera at one point just focused on the Michigan crease for about 5 minutes of the game sometime in the third because someone likely forgot to change the camera. Also the stream’s frame rate slowed down drastically sometime after Szmatula scored the first goal of the game. So as such the Friday data doesn’t totally align with the actual shot totals and Tommy Novak’s goal got missed entirely in the data for instance. As such it’s possible I missed some shots/scoring chances for each team in this one.