Truth By Numbers: First round takeaways and Nathan MacKinnon’s dominance

Nathan MacKinnon spoke about the Avalanche’s performance against the Flames as they beat them in five games.

The second round has already begun, but for this week’s Truth by Numbers let’s do something a little different. We’ll look back at each first round series to see how things played out for the winners, and what that could mean going forward.

Once we go through each matchup, that will lead us into the spotlight performer.

We’ll start with the East.

What we’re looking at here are three different metrics: high danger scoring chances, shot attempts, and passes to the slot. Each are listed by differential at the team level, both at 5-on-5 and in all situations.

I think this general look gives us an idea of how each team managed both shot quality and possession control in their series.

The Bruins and Blue Jackets both had tough first round matchups. But while Columbus outplayed the Lightning in very specific and few areas, relying on brilliant goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky and some bad injury luck for Tampa Bay, the Bruins controlled shot quality against the Leafs, who were amongst the best at controlling shot quality during the regular season.

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In Game 1 of their second round series, Boston dominated possession and shot quality. I think it’s entirely fair to give the Blue Jackets a mulligan on that one since they’ve been sitting on the sidelines for a while waiting to play, but if they struggle to control possession and quality scoring plays to the same extent they did against the Lightning, Boston is going to eat them alive.

The Islanders essentially out-Penguined the Penguins, which is pretty fun. For the past two seasons Pittsburgh hasn’t pushed play from a shot volume perspective, but have absolutely dominated teams in shot quality. It was very interesting to see Barry Trotz’s defensive scheme keep the Penguins frustrated and to the outside, while the Islanders pounded shots on Matt Murray from dangerous areas.

It’s especially interesting that Trotz wasn’t able to accomplish that last season when he coached the Capitals against the Penguins. The Caps relied on puck movement and high slot shots to beat the Penguins, but overall they lost the shot quality battle in that series and won due to other factors. This is a huge credit to Trotz’s coaching ability. There are carryovers from every team he coaches, but strategically he has demonstrated a clear ability to tailor his systems to the roster he has to get the most out of them.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, who are the ultimate shot volume team, going up against the red-hot goaltending and even better defensive structure of the Islanders might be the worst matchup for them. The Canes were even better against the Capitals than I thought, crushing them at 5-on-5, but only barely survived the Caps’ deadly power play.

If the Islanders can keep the Hurricanes to the outside, we might see some crazy shot totals with very few goals to show for it. But don’t ignore the fact that the Hurricanes wildly outpaced the Capitals in quality shots and held a distinct advantage in passes to the slot at 5-on-5. They’re not playing around.

What about the West?

The St. Louis Blues played by far the tightest series of the first round. You would almost guess that the team they faced had exactly as many regular season points as they did…

Winnipeg pushed the Blues to the limit despite bowing out in six games, with the advantage flipping back and forth between the two teams game-by-game and situation-by-situation. Jordan Binnington was brilliant, and he had to be in their first game against the Stars as well, with the Blues playing with a lead for most of the game and sitting back.

The Stars, meanwhile, have the hottest power play in the playoffs, but were outplayed by the Predators at 5-on-5 in the first round, though they maintained control over passing.

In their first game of the second round, Dallas put tons of pressure on the Blues’ defence and 20 of their 29 shots on net were from the slot. But like the Jets before them, they couldn’t really solve Binnington — at least so far. I’m really not sure how this one will go.

The final series is the strangest one because it’s a little bit of opposite world for people who have followed these teams for a few seasons. The Sharks, a dominant possession team, were handily outplayed by Vegas in the opening round, but found ways to win, including an absolute gift of a major penalty in Game 7 that singlehandedly changed the course of the series. But credit has to be given where it’s due: what other team is going to score four goals on a single major penalty? The ‘76-77 Montreal Canadiens maybe?

The Sharks are a better team than those stats show. They just had one of the toughest first round matchups of anyone in the league.

Meanwhile, the Avalanche haven’t been a great team by underlying numbers for a long time, but this year they were solid. In the first round they faced off against one of the best even strength teams in the league and completely dismantled them tactically in one of the most dominant performances I’ve ever witnessed by an eighth seed.

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The Avalanche reminded me of the 2012 Los Angeles Kings in a way, but those Kings were surging beasts and it was obvious heading into the playoffs. The Avalanche were just good by most measures, and they were easily the best team in the NHL in the first round.

I’m not sure if a team has ever controlled 71 per cent of the passes to the slot in a playoff series, especially in the salary cap era, but the Avs buried the Flames to an extraordinary degree. It wasn’t even close.

If Jared Bednar and his coaching staff are as prepared for the Sharks as they were for the Flames, don’t be surprised if they pull off another upset.

SPOTLIGHT PERFORMANCE

Speaking of the Avalanche, that brings us to our spotlight performer. It’ll be a quicker breakdown than usual this week, but holy cow Nathan MacKinnon.

MacKinnon led the Avalanche in scoring chances created per 20 minutes at 5-on-5 with 8.75 in the series. Only Patric Hornqvist and Timo Meier got off more shots from the slot in the first round — MacKinnon fired off 4.61 every 20 minutes he was on the ice.

Off the rush, only Jordan Eberle got more scoring chances than MacKinnon, and MacKinnon did it against top checkers.

We already know that the Avs dominated passes to the slot in the series, but MacKinnon, playing tough minutes and counted on to be the primary offensive catalyst, was also phenomenal defensively. The Avalanche controlled 77.2 per cent of the passes to the slot while he was on the ice, which is honestly absurd.

A lot of what MacKinnon does is difficult to quantify because so much of it is about creating odd-man situations with speed and strength, but his importance to Colorado is obvious.

First in scoring chances, first in scoring chances created, first in controlled entries, first in controlled exits, first in chances off the rush — all the while playing power on power or tough matchup minutes. MacKinnon has been everything you could want in a franchise player.

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