Analyzing the best and worst NHL teams playing from behind and holding a lead

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox break down the Toronto Maple Leafs' loss to the Florida Panthers, and explain why head coach Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs have reason to be optimistic despite giving up a four-goal lead.

On Tuesday night the Panthers and Maple Leafs went into the second period tied 1-1, but then Toronto piled on four goals. Before even hitting the midpoint of the second period, the Leafs pulled ahead 5-1.

In some matchups, that might have meant game.

But not for Florida. Just a few days ago, on Saturday against the Devils, they found themselves in a similar position. Trailing 6-2 entering the third period, the Panthers responded with four unanswered goals to force overtime. That’s where they completed the comeback with a goal from Gustav Forsling to a 7-6 victory.

Against the Maple Leafs, they had to work with a higher caliber opponent — but one known for some wild games.

In the second half of the period, Sam Reinhart pushed back. Goals from Radko Gudas and Claude Giroux followed. That set up a one-goal game going into the third. The Panthers struck first, with goals from Jonathan Huberdeau to tie the game and then Aleksander Barkov to pull ahead. With just over four minutes left in regulation, John Tavares knotted the score on the power play.

But in overtime, Huberdeau ended the game. The dramatic comeback victory from Florida once again needed a tiebreak and finished with a 7-6 final score.

Did these two come-from-behind wins solidify the Panthers as the best offensive team while trailing in a game? Let’s take a closer look to find out.

We’re going to stick to 5-on-5 play specifically, because there are too many variables in all situation play, including how much time a team spent on the advantage, or how many penalties they take or draw.

The teams that spent the highest percentage of their ice time trailing in games — at 5-on-5 that’s Montreal, Arizona, Seattle, New Jersey, and Detroit leading the way — are unsurprisingly out of the playoff mix. A team that spends that much of its time behind isn’t clawing its way back successfully too often.

The Coyotes are the worst team at generating shot attempts when trailing in games, followed by the Blues, Blackhawks, Islanders, and Red Wings.

Shot volume only tells so much. When factoring in quality and pre-shot movement with expected goals, those bottom teams don’t change too much. The Sharks, Coyotes, Senators, and Islanders are last in expected goal generation while trailing in games. No one scores less in those situations than the Islanders, followed by the Sharks. The next two teams are a bit more interesting in Vegas and Vancouver — one team still vying for the playoffs, and another that will almost certainly end up just on the outside.

When a team’s already behind, they have to ensure the hill to climb doesn’t get any steeper. That’s where the Islanders and Sharks, along with the Red Wings, Blue Jackets, and Coyotes fall even further seeing as they all concede a lot — whether shots, scoring chances, or goals against. 

Which teams seem to have the most heroic comebacks while they’re down in games?

The Flames spent just 17.4 per cent of their 5-on-5 minutes trailing, followed by Colorado (21 per cent), Carolina (22.1 per cent), Boston (24.9 per cent), and Pittsburgh (25.1 per cent).

After Tuesday’s dramatics, the Panthers and Maple Leafs both spend a matching 26 per cent of their 5-on-5 minutes behind in games.

That lower share can mean two things: a team simply doesn’t trail as often because they can maintain ties or hold leads or they battle back that well. The latter is what we want to identify.

The Bruins lead the league in shot generation while trailing in games, with the Maple Leafs and Flames rounding out the top-three. Florida sits next — and at the rate they’re going lately, it won’t be surprising to see them slide up the rankings.

It’s the Leafs, however, who take over with the best expected goal generation (3.4 per 60) in those situations, followed by the Hurricanes, Flames, Panthers, and Blues.

No one, however, finishes better than the Panthers. Shocker, right? They’re showing that they can dig themselves out of tough situations with their absolutely stacked offence. Will that strategy hold up down the stretch, and when the stakes raise? That’s the gamble they’re taking with a backend that can land them here.

The Blues, Predators, Hurricanes, and Wild round out the top-five scoring teams while trailing. Minnesota’s an interesting one here, especially with how often they score with the goalie pulled. That’s something The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn looked into recently in 16 Stats, highlighting Minnesota's 21 scores while their goalie is back on the bench and they have an extra attacker.

So most of those teams on the lower end do have reason for that low percentage of ice time: they find ways to create offence to get themselves back in games.

Of course, they also have to hold up in their own zone to balance out those offensive efforts.

Florida allows the lowest rate of shots against while behind in games, with the Hurricanes, Maple Leafs, Golden Knights, and Oilers just behind them. The Capitals, Avalanche, Predators, Bruins, and Hurricanes lead the way when factoring in quality with expected goals against. Goaltending’s a key consideration as well, and that’s where teams like Winnipeg, Vancouver, and St. Louis stand tall — the efforts of Connor Hellebuyck, Thatcher Demko, and Ville Husso give teams their best chances to bounce back.

For the Panthers to come back against the Devils and Maple Leafs, it required two teams blowing leads they built. That brings us to the next question: who is the best at defending those leads, and which teams are the worst?

The Coyotes spend under 18 per cent of their 5-on-5 minutes in the lead. They’re a bottom-five team in what they concede in those moments in terms of shots, quality chances, and goals against. Plus, their offensive generation while ahead in the game is the second weakest in the league.

Another team that measures up poorly? The Sabres, who spent about 25 per cent of their time in the lead. But unlike the Coyotes, there have been some trends in the right direction as of late. The Flyers don’t stack up favourably, either.

How about a team that stands out for its lack of offence while in the lead? The Stars are a bottom-five team in expected goal creation and finishing; they’re ahead about 33 per cent of the time (which is about league-average). The team can easily point fingers at the fact that their scoring is bland when their top line isn’t deployed.

The Rangers, who spent a slightly higher share of time ahead in score than the Stars, are a bottom-five team in expected goal creation for and against in these minutes. Their finishing elevates their scoring. On the other end, netminding (.85 per 60 above expected) moves up their actual goals against to the third best in the league, behind only the Kings and Islanders, thanks to Igor Shesterkin’s Hart-calibre play.

The Kings and Islanders are actually top-five teams in limiting shot quantity and quality against while ahead; they don’t spend as much time as other teams ahead in the score though and their offence is what holds them back.

No one spends more time ahead in games than the Flames (45 per cent), Avalanche, Leafs, Panthers, and Hurricanes. The numbers support that, too. Florida allows the lowest shot rate against when leading, while the Flames and Hurricanes both rank in the top-five. The Wild jump out as the best at suppressing scoring chances, with Calgary and Boston nearby.

What helps teams like Calgary, Colorado, Toronto, and Florida all hold leads is their ability to run the score up — each team ranks highly in shot and expected goals for, along with actual scoring. Pittsburgh does too.

For a surprise team, the Devils are sixth in their offensive generation below the surface in the games they’re leading (which isn’t near the share of time as the aforementioned contenders) — the team just needs to finish at a higher clip to move up.

The best teams in the league can come from behind and hold a lead. Some of the more chaotic teams only manage the former, though it’s a risky (and potentially entertaining) strategy come playoffs. And those who don’t have the bite to jump ahead in games they trail, or fall apart once they’re leading? Those are the teams who are going to have a long summer to figure out where they went wrong and how to improve.

Data via Sportlogiq

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