So this is it. The part of the preview you’ve no doubt be waiting for. Special teams. Sure the game is mostly played at even strength, but every so often incredible goaltending, or a stupidly hot power play can turn a series. You want to know how these two giants of the Pacific Division measure up. Well.... let’s start this journey shorthanded.
Surprisingly, the Anaheim Ducks were the 4th most shorthanded team in the league this year. That's right. Fourth. Not first. I’m as surprised as you.
They did, however, have 50 times the practice of the 28th most penalised team, and their soon to be playoff opponents, the San Jose Sharks. Both teams finished in the top 5 on the penalty kill, with the Sharks finishing 2nd overall (84.8%) and the Ducks finishing 5th (83.2%). Interestingly, these two teams approach the penalty kill in somewhat different manners.
The Ducks allowed the 4th most corsi attempts against in the league by raw numbers, although this improves to 20th overall when on a per 60 minutes basis. Conversely the Sharks allowed the 4th least corsi attempts against in the league. It appears the Ducks allow a lot of attempts on net, as they play a rather passive system of defence. The Ducks typically attempt a similar method of defence on the penalty kill as they do at even strength. For the most part the Ducks will attempt to pressure the puck handler into one of the corners, by having all skaters on the ice overload this quarter of the ice. In the frame below we can see the basis of this. This can potentially allow the Ducks to create a puck battle with numbers and strip the puck away, before making an outlet pass.
Unfortunately, this can create an “accordion” like effect (i.e. the skaters have to skate in then out, often repeated), where the puck handler can pass back, and the puck can circle around. The Ducks skaters then have to spread out, which can create a fatigued state, that will have repercussions both on the kill and later in the game. Alternatively to passing back, the puck handler can attempt to thread the needle to the far side of the ice. Given that there are only 4 New Jersey skaters in the above picture we can assume one is outside the frame. The video below shows the sequence in full, and presents: a slight overload, a cross ice pass, the accordion effect, and then the overload (captured in the picture above). All which leads to a further cross ice pass and the inevitable goal.
The Ducks as a team are top 10 in the league for SCA and HDCA, and plays like the one above are a big reason for that. A point of interest is that as well as being such a staunch defensive unit, the Duck actually generate the 2nd most corsi-for attempts per minute of any team in the NHL.
This charge is lead by Andrew Cogliano, who sits third in the league for both raw (behind two defencemen with near double his minutes) and rate metrics (behind such wonders as Erik Karlsson, who has less minutes). Small wonder then, that the Ducks sit equal at second in the league for short handed markers (10 short-handed goals), 7 of which have occurred with Cogliano on the ice. Given that Cogliano is a near perennial lock at the top of this facet of the penalty killing tree, it wouldn’t be stretch to consider him the strongest offensively orientated penalty killer in the league, and in the conversation for the best penalty killer all around.
Cogliano ranks 2nd in the league at CA/60. 1st in CF% (a full 4 points ahead of 2nd!), 5th in FA/60, 2nd in GF%, 1st in xGF%. When Cogliano is on the ice, he’s going to give opposing power plays a tremendous amount of trouble.— CJ Woodling (@CJWoodling) March 28, 2018
Nonetheless, the Ducks employ a system that allows their goaltender to see the puck off the blade on most shots. A far preferable scenario than being screened, or having potential traffic tip or alter the pucks trajectory. It’s no piece of cake having to laterally move when the puck is being moved cross-ice, and as we see in the above video sometimes they score. However, if John Gibson is aware that this is likely to occur, he can adjust for the scenario and get across to make the clean stop. Given his astronomically high save percentage (see goalie preview for more on his wonderful #1 on the PK save percentage), it appears that this is the case.
Whether Gibson makes the stop, or the compressed skaters win the puck back, it allows for the forwards to break out and accept the stretch pass. In the below photo we see the skaters begin to move in the on the puck handler.
At this moment the puck is turned over and the stretch pass is made to Cogliano, who uses his speed and (disgustingly good fitness) to get a clean break away, and in this instance end Matt Murrays night. The full sequence can be seen in the video below.
It’s a truly boom or bust scenario, but one that plays somewhat into the strengths of the teams penalty kill, namely the God-King Gibson’s incredible flow and ability to stop pucks, and Cogliano’s incredible speed and tenacity. Playing to these strengths, the Ducks should be able to get by without 2 of their top 4 (by TOI) penalty killers of this season in Cam Fowler and the traded Chris Wagner.
It’s also how they may be able to afford to continue to persevere with Ryan Kesler, who is perhaps one of the least suited forwards to play this system (although 9th overall for TOI this season). On a near perennial basis, Kesler sits as one of the lower ranked players in terms of generating corsi attempts and shots on nets while on the penalty kill. This year (when removing players with less than 50 minutes of penalty killing) Kesler sits in 345th position for Corsi-For attempts, and at 354th for CF% overall.
All of this is to say that the Ducks want the opposition to shoot. A shot saved in essence is a turnover, and if the Ducks couldn't stop the shooter from shooting, Gibson was sure as hell going to stop it. However, turning the tables on the Sharks power play and scoring will be a tall order, as the Sharks allowed the least short handed goals of any team in the playoffs this season (3), despite giving up the second most corsi attempts (123) with the man advantage. With Cogliano hovering on the knife edge of being the Ducks leading short handed goal-scorer, will a 7 games series be enough?
Comparative to the Ducks high scoring penalty kill, the Sharks had to take a different tact (as do most teams in the league). Despite having what can only be described as average goaltending across the board, they gave Martin Jones a chance on the penalty kill by reducing the number of shots he had to face. Keeping the shot numbers down to 4th least in the league allowed Jones to shine, and he presented the 6th best save percentage of all goaltenders on the penalty kill.
Subsequently, a high save percentage on minimal shots crowned the Sharks as kings of the penalty killing world: 2nd best penalty kill percentage, and the least number of goals against scored; better than the 2nd placed LA Kings, and 12 less than the Ducks sitting in 12th place (46 goals against, and 4 better than the mean and median). That said, over the past month they sit approximately middle of the pack for shots against per 60, and for unblocked shots per 60, which may give further value to Jones in net, and show a symbiotic relationship more so than a net-minder relying on a stronger defence.
Like the Ducks highly rated PK, the Sharks are active on the puck, with a high rate of takeaways (Ducks 25, Sharks 23 - from top 4 TOI on each team). In addition to shutting down the opposition and limiting attempts on net, the Sharks are active shot blockers. Both Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun finished the season with 26 blocks apiece. Their top 4 penalty killers managed to get in front of near 20 more shots than their Ducks counter parts. However, their vaunted success doesn't seem to completely measure up to the Ducks in this instance. Excluding Jakob Silfverberg, who is the lesser performer of the eight skaters charted above, the Ducks compare favourably with their San Jose counterparts.
With Gibson in net, favourable defensive matchups, and a far superior offensive outlook towards the PK, it appears that the Ducks have the edge in this facet of play. Given the likelihood that the Ducks will see the Sharks power play, this bodes somewhat well for them.
If it ever felt like the Ducks couldn't draw a call this season, your gut feeling was probably correct. That's not to say that this is an attempt to call out the referees or the league bosses, but only the Oilers drew less calls than Anaheim did this season. I don't want to complain about percentages, but practice makes perfect, and just maybe if they had a couple more chances fans would have seen the 17.8%, 23rd in the league ranked power play climb just that little bit higher. Alas, they did not, and they wallowed near the bottom of the league for actual goals scored, with 38 power play tallies. Equal with St Louis, and only Edmonton below them.
Contrary to the Ducks, San Jose managed an extra 42 chances on with the man advantage, to sit in 11th place for the most man advantage opportunities. With this extra power play time, they managed to score 15 more times than the Ducks, and 3 more than the league average. Despite this scoring advantage, the two teams are relatively evenly matched. 24th and 26th in CF%, 17th and 12th in SCF%, and 9th (Go Ducks!) and 22nd in HDCF%.
As one would suspect from having the higher-rated power play, the Sharks edge the Ducks in shot metrics across all facets. This is pronounced to an extent by the Ducks missing Cam Fowler. However, Adam Henrique takes his place in the top 5 minute earners. The greater dip is from the Sharks replacing Joe Thornton with something called Kevin Lebanc.
The advantage is further seen here, and the loss of Thornton more dramatic. Once more the Sharks take the advantage on all positive shot metrics from the Ducks. That said, the rate of shots from the Sharks power play has slightly fallen over the past month (still 6th best in the league), and the number of unblocked shots they got through dipped quite dramatically from the months previous. The Sharks also kept their number of scoring chances (by rate) high (top 5 in league). Given the trend over the past month, and the corresponding system in place on the Ducks penalty kill, it’s likely that we see the scoring chances trend continue, yet the unblocked shots dip reverse.
With the Sharks both scoring more on the power play and give up less shorthanded goals, than the Ducks, it’s an easy advantage to the Sharks in this case. The Ducks will want to stay out of the box, and the Sharks will want to goad the more hot-headed Ducks players into being themselves.
Heading into this season Ducks had previously had stalwart defenceman Sami Vatanen co-running their power play. In fact, when Vatanen was part of the power play, whether he officially scored or not, the power play itself ran 30% more efficiently. This season Sami was traded for Adam Henrique. In the time since he arrived Henrique has played the 6th most power play minutes for the Ducks behind Rakell, Perry, Fowler, Montour and Getzlaf, with Montour taking Sami’s minutes and role directly. How then has the trade impacted on the power play performance?
Prior to the trade, the Ducks averaged a full minute more on the man advantage (5:06 pre-trade to 4:06 post-trade), yet when accounting for minutes, it appears that the Ducks power player directed less attempts at the net, and as a result scored less power play goals. This fits with previous data with and without Vatanen in the line up, and maybe potentially be a result of Montour being new to the role.
As the chart above shows, Montour is the lesser performer of the Ducks, and indeed between both groups at this time. The hope is that he will grow into the role, particularly when Fowler isn't in the line up or when they’re looking for a different approach. However at present this isn't working up to expectations.
Scoring chances dipped dramatically along with corsi-attempts, however HDCF appeared to remain stable, actually getting a slight lift. It isn't clear why this is the case. However it is worth mentioning that HDCA decreased in addition to this. It may be that the Ducks attempted to play a safer style of play with the man advantage. A system that obviously worked to an extent, given the Ducks 2nd best record for preventing short-handed markers (4 in total). It should be mentioned that goals allowed did dip an insignificant amount post trade however (0.47 - 0.77 per/60).
Both teams are relatively even, as one would expect from the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams within a division. The Ducks have the advantage on the penalty kill (as long as Gibson is playing the game on rookie mode), and the Sharks have a superior power play. That said, the Ducks are a heavily penalised team compared to every one in the league, including the Sharks. Subsequently this means the Ducks penalty kill will be worked throughout the series, and which unfortunately means that the Sharks hold the advantage. It might be cheating to suggest that the team always with the man advantage is the team that holds the advantage, but here we are. If the Ducks can stay out of the box, then advantage Ducks.... but I can’t lie to you, my loyal AC reader. That just ain’t gonna happen with Kevin Bieksa and Nick Ritchie roaming the dance floor.
Postscript: All statistics drawn from nhl.com, and naturalstattrick.com. Video and screen shots were taken from nhl.com.