Since last year's playoffs, I have been tracking how teams enter their respective offensive zones throughout every game. Using this information, we are able to learn which Flyers players are able to maintain possession while crossing the blue line, which players can do so most frequently, how often the Flyers win the neutral zone battle for possession, how effective each mode of entry is, and more.
While there are few, if any, others keeping track of such statistics currently, we know that the Soviet Union studied zone entries in the 1960s, along with many other advanced metrics. This should not surprise those who watched those teams play, nor should it surprise those who watch the game today. Teams are playing a more possession-heavy style, where they would rather circle back in the neutral zone or their own zone in an attempt to gain the blue line with possession.
No longer is dump-and-chase the preferred method of entering the zone, and for good reason: shots on goal and scoring chances increase when the team maintains possession over the blue line as opposed to when they dump it in. Now, part of this is the result of a bias in the data: a player is more likely to maintain possession when the defense offers the player space, which is more likely to result in a dangerous possession.
Regardless, all of this should be intuitive. Maintaining possession is a good thing; you can't score without the puck (Unless you are the Avalanche).
With all of that said, one of the complaints often heard during the Flyers/Devils second round series was that the Devils' trap was stifling the Flyers. The problem, however, is that the data does not back this up. It was the Flyers, not the Devils, who won the neutral zone battle, albeit not decisively.
All small sample size caveats apply, but remember we are only looking at what happened, not attempting to predict what will happen or declare this information indicative of a true talent.
Now, some of this is surely the result of score effects, as it has previously been shown that teams generate more entries when trailing, but this does enough to show that the Flyers were not struggling in neutral zone.
The Flyers were, however, struggling once they got the puck in the offensive zone. Broad Street Hockey will have a more in-depth look at that later.
Here, however, we are going to look at Claude Giroux and a handful of other Flyers who struggled mightily against the Devils.
|Shots From Entries
|Shots per Entry
Entries with Control
|Shots per Controlled Entry
In terms of shots resulting from an entry, we include any shots on goal from the moment of entry until the next zone entry or faceoff. In other words, divide the game up into slices from zone entry (or faceoff) to zone entry (or faceoff) and count all events that occur in between.
For a frame of reference, the Flyers generated 0.43 shots per entry through the first half of the year. Against the Devils, that number was 0.32 shots per entry.
Contrast the above players' regular season performances with their performance against the Devils and you'll see that those six all maintained control of the puck on 62 percent or more of their zone entries through the first half of the season. Against the Devils, however, only Voracek maintained control on even 45 percent of his entries.
As a result, the Flyers played a lot of dump and chase hockey against one of the best stick-handling goalies in the NHL. Often times, this resulted in the Flyers essentially giving the puck away. Credit surely goes to the Devils for forcing the Flyers to dump the puck in as often as they did, but when your best players give up possession of the puck 64 feet from the goal, the team will struggle to generate offense.
(It is also worth noting that the problem was not solely one of dumping the puck in, though that was a key contributor. The Flyers generated 0.35 shots per offensive zone faceoff, in line with their first half performance.)
The most glaring bit of information here, though, is that Giroux was responsible for putting the puck in the offensive zone just more than twice per game. That ranks 17th out of the 18 skaters who played at least four games against the Devils, ahead of only Kimmo Timonen.
Beyond Giroux, Scott Hartnell was able to enter the Devils' zone three times per game, but the Flyers could only generate a single shot on goal in five games. Brayden Schenn and Jakub Voracek did a pretty good job of gaining entry into the Devils' zone, but they could only generate one shot on goal for every four times they won the neutral zone battle.
When you lose as badly as the Flyers did, a lot of things went wrong.
One of those things that went wrong was their inability to maintain possession across the blue line. Continually giving up possession of the puck and allowing Martin Brodeur to start an easy outlet was something many observers noticed live, but here, we can quantify just how ineffective the Flyers were.
A big part of the Flyers problem was their offensive zone performance. Even though they could win the neutral zone, most likely with some help from score effects, they could not generate any offense after entering the offensive zone. They had almost the same percentage of controlled entries as the Devils did, but they performed significantly worse once they were in the attacking third of the ice.
Put simply, the Devils got a shot on goal every other time they entered the zone. The Flyers generated a shot once every three times.
The Flyers did not lose because of Peter Laviolette's aggressive, offense-first system. They lost because they did not have an aggressive, offense-first system show up.