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Possession Didn’t Deliver in Round 1

The first round of the playoffs were very exciting, with several clear upsets taking place. However, when you look strictly at possession, you get a different point of view of how the first round went.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins
The best possession team in the playoffs got knocked out in round 1.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The first round of the 2017 NHL playoffs came and went, and what a round it was with all of the overtime spectacles. There were also quite a few surprises, with Chicago and Minnesota both getting knocked out early, and everyone was impressed with how Toronto put on a show against the heavily favored Capitals. Of course Montreal couldn’t hold their end of the bargain, but what can you do?

Perhaps of some interest as well, for everyone who follows possession during the regular season and touts its importance, you may want to know that whoever was favored in the possession battle did not always win. In fact, the teams in the first round who had the possession advantage lost more than they won, and it really was not even close. Here is a tale of the tape for the first round opponents based solely on their possession numbers from the regular season:

Boston, 2nd in NHL, 54.7% Corsi - vs. - Ottawa, 22nd in NHL, 48.5% Corsi

Montreal, 3rd in NHL, 52.5% Corsi - vs. - New York, 25th in NHL, 47.9% Corsi

Washington, 4th in NHL, 51.8% Corsi - vs. - Toronto, 13th in NHL, 50.4% Corsi

Nashville, 6th in NHL, 51.4% Corsi - vs. - Chicago, 12th in NHL, 50.4% Corsi

San Jose, 8th in NHL, 51.1% Corsi - vs. - Edmonton, 18th in NHL, 49.9% Corsi

Calgary, 10th in NHL, 50.6% Corsi - vs. - Anaheim, 19th in NHL, 49.7% Corsi

Columbus, 14th in NHL, 50.3% Corsi - vs. - Pittsburgh, 16th in NHL, 50.1% Corsi

St. Louis, 15th in NHL, 50.2% Corsi - vs. - Minnesota, 20th in NHL, 49.4% Corsi

On the left side, your favorites in the possession battle, and on the right side, your underdogs. The underdogs won five of those matchups, and won the biggest upsets. New York was the biggest dog in the possession battle, the Rangers being a poor possession team while Montreal was one of the best. Ottawa was not far off, however, as they were also a heavy underdog in the possession battle to stalwart Boston. Both of those underdogs won. Edmonton, also a clear underdog in possession as compared to San Jose, pulled off the possession upset. This was the same as Anaheim, who made quick work of Calgary despite being the clear dog in the possession battle.

There were a couple champions for the possession teams in this round, however. Nashville, who almost no one gave a chance against Chicago, crushed the Blackhawks. The possession numbers agree with this, Nashville being a percentage point higher in Corsi in the regular season. Same with St. Louis. Most people predicted Minnesota to win that series, but the possession leaders in the regular season were the victors.

Overall, however, the teams with the better possession numbers in the regular season were the clear losers of round 1. Of course, the analytics champions will shout that the playoffs are only played in small sample sizes, and that in a seven game series, anything can really happen. In order for the analytics of possession to really show their worth, there needs to be a large sample size, something like, I don’t know, 82 games. And there is certainly merit to that, I definitely agree there. But seven games is certainly more than 1 game like in football, and the pundits do like to point that out. In a long series, the better team tends to win more often than not. Just look at the Washington series as proof. The upstart Maple Leafs took the 2-1 lead, then Washington put its foot down and said no thank you, we’re not having any more of this. Toronto still played excellent for the most part, but they could not find that winning stroke again.

Perhaps the one series where the anti-analytics people would look to really make their point is the Anaheim series. Calgary was a positive possession team in the regular season, whereas Anaheim was not. If Calgary could control the puck in the series, they could take down the more experienced Ducks. But that did not happen, at all. Calgary got crushed, and after four games only had 18 more shot attempts than Anaheim did. The more experienced team won, regardless of possession.

In the end, with the smaller sample size there is much more volatility, so of course analytics like possession will be much less of a predicting factor. It just was interesting to look at round 1 from this perspective to see how the teams did. Don’t take this piece to mean that all of a sudden Corsi is no longer relevant. But, I would tell you to not base any playoff bracket predictions entirely on possession. That would most likely be a waste of money.

And since we are on the topic, here is the possession tale of the tape for round two. If you feel like it, score it at home and see what happens!

Washington, 4th in NHL, 51.8% Corsi - vs. - Pittsburgh, 16th in NHL, 50.1% Corsi

Nashville, 6th in NHL, 51.4% Corsi - vs. - St. Louis, 15th in NHL, 50.2% Corsi

Edmonton, 18th in NHL, 49.9% Corsi - vs. - Anaheim, 19th in NHL, 49.7% Corsi

Ottawa, 22nd in NHL, 48.5% Corsi - vs. - New York, 25th in NHL, 47.9% Corsi

Let’s go Senators!