Tyler Dellow recently made an excellent and brief explanation of why Corsi matters – success that defies possession metrics is very likely to be unsustainable over a large span of time. Corsi is predictive; although any given season will have outliers, a team that prospers despite bleeding shot attempts is expected to drop off as the bounces stop going their way. Over the long term, a team will be about as strong as their possession numbers indicate, and good teams have started realizing this.
I’ve written about why the Avalanche have been outperforming expectations, but there’s still plenty of evidence that the team is built on ridiculous goaltending and winning an unsustainable percentage of close games. Avalanche fans tend to cite shot quality as a counterpoint (and I’ll delve deeper into this in a future article) but a look at shot location indicates that this is more likely to be a weakness than anything else.
The reason I’m dredging these same ideas up again is because Justin Bourne recently posted a contentiously titled article – Why the Colorado Avalanche are going to get smoked by Chicago in playoffs. He makes mention of their poor Corsi numbers (particularly head-to-head against the Blackhawks), the underlying puck luck behind buoying their record, and of course the injury to Matt Duchene that will almost certainly sideline him until the end of the series.
The Blackhawks, of course, are a possession juggernaut coming off a Stanley Cup Championship and not exactly pretenders to the throne. While their superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are currently injured, both are expected to return for the playoffs. Even if Colorado has a decisive advantage in the season series, they’ve been consistently outplayed and the conclusion that Chicago is a much stronger team doesn’t seem an unreasonable one to make.
Naturally, Avalanche fans has reacted poorly as they are wont to do. Some issue has been taken with the tone of what he’s written, which confuses me because people prognosticate hockey all the time without an asterisk asserting that nothing is a sure thing and no prediction is made with 100% certainty. This is generally left unspoken because it ought to be plainly obvious that these are not legitimate claims of clairvoyance, but our fandom’s zeitgeist seems to be a massive inferiority complex and woe betide anybody who triggers it.
So the Blackhawks are a better club than the Avalanche, unless you’re one of those people who only unplugs their fingers in their ears for long enough to point to the standings. But for all that may be true, it hasn’t kept the Avalanche from knocking them down time and again – hell, the one the game they played sans Duchene was a 5-1 victory. The Avs are hardly contenders, but this team has the tools to make life difficult for Chicago – and here are my five best arguments why.
1. Semyon Varlamov
No surprise here – Varlamov, as Bourne has noted, has been 1st Star in 3 of 5 games between these teams and the trend will have to continue if the Avalanche are to prevail. Considering that Chicago has averaged 40 shots per game against them, he’ll likely need to post a .930+ save percentage to prevail and right now it doesn’t seem particularly unrealistic. His numbers may be unsustainable, but he’s managed for an entire season and momentum carries. Corey Crawford is hardly a world-beater, so if the Avalanche have an advantage anywhere, it’s in the goaltending matchup.
2. The Top Line
Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon are really good at hockey, guys. Stastny has been the single Avalanche player to post positive possession numbers despite seeing some of the toughest minutes on the team, and Landeskog isn’t far behind in that area. Both have well-earned reputations as two-way forwards and will be counted on in both scoring and shutdown roles. MacKinnon is the X-factor – with Duchene injured, he’ll be expected to step up and produce in his stead. The rookie has already shown flashes of elite hockey vision, but he has gamebreaking potential. If the added responsibilities help him emerge, suddenly this becomes a much more even series.
3. Going Head to Head
The style matchup should be an equalizer, as both teams play a back and forth game that generates high-probability transition chances, which mitigates the importance of possession to some degree. Still, Joel Quenneville’s system has dominated puck control between these two sides, so being afforded to single-mindedly focus on undermining your opponent’s tactics should be a boon to Roy, who should need to make more adjustments to counter Chicago’s personnel. Bonus points if they surrender home ice, which is theoretically still an advantage even if it hasn’t shown so well in recent years.
4. Patrick Roy’s Black Magic
I’m still skeptical of how much his system compensates for being outpossessed so often, but he’s certainly nailed the part of coaching where his team would charge through a brick wall for him. The season series may be deceptive, but it’ll certainly instill confidence that they can stick right with Chicago. The Avalanche have bought into the Cult of St. Patrick, and there are few better men when it comes to playoff hockey. Not that this is necessarily meaningful, but Roy’s career includes a Calder Cup in his first year in the AHL, the Stanley Cup his first years in both Montreal and Colorado, a the Memorial Cup his first year in Quebec. If anybody knows what it takes to win, it’s him.
5. Anything Can Happen
At the end of the day, this is really what we’re banking on. A best-of-7 series practically defines small sample size, and there isn’t any reason that the Avalanche’s performance should suddenly regress to their Corsi numbers as soon as the season ends. If Varlamov can catch fire, we’ve seen what the likes of Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Miikka Kiprusoff, Cam Ward, and Jon Quick have done before with unheralded teams. There’s a wide gap between the two teams, but there’s also plenty that can happen to close it.
Besides, four wins over Chicago in seven games? We’ve already managed that in five.