By Tyler Kerdman

The 2016 NHL Playoffs have brought new life to the cliché, “It’s not over until it’s over”. More so than in past years, it feels as if no game can be written off before the final horn sounds, irrespective of the current score. Chicago vs. St. Louis, Dallas vs. Minnesota, Pittsburgh vs. Tampa, Washington vs. Pittsburgh, LA vs. San Jose, New York Islanders vs. Florida, and St. Louis vs. Dallas are just a handful of series in which a team with a 2, 3, or 4 goal advantage saw that lead diminish, culminating in a frantic and exasperating final minute that even made neutral fans nervous. Just 3 years following the notorious 4-1 collapse in Boston by the Maple Leafs, it feels as if losing a large lead is now commonplace in the playoffs.

With the third round of the playoffs nearing completion, St. Louis has been the team that I’ve followed very intently. There have been moments over the last two months where the team has been incredibly dominant and looking like the next Stanley Cup champion. However, a noticeable blemish on the Blues’ record is that their play with the lead is absolutely horrific. When St. Louis takes a lead past the first period, they appear to enter a defensive shell and park the bus in a way that only Jose Mourinho could appreciate.

I wanted to dive deeper into what I thought I was seeing. Ultimately, whether it be due to strong opponents or an executed coaching strategy, St. Louis is disastrous while playing with the lead. Looking at their possession metrics, goal rates (for and against), and other factors relative to score state and the remaining playoff teams, the Blues’ issues while protecting the lead are substantial. If exploited, it has the potential to result in outcomes that may prevent the team from winning their first Stanley Cup. However, this issue may not be serious enough to endanger St. Louis’ title chances. There are certain aspects of the Blues’ game in the playoffs have compensated for this deficiency and their hope lies in sustaining these proficiencies until the playoffs culminate.

 All Statistics courtesy of Corsica.hockey

 St. Louis – Possession and Goal Scoring at Different Score states

Score State TOI 5v5 CF% 5v5 GF60 5v5 GA60 XGF%
Even 368.33 49.12 1.79 1.95 51.48
Leading 292.73 36.56 2.46 2.87 35.53
Trailing 236.97 57.60 2.28 2.01 56.69

First, it’s important to recognize that St. Louis, when possessing a lead, is a much different team than when the score is tied or they are losing. In the 292 minutes where St. Louis has had the lead, their even-strength Corsi For % is 36.56 – So for every 100 shot attempts with the lead, St. Louis is only responsible for about 37 of them, a 26 shot attempt deficit in that sample. Since 2010, only 3 playoff teams have made it past the first round with a lower CF% while leading and none of them advanced past the conference semi-final.

This has directly affected their goal rates. Despite scoring 2.46 goals per 60 minutes when leading, they are shooting an unsustainable 11.43% at this score state (relative to their 6.3% shooting rate at even strength). Their expected Goals For % (courtesy of Manny at Corsica.Hockey) of 35.53% show that their goal differential should be even worse when leading than it currently is.

The discrepancy in their play is best articulated through the team’s abysmal goals against rate when leading. Per 60 minutes of ice time, the team allows 2.87 goals. In comparison to their ability to suppress goals while trailing or at even score, it is very alarming. It also cannot be attributed to poor goaltending, as their save percentage while trailing is .922. At even strength, the Blues have allowed just 1.95 Goals per 60. At these rates converted to raw counts, in 20 minutes at both states (1 period) the Blues allow about 0.65 goals at even strength and 0.96 goals with the lead. Based on these counts, the Blues are almost guaranteed to give up a goal if they possess the lead for an entire period which is very worrisome.

Relative to Other Teams Leading – Goal and Possession production

Team Leading TOI 5v5 CF% 5v5 GA60 XGF% Sh% OZS % DZS%
STL 292.73 36.56 2.87 35.53 11.43 21.57 40.20
SJS 334.49 40.80 1.79 45.12 9.48 26.79 36.61
PIT 244.14 44.12 2.46 47.49 7.75 27.12 38.31
TBL 214.43 48.13 2.24 52.34 6.48 33.18 33.18

Teams inherently struggle at protecting leads and intuitively this makes sense. When a team has a lead, there is an incentive to sit back and protect rather than take risks and expose the chance of an odd-man rush or becoming tired. This is coupled with a sense of desperation from the opponent to even the score or regain momentum, which means that the opponent will be less averse to taking risk.

With that in mind, most teams see their possession metrics and ability to prevent goals fall when they have the lead. No team remaining in the playoffs has a CF% above 50% in the postseason while winning, and only Tamps has an expected GF% greater than 50% (and in actuality they have allowed more goals against than they have scored). It is expected that the team performs worse with a lead and reality reflects this thought.

However, St. Louis, in comparison to their counterparts in the 3rd round evidently struggle when the lead is in their favour. Their CF% is the only one below 40%, they allow 0.41 more goals per 60 minutes than the closest competition, and are expected to score only 35% of all goals in this situation.

The struggle to create offense is also exhibited in the team’s inability to gain the offensive zone. Of the 4 teams remaining, the Blues start the most shifts in the defensive zone at 40.2% while trailing and only 21.5% in the offensive zone. St. Louis simply doesn’t enter the offensive zone when they are winning and rely on defensive coverage in their own zone to close out games.

 The last two tables have all have different measures that lead to the same conclusion – St. Louis is awful at protecting the lead. This does not make them a bad team. They are incredibly proficient while trailing and a very consistent team when tied. Whether it be the decisions of coach Ken Hitchcock or the team mentality, the Blues systematically fail to maintain their level of play when they have more goals than their opposition. If it is a strategy, it doesn’t work and it is unrealistic to believe they could win over a large sample. 

Why It May Not Matter 

The big question mark is the ‘large sample’. The Blues, at the very most, will play 10 more games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and could win the cup in as few as 6. If this was game 15 of the regular season and their win totals were strong despite their inability to protect a lead, it would be troubling. Teams would adjust and take advantage of this deficiency and the Blues would be in trouble. With only a handful of games remaining, the aspects of their game that St. Louis does right could mask this flaw and ensure that it isn’t fatal.

First, the Blues are not as much of a tire-fire when the score is tied as they are with the lead, but rather they are quite proficient. They also are quite strong when trailing and show that they have the offensive firepower and defensive stability to get back into a game. If their possession and goal suppression in all situations was as poor as it is when up in the game, it could be deemed that there is a systematic issue in coaching or the roster. Evidently, that is not the case. The roster is very strong and in most situations they are able to keep goals against low and the puck out of their zone.

 Second, the Blues have seen lots of success on special teams. Possessing a strong Powerplay and Penalty Kill is like adding hot sauce to a bland meal. For a handful of meals, using hot sauce to spice up the meal can mask the dish’s lack of flavour. If that is sustained for weeks on end, ultimately every meal will taste the same and grow tired and the underlying issue is never addressed. These playoffs, St. Louis’ special teams have been a ‘flavour’ of the team. They rank 1st in PP efficiency among teams that made the 2nd round, and sit 5th in PK (and are 2nd in terms of expected goals against). If the special teams of the Blues were painting a false picture of the team in all situations and in the regular season there would be reason to be concerned. However, for a few more games the Blues’ play with a man advantage at both ends could be sustained and very important.

Third, St. Louis’ goaltending has been incredibly strong. The team has a save percentage at even strength that is 93.5%. During the regular season, no team maintained a save percentage at evens that high (Rangers were closest at 93.44%). Yet again, the goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen are not being asked to keep their save percentage consistent for another 60 games. Goaltenders have historically gotten ‘hot’ in the playoffs and it is very possible the goalies could perform at a high standard for less than 10 games.

The St. Louis Blues have a lot of layers to their game that are coveted by any team in the league. Beyond the talent of their individual players (Tarasenko, Fabbri, Parayko, Schwartz, Shattenkirk), the team can control games and are consistent on both sides of the puck. In the playoffs, the team has shown that they can rely on their special teams, goaltending, and ability to regain the lead if they lose it.

St. Louis’ Achilles heel in the playoffs has been their detrimental play when they are winning. There have been too many games that the Blues have played where they sit on the lead, resulting in a tense end to the game. So far, the majority of these situations have turned out well for the team. Strong goaltending, capitalizing on chances, and a reliance on special teams has won them games even when the team enters a defensive shell.

As more games are played, this style of play will result in lost leads and lost games. However, with the playoffs coming to an end, the St. Louis Blues could hang on to victories with reliable goaltending and opportunistic capitalization on chances. Time will only tell if the bus will stay successfully parked or if the bus will blow up and this weakness is exposed.

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