They say that the two-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey. And as hackneyed an expression as that is, it makes sense. A team leading by two is more likely to sit back and protect its goal rather than push forward to generate scoring chances. Killing clock is seen as more important than scoring another goal, especially late in a game. Plus, it’s human nature to relax a little in that situation, whether the players will admit it or not.
This is one example of ‘score effects.’ (The flip side would be a team selling out to score a goal when they’re trailing late in a game.)
13 times this season, the New York Islanders relinquished a two-goal lead in a loss; seven of those losses came after the Isles held a two-goal lead at the second intermission. Those numbers aren’t pretty, and the visual representations of how those losses happened aren’t much better.
The Islanders were a case study in blown two-goal leads this season, and that’s putting it lightly. “But wait!” some people might say. “The division-rival Washington Capitals blew 13 two-goal leads this year too!” Well, this site isn’t called CapitalsInsight.com so who cares about them. (Yes offense.)
The whole now-that-we’re-ahead-by-two-let’s-just-dump-and-change philosophy didn’t work for the Islanders because their identity was predicated on forechecking. We all saw it: the Isles were at their best when they were playing tightly contested games that necessitated getting pucks deep and sustaining the forecheck. Conversely, when they had a two-goal lead, they resorted to chipping the puck out and going off for line changes, which allowed the other team to regroup without having to face Casey Cizikas or Colin McDonald grinding out plays along the boards below the faceoff dots.
More bluntly put: the Isles didn’t have the defensive capability to park the bus and withstand a prolonged stay in the D-zone when the game was on the line. Other teams knew that, and pressured the Islanders accordingly this year.
Let’s take a look at the fenwick charts from three games in which the Islanders were up by two goals going into the third period. (As always, shout-out to Darryl for his work at www.ExtraSkater.com; all charts are courtesy of his site.) Losses to the Los Angeles Kings (Nov. 14), Anaheim Ducks (Dec. 21), and Calgary Flames (Mar. 7) all highlight the Isles’ defensive inefficiency when leading by two late in a game:
Notice a trend? In each game, the Islanders were markedly out-attempted in the third period. Which, not coincidentally, was when the just-hang-on-until-the-clock-hits-zero mindset kicked in. (Again, score effects.) And while losses to the Kings and Ducks can almost be excused because they were losses to the Kings and Ducks, the fact remains: the Isles were well positioned to win all three of those games, but went into the type of defensive shell that doomed them in 10 other games this season.
Each graph shows a clear plateau in Islanders shot attempts at some point during the third period—it’s the most pronounced in the game against the Kings—during which the opposing team’s shot attempts skyrocketed. And with that increase in attempts came an increase in goals scored by the Kings, Ducks, and Flames.
The corresponding decrease in Islanders win probability (not pictured) was the side effect.
Whether you have an affinity for advanced stats or not, it’s impossible to deny the relationship between generating shot attempts and scoring goals that’s so clearly reflected in the graphs for those games. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that more shots attempts are generally a good thing.
So how can the Islanders fix this?
It won’t be by playing every minute of every game like they’re down a goal. (Mostly because that’s physically impossible.) What they do need to do is put more of an emphasis of possessing the puck late in games, especially when they’re leading. Rather than chip the puck out and exit the zone with a sigh of relief, they should try to retain possession on zone exits and neutral-zone carries.
By maintaining control of the puck, they’ll be able to (theoretically) generate shot attempts and kill clock. Which, if you’re leading by two goals, are the main things you want to accomplish as a team without a lock-down defensive presence. Yes, the Islanders are grooming the next crop of blueliners, but they’re still young; in the meantime, a focus on controlling the puck will be the key to preserving two-goal leads.
And if the Isles don’t believe in EV fenwick charts, there’s still 13 games’ worth of tape from the 2013-14 NHL season that will show them the same thing.
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