In the last article on the 2008 Flyers-Habs series, we found out that the Habs had a sizable advantage in puck possession and shot generation throughout the series.
Looking back, the fact that the Habs had taken many more shots than the Flyers and that the shooting percentages were radically different was duly noted at the time, though perhaps not in these precise terms. It was acknowledged that the Habs had directed many more shots than the Flyers at the net; the key to the series, then, was the difference in finishing. One very commonly offered explanation for this difference in finishing was that the Flyers’ superior size and physical play had allowed them to take higher quality shots, either by having screens in front of the goalie, or simply by “going to the net” more and thus having more shots. The Habs, conversely, were accused of preferring longer-ranged, perimeter shots and avoiding the tough areas in front of the net.
There are many ways to test that claim. The shot charts, found on the NHL.com site, would be one, and I invite you to have a look at them. But what I propose here is something very simple: examine the distance at which shots were attempted by both teams. In the charts below I’ve generally included goals, shots, and misses, but not blocks (as blocks never had a chance to reach the goalie, and would not be counted as scoring chances by the Scoring Chance Project). This should give us a good idea of which team tended to take their shots closer to the goal. The charts specifically do not include shots taken when one of the goalies is off the ice. I also eliminated all shots from further away than 64 feet, on the grounds that anything from outside the blueline is more a dump-in that happens to hit the net than a real shot. They DO include special teams, however.
The following chart presents the average distance of these unblocked attempts for each team, as well as the average distance for their goals.
From this chart we see that the Canadiens actually took their shot attempts from closer than the Flyers… by about three inches on average. The exact numbers are 33.7 feet for the Habs and 34 feet for the Flyers. Needless to say, this is a negligible difference. The average distance of the goals is interesting for two things. First, very unsurprisingly, goals tend to be scored from in close. Second, the Habs’ goals were actually scored from signficantly closer than the Flyers — 14.7 feet versus 23.2, a difference of 8 feet and a half — the Flyers scored from more than 50% further! In fact, looking at the data, the Flyers scored no less than six goals from further away than 30 feet, including three that were scored from over 40 feet away. Meanwhile, the Habs scored three goals from 30 feet away or more, one of which was with a 6-on-4 advantadge, and none from 40 or more.
It seems, then, that both teams took their shots from roughly the same distances, but the Flyers were much more successful on longer shots than the Habs.
Of course, the average offers only a very limited view. In this situation, it suffers from the fact that long shots weight proportionally more than close shots. And we remember that the Habs took a great many more shots than the Flyers. Let’s break down the data in three ranges — 10 feet or less, 10 to 30 feet, and 30 to 64 feet — and examine the number of shot attempts taken by each team (again, excluding blocks and empty-net situations).
We see that for every range the Habs had more shots than the Flyers. This makes a lot of intuitive sense — they had more shots overall, so they had more close shots and more far shots and more shots of every kind. What’s more interesting is that they had proportionally more very close (10 feet or less) and medium range (10-30 feet) than they had long shots. Let me restate that for emphasis: the Habs were taking proportionally more shots from closer ranges than the Flyers. Combined with the fact that the Flyers had many fewer shots overall, this led to the Habs taking 58% more shots than the Flyers from within 10 feet, and 69% more between 10 and 30 feet — a huge difference, and a good idea given the trouble they had scoring from any distance. Comparatively, they only took 15% more shots than the Flyers from 30 to 64 feet.
So the Flyers’ “size and physicality” advantage didn’t result in them preventing the Habs from dominating puck possession, and it didn’t result in them preventing the Habs from taking close shots, either. Now of course, that study ignores angles; nevertheless, it’s a potent illustration that the Habs didn’t really have trouble getting close enough to shoot.
So why did the Habs not score more? The next chart will help to illustrate one of the reasons, and show the sort of thing that can happen on a small sample. It’s also pretty tongue-in-cheek, but…
Maybe puck luck was one of the factors?