1. Tonight, tonight
While one would normally hesitate to call any game in mid-February “a big one,” tonight’s game at Los Angeles is about as big as a mid-February game is likely to get.
The Flames are holding on somewhat comfortably to that playoff spot of theirs, and prior to last night’s games were tied for second in the division, which no one thought possible for Feb. 11 way back in September. They keep winning, but San Jose (albeit with two extra games played after Wednesday’s tilt with Washington) and Vancouver (still holding a game in hand following the Chicago matchup) are hovering close; that seems like it’s shaping up to be a three-horse race the rest of the way, and that’s if everything goes ideally for the Flames.
The only other threat in the Pacific is these Kings they play tonight, and they too hold a game in hand on Calgary but sit five points back. The narrative is that the Kings are underperforming and the Flames are a surprise, and this is one of the rare instances when the narrative is actually completely on-point.
This is a real stat on the Kings that I cannot believe is true: Since Dec. 6, they are 9-11-7. Nine wins from any 27 games seems impossible for any team with a roster of the Kings’ quality. Also since Dec. 6, Calgary is 13-13-1, and that run included literally the entire eight-game losing streak.
The Kings may have won their last two games, but Calgary’s taken down four of the last five, and nine of the last 12. Given the talent collected, you’d never guess this would be the case.
Hockey’s weird sometimes.
2. Stark reality
(Author’s note: If you think wins are the only arbiter of whether a team plays well and regularly say fancy stats “don’t tell the whole story” to refute them altogether, please stop reading here. Enjoy your day.)
But let’s consider something beyond the wins and losses over that period: LA has only won nine games out of 27, but do you know their goal differential at 5-on-5 during that time? It’s only minus-2. In the same timeframe, the Flames’ is minus-3. But LA is two games below .500 in regulation, and Calgary is four games below it.
Which should tell you a lot right there: The Flames have nine regulation wins from 22 games in that stretch, but they’re 13-3-1 overall because they keep winning in overtime, when it’s basically a coinflip. The Flames have had it come up heads four times out of five, while the Kings were aggrieved to see it land on tails seven times out of seven. So that’s one thing that colors opinions of both teams unfairly.
We also have to consider the Flames’ past meetings with the Kings this season if we want to look at this matchup rationally, and interestingly all three came in the 27-game window.
As you know, the Flames won them all. The Flames are therefore considered the favorites in tonight’s game, because they both “own” the Kings, and are higher in the standings. Stands to reason. But three games is of course a small sample size, and moreover all three were decided by razor-thin margins. Two were in overtime, the third was a 2-1 game.
Altogether, the teams played nearly 145 minutes at 5-on-5, and goals-for was even at 3-3 (which I guess you’d expect in three one-goal games). Possession, not so much: the Flames were outattempted 168-105, or for those who don’t want to do the division at home, 38.5 percent corsi for the Flames. Do you want to guess how likely it is that you get outshot that badly and end up not only with an even goal differential, but also three wins?
Oh and you don’t need me to tell you now that the Flames got super lucky in those games too: the Kings shot just 4.47 percent (3 of 67) on Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio, while Jonathan Quick did a very creditable job of holding down the fort in his own end with a .933 save percentage (42 of 45). Again, these are small sample sizes, but the 97.8 PDO for LA speaks to not getting any damn bounces to go their way.
This game should be of deep concern to Calgary. They’re playing a team that has flat-out dominated them.
3. Really, they aren’t good
As the Flames’ improbable run of success continues, data continues to emerge that this is a truly awful team getting by on amazing shooting luck.
They keep winning games, but as Travis Yost points out, they really don’t deserve to. Their corsi event differential is is minus-498, third-last in the league but well beyond Colorado (minus-600) and this historically bad Buffalo team (minus-1,214!!!!!!!!!). But in the Behind The Net era — 2007-08 to present — minus-498 with 28 damn games to go 21st in negative corsi differential, and they’re charging hard up that list. If they continue at the current pace, they’ll subtract another 258 from that number, bringing them down to minus-756. That would make them a worse possession team than everyone but these teams, plus the 2013 lockout-shortened Leafs, who went minus-518 in just 48 games:
Please understand this has nothing to do with trying to be a downer or not-liking the Flames. The Hockey Media did not randomly decide to Hate The Flames this season, just like it didn’t decide to Hate The Avalanche or Hate The Leafs the two years prior. This is maybe the 10th- or 11th-worst team of the past eight years, just going on this metric. Which, no, it’s Not Everything. But it sure is telling; that’s a lot of last-place teams on that list, and somehow Flames fans think their team is immune to the same problems those teams suffered? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.
This is just objective fact: The Flames get badly outshot just about every night, and we know from years of recording this data that this kind of thing generally leads to losing. We also know that every year, one or maybe two teams can defy those odds by scoring or saving more pucks than they should, and typically they get clobbered in the first round, rebuilding or not.
Not that any of you care. You’ve already decided that this season is an unqualified Success, and that maybe this club has figured out a way to elevate its shooting percentage through Hard Work artificially.
But a look at how Calgary shoots compared with what its opponents do shows that they give up roughly league average in terms of chances right around the net and around the faceoff dots, but take less than that themselves. Most of their shots come from the high slot and down from the middle-left point.
And so “shot quality” might not actually be the answer here, because have a look at the team’s shooting percentages relative to league average in those same areas:
This basically says they’re scoring more goals on fewer shots from the area around the crease. As well as right up the middle of the ice.
Now let’s compare those to last year, first with shot location, then with shooting percentage:
Unfortunately there’s no way to look at these heat maps based on date right now, so we can’t exactly go and examine actual data from when the Flames “started to take off” toward the end of last season (though I’d argue that not coincidentally it was around the time they had the bright idea to put Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie together). But given all this information we have on hand, I don’t see where got appreciably better at improving shot quality for or against; they’re more or less the same, but pucks are going in for them this year.
4. A slumbering titan
Meanwhile, the Kings are secretly one of the best teams in the league even if their record does not in any way reflect it.
The Kings are, in fact, the best possession team in the league, but have struggled with a low shooting percentage once again, and also suffered 12 overtime losses that probably cost them six points or so in the standings (they’re 2-12 beyond regulation). Add six points there alone and they’re ahead of the Flames, who have benefited heavily from three-point games this season (10-3).
This is weirdly almost always a team that doesn’t shoot particularly effectively, and the shot charts suggest that they get around the net a fair bit more effectively than the Flames have this year.
Another thing to consider: From Oct. 21 to Nov. 21, the Kings were laboring under the unfair penalty of having to carry Slava Voynov’s cap hit while not actually being able to play him (and he 100000000 percent should be banned from the league, so that’s not my argument). For that month, their cap was stretched thin and they regularly dressed just 17 skaters. Not surprisingly, they went 7-4-3 without him, which doesn’t sound bad at all, but you have to keep in mind they also started the year 6-1-1, so that’s a bit of a comedown, and it seems to have taken a bit of a toll.
People don’t like to hear the world “luck” thrown around in these regards because it sounds like mysticism to some extent, but what we really mean when we say “luck” is that teams are defying the odds; a team shouldn’t have the 14th-largest goal total in the league but the 28th-most shots (as the Flames do). Likewise, they shouldn’t have the eight-highest shot total but the 14th-most shots. It stands to reason that this isn’t sustainable if you actually think about it.
And that doesn’t even get into the quality of player involved. Let’s say Dean Lombardi calls Brad Treliving tomorrow and offers a straight-up roster swap: All 23 Kings for all 23 Flames. You of course take the Kings. Why? Because they are better at everything than the Flames. Except putting the puck in the net, this year only. And winning, this year only.
What I’m trying to do here is illustrate why there’s such a huge fallacy behind looking just at wins and losses or overall goal differential. This is about The Process that goes into winning hockey games, which the Kings have demonstrated for years on end works better than relying on smoke-and-mirrors shooting and save percentages, but which isn’t resulting in wins this particular season. Likewise, Calgary is Colorado and Toronto and Minnesota and Dallas of the last several years: They’re winning, but creating a kind of mythos about how it happens that obfuscates things for observers (media and partisan alike).
Put another way: Do you think it’s any coincidence that of the top-16 teams in the league in score-adjusted corsi prior to last night’s three games, the overlap here is so stark?
That’s four outliers out of the 16 “best” teams in the league. Montreal has the best goalie in the league on an insane hot streak to cancel out the team’s rotten possession. The Rangers, likewise, rode the best goalie of his era to huge success until his injury. Vancouver and Calgary are both tough to explain if you look at the quality of the rosters, except to say that the Canucks’ penalty kill has been amazing (fourth in the league? how?).
I literally do not understand a mindset where the takeaway is “The Flames are so good and unique you can’t use possession stats to evaluate them.” The same is true for determining the Kings are bad.
You play the games on the ice, obviously, and the Flames have done well in this regard. But it’s about controlling as many factors as you possibly can, and the best way to do that, proven time and again, is to be one of the 75-85 percent of teams in the top 16 in the league in terms of 5-on-5 possession stats every year. Those are the teams that make the playoffs, and a few lucky bastards who operate on the margins, or even well below them, end up sneaking in.
But for Flames fans, if you say “luck” is involved — good or bad, even if it clearly is — they excoriate you. Even if much smarter people than them have done the math and figure out luck accounts for 40 percent of results. The Flames get killed in the other 60 percent, so right now it’s only the 40 percent that counts.
5. Does any result matter?
But as I found a few weeks ago and have been shamelessly harping on since, it might turn out that none of this actually matters.
Anyone can win on any given night, the Sabres won 14 games this year, etc. etc. etc. I understand that. But as long as the Kings float a win or three back of the Flames, a team whose numbers scream that they’re going to go into freefall at any moment, there’s going to be that doubt. The doubt is simple: The Flames aren’t good, and the Kings — in theory at least — very much are. The longer they keep peeking in over the edge of the horizon, or hovering just beyond it, the more likely it is that they catch up. A win tonight could essentially put a knife in the whole “Kings are gonna catch up to Calgary” belief that is very rightly still swirling around the league.
The Wild, I guess, are a different story entirely. Boy, that playoff race is tightening.