Behind the Numbers:H2H Matchups & Why coaching matters!

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 18: Head Coach Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks react to the officials call during a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center on April 18, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Finally, Game on! Still time to look at some more series numbers so far. Today, we'll look at top line match-ups. And, identify the keys for game 5. Check behind the numbers to find out!

Make no mistake. Coach Vigneault should be on the hotseat. If the Canucks lose tonight they will be the first PWT team to go down in just five games.He himself said this year was all about playoff performance. Despite having 20 games to prepare, his team was simply not mentally ready for the playoffs. His team has played long stretches of ragged, tentative, sloppy hockey. His team has substantially more playoff experience yet his team has been more nervous and looked like the inexperienced team. He has made questionable coaching decisions. He has the better team, he has strong and equal goaltending. He tried once again to up-sell the opponent at the start of the series declaring Los Angles as an elite team. (defensively yes, but 29th in goal scoring? and a .15 GD. Sorry not yet). But, this is AV's m.o. Perhaps it is an attempt to make fans feel better when the crash comes? He also wrongly criticized one of his team's best player Ryan Kesler (a Selke winner, and a horse in last year's playoffs) and instead inexplicably pumped the tires of M. Richard, exaggerating his play. Kelser has been a force, controlling possession,winning faceoffs, killing penalties, and going to the dirty areas (something few other Canucks are doing).I remind you LA is an elite defensive team nothing comes easy.Still the Canucks are behind not because L.A.has played better or because of a 'hot' goalie. So far, the numbers suggest that they have beat themselves.They have been undisciplined. They have been ill-prepared. All of these clearly coaching responsibilities.

"A coach gets too much credit when they win and to much blame when they lose." Harry Neale

For many years this has been an adage that many fan/media still believe in. That the players ultimately decide the game on the ice. However, with the salary cap and increased parity since the lockout the fact is that the importance of coaching decisions has increased substantially. We have also witnessed first hand the great impact a coach can have on team performance. Ken Hitchcock has taken a Blues team far beyond previous heights. And, D. Sutter has turned L.A. into a strong possession team with only a few roster changes. Coaching matters! Especially in the playoffs.

Before the series, I pointed out that the Kings were excellent defensively. This was in large part due to their strong collection of two-way forwards. But, offensively, the KIngs production dropped off significantly after their top 6. Therefore, I also used the underlying numbers to show that the Canucks had the best chance with line matches if they went best on best, .(i.e. Kesler and H. Sedin vs Richards vs Kopitar). And, since LA's top 6 were also strong defensively, I predicted that this would be an even exchange. Besides Ryan Kesler is a Selke winner. He shut down J. Towes last year in the Chicago series. It is a no-brainer to play him against A. Kopitar. As, Kopitar himself is a strong Selke candidate. I also stated that the numbers indicated that S. Pahlsson would have a tough time to play effectively against L.A. top 6,especially Kopitar, due to Pahlsson's weaker possession and faceoff numbers.

Let's take a look at what has happened thus far:

Kopitar (Chance F) (Chance A)
DIFF TOI
Pahlsson 1 9 -8 18 min.
Kesler 7 7 0 20 min
H.Sedin 4 4 0 16 min.

It isn't pretty. So far, the predictions have come true. But Canucks fans, it was/is preventable.

At the trade deadline, the Canucks decided they 'had enough skill', and put all their hope in the fact that their checking line could get the job done and hold their own against the other teams top players.Yes, we would expect that they would allow some chances against, but only 1 Chance For against Kopitar?! And, Pahlsson has been on the ice for a total of 4 Chances F in 4 games overall.(see bleow) This is unacceptable from a team's 3rd line. The Canucks checking line has actually shutdown their own scoring. The move has backfired. And, to make matters worse, an to add insult to injury, the Pahlsson checking line has been on the ice against top 6 L.A. forwards, for two of the deciding goals thus far (Game 1 and Game 3) As of now, and by the numbers, it appears that the Canucks coaching strategy has been a costly misjudgment. The plan needs to be abandoned! Still, the coach seems intent on continuing down this dangerous path.

Let's take a look at Canuck centers against M.. Richards:

Richards (Chance F) (Chance A)
DIFF TOI
Pahlsson 1 1 0 11.5 min.
Kesler 5 5 0 18 min
H.Sedin 5 3 + 20 min.

Again we see an even trade-off as predicted. We also see that the Richards line along with the D pair, are dictating the style of play, and are playing a lower/event shutdown game. (20 total chances to 34 for Kopitar line). This needs to change and the Canucks need to activate their defense(pinching) against this line in particular.

Overall:

Chance F Chance A Diff TOI
H.Sedin 14 13 +1 15.5
R.Kesler 15 13 +2 13.5
S.Pahlsson 4 13 -9 11
A. Kopitar 20 12 +8 14
M.Richards 10 10 0 13
J.Stoll 7 10 -3 10

Again, it's not hard to see the Canucks weakest link is S. Pahlsson. He is simply miscast as a top checking center. We can not overstate how much this change in team strategy has hurt the team. If Vancouver bows out it will be because they couldn't score enough. They have gone from an assertive proactive risk taking team thinking first about creating and scoring to a passive reactive team looking to make the safe play!

The Canucks desperately miss a creative third line center with some offensive instincts and possession skill to play with Higgins and Hansen who have above average offensive talent.Given their current roster, the philosophy if the Canucks should have been to not let the other teams best players (Brown/Kopitar) beat you. The Canucks have the players to shut down that line but have chosen for key stretches not to employ this match-up.

{Cody Hodgson has offensive skill but like most young players, his possession numbers are very low .I suggested trading for A. Vermette at the deadline who would have been a perfect fit. He could play against top players and add scoring. And, looking back, even former Canuck Kyle Wellwood was/is a such as player, low salary but high Pos. F (56%). I repeat, the best way to defend is to have the puck more! Of course coach Av didn't like Wellwood criticizing the shape he was in and ignoring his valuable puck skills. AV's vision is stuck in the pre -lockout era.Gm Gillis has gone along with it, and the team is paying for it now. Still, a Hodgson Hansen and Higgins line could pressure and even exploit Kings third line. Of course Hodgson would give the second PP unit a center?! A novel idea! And, Pahllson could play where he belongs on the fourth line. It's also important to note that the only year the Canucks have scored above average goals in the playoffs was with Wellwood on the third line. (Gf.3.29 in 2010)}

Now let's take a look at another Canuck decision:

Pos. F GF/20 GA/20 G/Diff Corsi Rel Of C
Higgins 54% 1 .70 59% .956 (tough Comp)
Lapierre 45% .66 .77 46% 0 (average Comp)

It's clear Higgins is a far superior player. In addition, Lapierre is less disciplined -he takes more penalties (.8/60 vs Higgns .5/60) Remember his two dumb penalties in game 3?! And, shockingly, Chris Higgins has played only 11 minutes (even strength) in the series (down 2.5 minutes from the regular season.) and has had equal time to Pahlsson?

Still,it appears, coach Vigneault has spun the roulette wheel again and is planning on playing Lapierre in the top 6 for game 5 (with Burrows and Kesler) instead of Higgins?. The numbers indicate this is a mistake. In the biggest game of the season, Av going with 2 lines that have rarely played together. Remember the Sedins and Burrows, only one of the top lines in hockey over the last 3 years! Remind me again which team is the two time PWT winner? And, which team has all the playoff experience?What exactly was AV doing during the 20+ freebie games we had?

Most importantly, the coach appears to be moving away from a more successful strategy. Can coaching line match-ups really make a difference? Let's take a look!:

Vancouver
Game 1&4 Game 2&3
Faceoff Dif. 40% (26/40) 60% (38/25)
Pos. F ~45% ~66%

{Faceoff/Diff - is # of offensive faceoffs : # of defensive faceoffs}

Which lineup would you choose? It's very clear that the Canucks, in 5 on 5 play, were a better, more dominant team in Games 2 & 3. And, that this line-up give them the best chance of winning 3 straight games.

Of course, Game 2 and 3 saw ,for the most part, the all- american line together Booth, Higgins, Kesler and Hansen, H. Sedin and Burrows. And now with Daniel back, we would expect these numbers to even increase.I know Booth and Kesler had little observed offensive chemistry down the stretch but along with Higgins they controlled the puck! And, could match LA's biggest threat, the Kopitar line, chance for chance!

And, the best way for the Canucks to control and win possession battle it is to play their best possession players in the top 6 .

Player Pos. F
Kesler 56%
D. Sedin 55%
Booth 55%
H. Sedin 54%
Higgins 54%
Burrows 53.5%
Hansen 50%
Pahlsson 48%
Lapierre 45%

We would win the possession battle. We have a better power play (by virtue of SF/60 - the best predictor) We also have equal or better goaltending.This would give us the best chance of a win. In 1,0 2-1 games every coaching move and mistake is critical!

To Summarize:

By the numbers: To give the Canucks the best chance of winning :

  • Canucks should put C. Higgins back in the top 6 (not Lapierre) and give him more ice time.
  • Canucks need to play best on best Kesler and Sedin vs Richard and Kopitar keep away from Pahlsson /Kopitar match-up
  • Canucks need to activate their defense (pinch in) against every L.A. line except Kopitar line
  • Kings are a great defensive team - they do a great job of limiting chances, I suggest double shifting the top two lines to catch a match-up against 4th line.
  • If they play discipline Canucks are due some penalty calls (LA has huge advantage in potential PP time 63%)
  • Canucks must continue to keep 4th line off the ice as much as possible, it simply is not strong enough vs L.A. 4th line.

Canuck fans it is possible. ~13% is something. One win. whatever it takes! No excuses.It's starts tonight.?!

It's your turn. Tell us what you think? Does the season end tonight? And, time for you to vote!

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