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Thursday's Numbers: On what's really important about starting strong

You often hear announcers wax importance when they display each team's record when a team scores the first goal of the game.

Indeed, there is only a single team this season that has a better record when they give up the first goal as opposed to when they score first (hint: it rhymes with 'Lynnesota'). But the importance of scoring the first goal is not as important as it is in establishing momentum or playing with the lead.

When you score first repeatedly and often, it probably means that you're continuously dominating the opposition with the score 0-0. Indeed, against Columbus, the Canucks came horrible out of the gate, earning just 36.4% of all Fenwick events (shots and missed shots) before Jeff Carter opened the scoring.

VAN Shots VAN Missed CBJ Shots CBJ Missed
3 1 4 3

VAN Total CBJ Total VAN %
4 7 36.4%

See, I can show my work in these instances. Although the Canucks did dominate after the score was 1-1, Vancouver paid the price in Columbus on running into a hot goalie. They didn't do Roberto Luongo any favours early on, and are not usually a team that requires their goaltender to carry the load.

Quite often, a team will get early goals and carry the team to the win. That leaves only a few really good minutes at even strength 5-on-5 to judge the quality of the team. Remember, play at 5-on-5 with the score tied is absolutely crucial in determining a team's true talent. Not the shot clock at the end of the game (particularly when one team was trailing) and not the scoreboard. The best indicator of future success is still, the possession you create against your opposition with the score tied:

Why with the score tied?

Down 2 Down 1 Tied Up 1 Up 2
Vancouver 60.3% 58.9% 55.6% 51.7% 44.9%
League Avg. 56.5% 54.5% 49.9% 45.3% 43.1%

Teams that are behind actually control possession more than the teams that are ahead. This is dubbed "score effects" by the statistics crowd and has become a huge reason why I have become a fan of checking player's numbers with the score tied rather than their raw possession number. The raw possession number for a player or a team will be much more favourable to a player whose team is constantly playing from behind.

So, starts are important, not because a good start will result in the first goal. What's important about the start is that it's a stretch of the game with the score being 0-0 and five players on the ice at both sides, the ultimate score-tied, even strength situation.

Against the Canadiens I wasn't too worried, because the Canucks took 60% of the shots in the early going (3 for, 2 against) before the first goal. Montreal pulled away from there, but you knew that to do that, it involved a bit of luck, so the Canucks displayed the better chance to pull back in that game, even though the deficit was 3 and not 1.

(Well, after the fact, it makes it a lot easier for me to make that declaration)

A Canucks' good start is more likely tonight than it was against Columbus. The Carolina Hurricanes are the fourth worst team at controlling possession off the hop. It will be key for the Canucks to play "their" game since one of their two goaltenders (their goalies are "good" Cam Ward and "bad" Cam Ward) and "good" Cam Ward kept a good-looking Toronto Maple Leafs team at bay for two-and-a-half periods Tuesday night.

Columbus is actually an above-average team getting possession at even strength, and their mantra as the "worst" team in the league is somewhat overstated. It's the special teams and goaltending that kill them, but the goaltending was solid on Tuesday.

Not only that, but the Canes are also without Joni Pitkanen and Jeff Skinner, who are Carolina's best defenseman and best forward at controlling play with the score tied.

So the Canucks will likely get off to a strong start. From a narrative perspective, it's easy to say that the Canucks got off to a bad one against Montreal (not true) a good one against Ottawa (true) and a bad one against Columbus (also true) but commentators tend to focus too much on the results of the start rather than the start itself.

But I happen to favour process. If the Canucks get the first goal after being viciously outshot in the first period, and I'm the coach in the room, I'm yelling at them. If the Canucks don't get the first goal after dominating the frame, I don't let it bug me too much.