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Shooting Percentage rules in the NHL playoffs

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Produce! Or else.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the playoffs shooting percentage is king. Save percentage might be the crown prince, but after everyone gets the talk about toughness, big hits and momentum out of their systems, the only topic is shooting percentage.

No one actually calls it that, of course.

  • The Leafs need their power play to produce
  • Kadri needs to produce
  • Killorn is so clutch
  • Ryan Reaves is just money in the playoffs
  • You need your fourth line to step up
  • You need your defence to step up
  • You need your veterans to step up
  • That guy over there with the big contract, he needs to perform

Step up and produce. Perform like you’re money. Be clutch.

Some of those are real quotes from the last two days, and every single one is about shooting percentage.

It’s not exactly shocking that when the regular season ends, and the playoff spot is earned, thoughts turn to short-term results. Goals are what wins the game, after all. But just because you pretend harder that randomness (only some of which is luck) doesn’t play a big role, that doesn’t make it true.

I channel-hopped last night and watched parts of a bunch of games. I started playing “bust the narrative” after I was taken aback by the Jets broadcasters making the forceful statement that the only reason St. Louis was still in the game was Jordan Binnington.

At that point, the score was 1-0 for the Jets, and my very biased eyetest said the game was even and the Jets had got a game out of Connor Hellebuyck that they needed, and maybe weren’t counting on. So I looked at Moneypuck, and sure enough, the expected goals favoured the Blues by a bit, and was more than one for both teams.

But the Blues hadn’t scored (yet). They hadn’t produced. So obviously they were not in the game at all. Shots don’t count, zone time doesn’t count, shots on goal doesn’t even count; only production counts. And sure, only the goals do count.

Alex Killorn is so clutch in the playoffs. I made a sarky joke: once is interesting, twice is a coincidence, and three times is clutch. It’s a riff on a journalism saying about three is a trend. Three people see a giant rubber duck in the harbour, and every paper is writing a trend piece about duck hallucinations. Alex Killorn gets a shooting percentage spike in the playoffs more than once, and he’s clutch master flash.

Now never you mind that Killorn has been in the playoffs many times on a team that goes deep, so he’s had a lot of opportunities to play playoff games, but he shoots very little — at a typical bottom sixer rate. Don’t dig into that and realize that in what is still a very small sample of time on ice, with very few shots, the probability that his shooting results will be full of variance is very, very high. Oh, and does he play the power play? He does.

I’m the big wet blanket here, saying that Killorn is just a guy who has had some luck (and a couple of his playoff seasons are really not exceptional at all). Klutch Killorn is way more fun and much was made on the television coverage about that. It is fun, and I’ll understand anyone who wants to narrativize on the results because it is fun. But it’s not a genuine evaluation of the player.

The coverage of the Jets game was totally invalid. And the valiant Blue Jackets who heard the stirring words of their fiery coach and clawed their way back... that’s not really how that went. But I guess the Blue Jackets kept playing their game, worked hard on upping their offensive zone time, and got nearly two goals over expected while the Bolts got exactly what they “deserved” in a close game... that doesn’t stir the blood.

I get that the blood wants stirring, but I reject that you can’t discuss the actual game on the ice in meaningful ways that fairly evaluate the players and the teams and make that exciting. Stirring the blood with a tale of heart and character and angry coaches and recalcitrant players who finally played well once they were yelled at is not actually even about hockey.

I guess, for me, if I want heart and character arcs and dramatic plots that give you the expected payoff for moral and ethical reasons, I’ll watch Netflix. I watch sports in the first place to watch the real chaos of human experience, to see the struggle, the effort, the performance of human beings when tested. That is stirring, and it’s all in there in even a dull hockey game. The hand of the hockey gods doesn’t direct shooting percentage to show you who is the hero and who is the villain. You have to look for that yourself.

It’s quite possible, with a little effort, to find the great pageant of human experience in the process of playing hockey, trying, producing in a meaningful way, shift after shift, game after game. You have to watch for it, you have to see the game, not the plot line you’ve already decided upon, but you can find heroism (in the dilute sports sense) independent of the points lists.

You can do that, and still holler when your team misses on a golden chance to get a goal, and scream in delight when one goes in. You can do both at once.

I’ve been getting grumpily annoyed at the television broadcasts this season, and I’m sure that’s colouring my feelings of alienation — and I feel really precious even using that word — but it is disorienting at least. What game are they watching? Not the one on my planet.

Anyway, here’s your heroes from day one of the playoffs:

  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic
  • Nick Foligno
  • Josh Bailey
  • Nick Leddy
  • Mats Zuccarello
  • Seth Jones

One shot-on-goal each, one goal each, and these guys are just like money in the playoffs.

And the guys who had six shots-on-goal in their first games:

  • Evgeni Malkin
  • Tyler Bozak
  • Kyle Turris
  • Reilly Smith
  • Roope Hintz

The first two each scored a goal, but those other three, they need to produce. By the way, I didn’t see the Dallas-Nashville game, but I think something interesting went on there beyond Miro Heiskanen producing like he’s totally clutch.

A lot of interesting things went on. Josh Bailey spent most of his night for the Islanders watching the Penguins take shots at Robin Lehner. Evgeni Malkin was doing a lot of that shooting. Tyler Bozak was playing like the Corsi god we all know he isn’t, and his line dominated the Jets. Par Lindholm was fantastic on the Jets fourth line and on the PK, but he doesn’t have much of a shot, and he didn’t get lucky. He didn’t produce.

Brayden Point was almost as bad as half the Islanders who make up the bottom of the bad Corsi list. Dan Girardi had a game worthy of the bad old days on the Rangers. Sidney Crosby was really off while Malkin was really on.

There’s stories galore here. There’s blood to be stirred, there’s excitement, there’s thrills in the risk that that one shot a defenceman takes might go in, might decide the game. There’s frustration that Bozak needed five tries before he got the one that won it. It’s all there. It’s baked into hockey.

Hockey is an exciting game, and I wish the people putting it on TV didn’t think they needed to ad lib a soap opera over top of it to make viewers tune in.