Wednesday, April 20, 2011

First Goal All Important?

Before the playoffs, I read an article that said the team that would score the first goal would go on to win the entire series nearly 80% of the time. Now that three games in this series have been won by the team that scored first, the clever clever media are jumping all over the "all-important" first goal.

As usual with these half-baked stories, the analysis ends at the immediate past. The crux of any conclusion being that last week the team in the Boston Montreal series that scored first won.

Terribly scientific. 3 games sampled, what more could one ask for?

The first elephant in the room is that both these teams just played a whole season's worth of hockey during which they demonstrated many tendencies and displayed many habits and trends. One might think a glance at what happened in the season might be in order. But wouldn't that be good reporting?

Let's do that, shall we?

Boston and Montreal are both quality with the lead

This season Boston posted an outstanding 30-6-6 record when they had the lead. Top-notch defense and good chippy offense all season, you'd expect that to happen. But how about Montreal: 32-6-6, even better. Converting 44 first goals into 70 points in the regular season.

Boston did not roll over an die in the regular season

To go with their impressive record when scoring first, the Bruins also had a quality comeback record. 16-19-5 for the season. This was top 5 in the league by raw comeback wins and also by percentages. Only Washington with 23 comeback wins from 47 first goal deficits was better.

Montreal on the whole was not as good at coming back. Their record for 2010-11 was 12-24-2. The team didn't completely give up when scored on first, but they didn't do quite as well as the elite teams in the league. That is, if you consider the entire season.

As we know things over the season change significantly. 6 months is a long time and besides streaks and slumps, there can be significant changes in personnel. For the Habs, one of the big changes came at the end of December with Wisniewski coming in to replace Markov who had missed all but 7 games to that point. Gorges was also out, so Subban was placed with Hal Gill.

Round about that time, frustration was also mounting with Habs fans that if the team didn't score first, they'd be down and out (often being shutout, actually). It wasn't good. LIW posted this article that illustrated the issue.

Long story short. the Habs got better, they learned to come back. In fact from December 31st on (a 44-game span) the team went behind a total of 23 times. but instead of losing the vast majority, the Habs pulled out 9 wins and 2 OTLs from those first goal deficits (20 points in the standings).

This was a turning point in this regard, as one can see that prior to the turn of the year, the Habs record was 3-12-1 when allowing the first goal.

In fairness, we must see if the Bruins also turned the same trick. interestingly, they did. In their last 44 games, the Bruins actually allowed the first goal 21 times and posted 22 points (10-9-2) from those games.

Well so what?
The finding here is that while both the Bruins and Canadiens were formidable shut-down teams, it turns out that both teams were also pretty excellent comeback teams, particularly in the new year (or only in the New Year in the Habs case). The finding is something that plays out before our eyes. When the Canadiens were winning in Game 1, the Bruins weren't down and out and for a good stretch looked like the better team, fully capable of closing the gap and wining. Ditto for the result on Monday night, when the Habs came within inches of tying and taking the momentum from their superior second half of the game into a comeback bid overtime.

All that to say, it's not as simple as who scores first. It's not enough to score first. The first goal is but one goal, and unless backed up by another goal or shutout goaltending (which usually takes some pretty exceptional saves) then it is but one goal.

Boston won the other day because they scored 3 goals, not because they scored first. Montreal won in Boston because first Carey price, then some good luck made their 2 and 3 goals stand up.

Scoring first is important, but let's not make it more than it is. After all, we already have faceoffs for that.

I'll go further. The goal that seals the first comeback victory in this series will be more important that any first goal to date.

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