Thursday, May 01, 2014

Revving Up Round 2: Boston vs. Montreal (Playoff Experience)

When it comes to a series of underdog vs. Cup favourite, a lot of words are trotted about experience in these situations. The wisdom is that Boston has more and can use it to their advantage. Let's see this in raw form.


In raw form, Boston do have quite a formidable advantage, though not perhaps as big as one might expect given the recent playoff fortunes of both teams. They have the most experienced player by far in Zdeno Chara, then boast 5 other players with more than 80 games experience, and an impressive 12 with 50 or more games. Contrast with the Canadiens who have Briere, Gionta and then a total of 6 players with more than 50 games.

The Bruins may surely have an edge, but I can't help thinking that their experience added up in this way gives a rather false impression of things. 12 players (those greyed in and Rask) accumulate 500 games for their team from two Cup runs. Now, I wouldn't dismiss the experience -- more the wisdom in just doing plain addition. After all, does having 12 players learn that Toronto can always be taken from any score really make it 12 times the lesson?

And what are the lessons the team learned from those 8 series? In the first they beat a Markov-less and Pacioretty-less Habs by the very skin of their teeth. They then could sum up their learnings by the simple: sign Tim Thomas. I'm sure they learned a few things about dump ins and biting along the way too, but their finest performer was having the best form of any goaltender ever. Last year, they made a mess in the first round, only to be redeemed by sheer luck and Toronto jitters, which would be followed by series against John Tortorella at his star-benching best. The shutdown they did against Pittsburgh was most impressive and will serve some lessons, no doubt, but there's only so much a team can take from a series where no goals came against. Against Chicago, they got to learn what it was like to be in Toronto's shoes. But they all learned that against Philadelphia a few years earlier anyway.

The Habs by contrast somehow amass more than 800 games from all over the map. And no, they are not heavily endowed by Cup winners, but they do have Gionta and a Cup-winning goal man of their own (Moen). Besides that, they can look to long runs made by the Sharks (Murray), Rangers (Prust), Sabres (Vanek, Briere), Flyers (Briere), and of course the Habs of 2010.

If the Bruins experience is overrated (and it is), then the Habs is underrated. I don't publish the numbers here, but the Habs also have a good number of winners in other arenas -- because believe it or not winning experiences can come from elsewhere as well.

Important in this dissection too is to consider where the experience is deployed. The Habs for their part have a good heft of games on the back end (if Murray starts) and the defensive members of the team. Boston's biggest inexperience comes at the back. So it will in fact be relative experience vs. relative experience and relative inexperience vs. relative inexperience anyway. Better than a different configuration.

Like all the edges Boston hold on paper, the practice of the NHL shows that numeric gaps can be deceiving.

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