Before the CBJ Stanley Cup playoffs puck drops: Round 1, Game 4

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS

GAME FOUR

(2) PITTSBURGH PENGUINS v. (7) COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

PITTSBURGH LEADS, 2 GAMES TO 1

I’m going to use the "Glass Bangers" approach tonight with a few topics in one preview. Now, with three games under our belts, we have a better sense of what is going on out there.

With Columbus’ loss on Monday, home ice advantage has been ceded back to Pittsburgh. On the bright side, the Blue Jackets have the potential of winning the series at home in Game Six if they can win the next couple of games.

Game Two was supposed to be the "hinge" game, but it instead proved to just negate the effect of Game Two. We’re now looking at Game Three as being pivotal, and there’s some truth to that. A Columbus win ties the series back up and gives the CBJ some momentum going back to Pittsburgh. A Pittsburgh win gives the Pens a commanding 3-1 series lead and the chance to wrap the series up at home in Game Five.

Must win? I’d be shaking the Magic 8 Ball on this one…but I wonder if "All Signs Point to YES."

ALL HAIL THE 5th LINE

We’re back at Nationwide Arena tonight, and let’s first give credit where credit is due: The fans were great for Game 3, the home opener for the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals series between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins. I did a little searching around for a representative sample of the crowd enthusiasm from Monday’s game, and this piece by "Buckrovsky!" seems to do a good job. Soak it in, Blue Jackets fan…

A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS

So the fans have done their job and more. Let’s talk about what’s happening on the ice. To do so, I need to tip-toe into the world of advanced hockey statistics. Don’t let those eyes glaze over, Blue Jackets Fan, as we really won’t go all that deep. In fact, I’m going to try to keep this discussion largely graphical. But first, let’s get our basic understanding of two key advanced statistics terms down (courtesy of Extra Skater)

Corsi is the number of shot attempts by a team or player. In other words, it’s the sum of a team or players’s goals, shots on net, shots that miss the net, and shots that are blocked. It’s used as a proxy for puck possession: since we can’t (yet) measure how long a player or team has possession of the puck, we use corsi as an approximation. We’re interested in puck possession because you can’t score if you don’t have the puck (and the team that has puck more often usually wins). For players, we usually measure "on-ice" corsi, or all of their team’s shot attempts while they’re on the ice.

Fenwick is the number of unblocked shot attempts by a team or player. It’s the same as corsi, but excludes shots that are blocked. It’s used because over many games it’s a slightly better proxy for possession than corsi. It’s not used exclusively instead of corsi mainly because over smaller sample sizes, the larger corsi number is more accurate in reflecting puck possession.

Note the importance of puck possession in the Corsi definition. You hold the puck, you have a greater likelihood of shooting and scoring. Simple, right?

Extra Skater is kind enough to offer Fenwick "shot charts" – nifty little time-lapse graphs showing the accumulation of shots on goal by each team – for every game that is played in the National Hockey League. (For their sake, I hope that this is automated…because it looks like a lot of work!) As a "slightly better proxy for possession than Corsi", these charts begin to tell us the story of the games that we’ve been watching.

GAME 1

If I recall, the Blue Jackets were recognized for playing two strong periods before the Penguins came alive. Truth be told, the Blue Jackets appeared from the Fenwick shot chart to have played the Pens tight in the first period. The CBJ then largely owned the second period and played Pittsburgh tough from a puck possession perspective for the first few minutes of the third. Problem was, there were still 15 or so minutes left in the game. The Pens went into overdrive, grabbed their goal and then proceeded to shut the game down.

GAME 2

Ah, the double overtime extravaganza. To have been in the stands in Pittsburgh on Saturday night! For while being a relatively tight game throughout, the Pens pretty much had the edge in possession throughout. Sure, the CBJ had a brief run here and there, but this was Pittsburgh’s game. However, the Penguins fell short. As tight as it was, possession-wise, are you surprised that the game went to (double) overtime? Congrats to the Blue Jackets for stealing a tight one in Pittsburgh’s barn.

GAME 3

Oh dear. This was the most lopsided possession game in the series thus far. The conventional wisdom is that we had a repeat of Game One – Blue Jackets play tough for two periods, but Pens flip on the afterburners in the third. The puck possession picture, however, screams otherwise…especially at the end of the first period and early in the second period. The first half of the third period, too, was another decided Pittsburgh advantage as the Blue Jackets did virtually nothing, shot wise, in that time period while the Pens teed off on Sergei Bobrovsky.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this chart, to me, is that Pittsburgh knew that they had this game won by about the ten minute mark of the third. Note how the Pens’ shots flatline; that indicates a team that’s not shooting – or, better stated, playing keep-away. Yet it was only a one goal game! Who sits on a one-goal lead with confidence that they will win? (Pittsburgh, apparently.)

But what about the refs, you say? To paraphrase the slogan, Empyy Skater has a graph for that. Here’s the even strength-only Fenwick chart:

Everyone who says that penalties played a huge role in this game are…partially correct. Comparing the raw Fenwick chart above to this even strength one, we see that the end of the first period flattens out considerably because the Blue Jackets were in penalty trouble during that period. That stretch in the first half of the third period, however, was largely played under even strength conditions. You can’t sugar-coat it; the Pens blew the doors off of Nationwide during that segment of the game. They got their fourth goal, and the penalty parade continued until the end.

Talk about a frustrating loss. The Blue Jackets fans were fantastic. They were as loud and into it as in any game that I’ve seen – and that’s saying something from my 2009 playoffs-biased eye. You literally cannot ask them to do more. The team? Yes, you could ask them to do more. Especially from about the 15 minute mark of the first period-onward.

The Blue Jackets must get the shot numbers up, or they’ll be resting on hope…and hope is not necessarily the best strategy for victory.

HITS VERSUS SHOTS

It’s clear that the Blue Jackets’ game plan involves being extremely physical with the more finesse Penguins. That’s a standard strategy when you have the size advantage but don’t necessarily match up in the skill department.

I’ve kept half an eye on the hits tally all season long, and what’s become clear to me is that hits work as a tactic when they rattle the other team out of their game. That means that the opponent loses possession, can’t take shots, etc. If the opponent can absorb your hits and still get the shots off to win the game…you’ve got issues. With that as a preface, let’s look at the hits and shot counts by game:

Game One (Pittsburgh won)

Columbus: 48 hits, 34 shots

Pittsburgh: 27 hits, 32 shots

Game Two (Columbus won – remember, this game had almost 22 minutes of extra hockey played)

Columbus: 51 hits, 45 shots

Pittsburgh: 28 hits, 42 shots

Game Three (Pittsburgh won)

Columbus: 65 hits, 20 shots

Pittsburgh: 32 hits, 41 shots

So what have we? If the Blue Jackets take more shots, they tend to do better. Perhaps there is something to that whole "Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t all that great" line of thinking. Keep putting the puck on the net, and good things are apparently bound to happen. After all, the Blue Jackets got three goals on 20 shots on Monday. Would they have won if they had even shot at Game One’s pace? There’s an argument to be made there.

Then, there’s the hitting discussion. The Blue Jackets were a veritable wrecking crew on Monday night, with 65 hits in regulation. (Recall, it took almost 82 minutes of game play for the CBJ to get to 51 hits in Game Two.) Yet the gap between the skyrocketing hit count and plummeting shot count makes me think that the young, strong Blue Jackets roster learned the wrong lessons from Game Two. Hitting is fine – it probably will help you toward winning – but hitting at the expense of puck control won’t win you much.

As an object lesson, take a look at Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin. Martin played over 28 minutes on Monday, a ready target for the CBJ hitting machine. And take the hits he did, a ridiculous 12 of them over the course of the game. Martin was Columbus’ speed bag, as they pounded on him time and again while he delivered nary a hit throughout the entire game. What did Martin do besides absorb body blows all night long? He found time to drop two assists on the Blue Jackets en route to the third star of the game while propelling his team to victory.

I’m no hockey coach, and my X’s and O’s aren’t good at all, but I look at the numbers and they don’t lie. Hits alone won’t beat Pittsburgh. Columbus’ eyes have to be on the prize, and that’s the goal…which is being tended by a very suspect (.899 save percentage!) goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury.

YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION

NOTE THAT FOX SPORTS OHIO HAS BOTH THE BLUE JACKETS GAME AND THE CINCINNATI REDS BASEBALL GAME ON AT THE SAME TIME. CLICK HERE FOR INFORMATION ON HOW TO CATCH THE BLUE JACKETS.

– Brian Giesenschlag and Dan Kamal bring you "Blue Jackets Live Pregame" at 6:30 p.m., giving you everything you will need before settling in for the game.

– The puck drops at Nationwide Arena at 7 p.m, with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge on the call.

– Brian and Dan return immediately following for "Blue Jackets Live Postgame" with postgame interviews, insight and analysis.

Enjoy the game, everyone! Go Jackets!