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Ranking the 10 Best NHL Teams at Protecting Leads

Rob VollmanContributor IDecember 6, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best NHL Teams at Protecting Leads

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Is there any NHL team better than Chicago at protecting leads? Probably not, but looking at the fascinating data provided over at NHL.com over the years, we can see which teams are the closest. Surprisingly Boston and Detroit are not among them, two teams with outstanding reputations for defending leads.

    According to the data, teams have a .796 winning percentage when leading after the first period, or .810 over the past three seasons. After the second period that goes up to .894 (regardless of date range). In this case, and throughout the article, the lockout refers to the 2005 season, not 2012.

    A rarely publicized fact is how teams are normally outshot when they're sitting back and protecting leads. In fact, a great way to win a beer off a buddy is to wait until late in the second period, and bet them that the team in the lead will get outshot the rest of the way. You'll drink more often than you pay.

    But watch out, because some teams continue to dominate opponents even when protecting leads, according to data made available at Behind the Net. That site keeps track of the percentage of all on-ice shots attempted by each team when they're leading by one or two goals, and there are a handful of teams that will cost you a beer. Turn over to the find out which ones.

     

    All winning percentages are sourced from NHL.com and attempted shot percentages from Behind the Net

     

10. New Jersey Devils

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    When looking at the entire period since the lockout, the league's best team at protecting leads is statistically the New Jersey Devils. For the first few post-lockout seasons they seemed almost magically good at protecting leads. Let's call it the Martin Brodeur effect.

    When leading after two periods, no team boasts a post-lockout winning percentage higher than New Jersey's .929. They're not just on this list for their historical success, that is also the exact same winning percentage they have this season in such situations.

    Oddly, the Devils don't have the same success when leading after the first period. And their overall record when protecting leads hasn't been the strongest over the previous two seasons.

    The one high note last season was when they were up by two. Normally teams are outshot in such situations, as they sit back and protect leads. But the Devils were third best last year by actually making 51.1 percent of all on-ice attempted shots in such situations.

     

9. Nashville Predators

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    The Predators are not an outstanding team when protecting leads, but they have been consistently above average in a variety of such situations over a number of years, and have been very strong so far in 2013-14.

    Whether leading after the first period or after the second, Nashville has had an above-average winning percentage when protecting leads both this year, over the past three years combined, and in all years combined since the lockout. This year they have a .950 winning percentage when leading, whether after the first period or the second.

    How do they do it? Generally, it's been with hot goaltending from Pekka Rinne, and not by controlling the play.

    When leading by a single goal they are taking only 43.6 percent of all on-ice attempted shots, which is sixth worst in the league. That's actually better than last year when they were second worst, taking 38.4 percent of all on-ice attempted shots when up by a goal. That means they're being outshot by an almost two-to-one margin when they're protecting one-goal leads. They were similarly bad when leading by two as well. That's probably why Rinne gets paid the big bucks.

     

     

8. St. Louis Blues

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    John Russell/Getty Images

    St. Louis' ability to protect leads is certainly a newfound skill. Their overall post-lockout numbers are in the bottom third, but are well above average over the past three years since Ken Hitchcock has been behind the bench.

    This season the Blues have a .958 winning percentage when leading after two periods, and .955 after the first. They're also one of five teams to out-shoot their opponents when leading by a goal, and one of six teams to do so last year.

    It's not just the top line of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie. St. Louis has a roster full of defensively disciplined possession-focused players that are well-suited to lead-protecting situations.

    The one bizarre trend was when the Blues are leading by two. This year they take a league-leading 55.4 percent of all on-ice shots in such situations, and in 2011-12 they were third (at 49.1 percent). But last year? Fourth worst, taking just 39.8 percent of all on-ice attempted shots. Bizarre.

     

     

7. New York Rangers

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    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    The New York Rangers are an above average team by any lead-protecting measurement. They have a .909 winning percentage when leading after two periods this year, which is safely above average.

    In fact, the Rangers have an above average winning percentage when protecting leads after one period or after two, both this year, over the past three years combined, and overall since the lockout.

    The Rangers even lead the league with a .958 winning percentage when leading after two periods over the past three seasons. This contributed towards a very strong .919 winning percentage since the lockout in such situations. 

    The key is obviously elite goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, but never overlook the value of shutdown defensemen like Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal.

6. Colorado Avalanche

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    Michael Martin/Getty Images

    The Colorado Avalanche have yet to lose a single game this year when they were leading after either the first period or the second. Obviously the goaltenders are worried that head coach Patrick Roy will suit up himself if they were to let one in.

    Prior to this season, Colorado was always below-average in lead-protecting situations, both since the lockout and over the past three years, regardless of when the lead was taken. The one exception is an .878 winning percentage over the past three years when leading after the first period, which is oddly better than their .871 winning percentage when leading after two.

    Just like Nashville, Colorado isn't achieving this by controlling the play, but with hot goaltending. In fact, when leading a game by two goals, they're the only team on this list that's in the league's bottom third in attempted shot percentage (40.9 percent). They're also second worst in the NHL when up by a single goal, taking only 41.5 percent of all attempted on-ice shots.

    Allowing your opponent to play with the puck and attempt lots of shots has never been a proven long-term method of protecting leads, but there's absolutely no denying that it's currently working extremely well in Colorado.

     

     

     

5. San Jose Sharks

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    The San Jose Sharks are one of the best teams at protecting leads since the lockout, right up there with New Jersey and Vancouver. They have been consistently one of the best every year, with an overall .836 winning percentage when leading after one period, and .918 after two.

    This year the Sharks have been especially sensational when protecting leads. They have a .875 winning percentage when leading after one period, and a .971 when leading after two.

    The key are two-way veterans like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and also young Logan Couture, who can play strong defensive hockey and also pose an offensive threat. That's reflected in the fact that the Sharks are currently second in the NHL by taking 54.0 percent of all on-ice attempted shots when leading by one, and are third in the NHL taking 54.1 percent when up by two.

    The Sharks have always been strong at protecting leads, are currently sensational, and are likely to remain among the best.

     

     

     

4. Los Angeles Kings

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    Andy Marlin/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Kings haven't lost this year when leading after two periods, and have an .818 winning percentage when leading after one, which is above average.

    Their post-lockout numbers are above average, and over the past three years they have an excellent .875 winning percentage when leading after one period, and .922 when leading after two.

    Like all teams consistently among the league leaders in protecting leads, the Kings do it by controlling the play, not by relying on hot goaltending. Drew Doughty leads an outstanding blue line that features a number of veteran shutdown defensemen like Roby Regehr and Willie Mitchell, while Anze Kopitar is one of several solid two-way forwards like Dustin Brown, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. 

    That defensive discipline combined with an offensive threat is why they are one of seven teams outshooting opponents when leading by two goals this year, and are third in the league by taking 52.5 percent of all on-ice percentage shots when up by one. If they keep it up it will be their third straight season in the top four. That's certainly a recipe for continued and consistent success.

     

     

     

     

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Penguins get a lot of credit for their outstanding offense, but rarely enough for strong defensive play when it matters most. Their blue line currently features a number of the league's better veteran shutdown defensemen, like Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi.

    That's probably why the Penguins have an amazing .949 winning percentage when leading after two periods over the past three seasons combined. So far this year it's .923, but they are actually undefeated when creating that lead by the end of the first period.

    One of the keys is that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin continue to threaten opponents even when they're ahead. They lead the NHL by taking 56.3 percent of all attempted shots when up by one, and also sat atop the NHL in that regard in 2011-12, with 53.6 percent.

    The only way to beat Pittsburgh is apparently to avoid falling behind in the first place.

     

2. Phoenix Coyotes

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Dave Tippett's Phoenix Coyotes are chronic overachievers, partly because of their commitment to holding on to almost every lead they ever get. They haven't lost a game so far this year when leading after the first period, and have a .900 winning percentage when leading after two.

    The Coyotes have been doing this for years, leading the league with an absolutely outstanding .958 winning percentage when leading after two periods over the past three seasons combined.

    As for when they've got the lead after the first period, they have a .904 winning percentage over the past three seasons combined, and .829 since the lockout, both of which are very strong.

    If there's a concern with their play when protecting single-goal leads, it's that they're in the bottom third of the league this year in attempted shot percentages. They're letting opponents control the play and take shots, and relying on their ability to either keep it to the outside, or come up huge in nets. Given their consistent success over the years, that confidence must be well-founded.

     

     

1. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

    It's no surprise that the league's best team at protecting leads are the defending Stanley Cup champions.

    What's unique about Chicago is their skill in protecting even the early leads. Over the past three seasons they lead the league with a .911 winning percentage when leading a game after the first period. It goes up to .936 when leading after the second.

    And this year? They haven't lost a single game when leading after the first period, and have an amazing .964 winning percentage when leading after two.

    With a blue line that features Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, it's no surprise that Chicago can hold a lead indefinitely, even early ones. Forwards like Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa are strong two-way players who pose enough of an offensive threat to discourage opponents from pursuing a game-tying goal too aggressively.

    Two goal leads are Chicago's specialty. They've been either first or second in the NHL for the past three seasons in attempted shot percentage in such situations. That means that they're not sitting back, but continuing to control the play and outshoot opponents even when protecting two goal leads. I suppose that's because they get so many opportunities to practice playing with such leads. 

     

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.

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