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Can the Red Wings Win the Atlantic?

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The All-Star Break has arrived, which means it's prime time to take stock of the season so far before the last 40% of the season resumes in earnest. We all know that Detroit was picked by many to miss the playoffs, but a relatively healthy team has gone on to silence critics and establish themselves as legitimate Atlantic Division contenders. The real question is does Detroit have what it takes to take the division race down to the wire? We can look at the razor-thin standings and try to project things forward a bit, but it would also be nice to take a look at the team's underlying statistics to see if we can pick up on some trends. Suffice it to say, things are trending upward. Let's take a deeper look.

The Improvement

I've divided the season before the All-Star Break down the middle. Prior to December 1st, the team played in 24 games accumulating 33 points (1.37/game), and since then there's been 23 games in which they've acquired 30 points (1.30/game). This suggests the team was actually a tad bit better early on, and it may be tempting to just project out 1.3 points per game the rest of the way and be done with it, which would put the team at 108.5 points. I'm here to suggest that given the opportunity, I would bet the over, because we can measure quite a bit of improvement since December 1st. I made a graph that highlights the Wings performance over that stretch prior to December:

BeforeDecember

Before you get too overwhelmed, reading this graph is actually very simple. Further to the right means more shot attempts (corsi) for, further to the top means more shot attempts against. The very best place you could possibly be then would be the bottom-right corner, and the closer to that corner that you are, the better you are at puck possession. You would conclude from this that Detroit was the best in the entire league at limiting shot attempts (closely followed by NJ), and Detroit was also generally below-average at shot attempts for, resulting in many games with low shot and goal numbers. Put it all together, and Detroit was a good possession team, but not a great one - with a score-adjusted corsi that ranked 8th in the league. Contrast that to the team's numbers in the following 23 games since December 1st:

AfterDecember

The graph skews a little because Buffalo went from impossibly bad to only historically bad, but Detroit is second to only Los Angeles since December 1st. In fact, these last 23 games have brought Detroit up to 2nd in score-adjusted corsi (puck possession that accounts for score effects) on the entire season behind only Chicago. The point here is that in the last two months, Detroit took their league-best shot suppression and got better at it, while also taking a few more shots per game.

The question then is why do we see an uptick in puck possession but no corresponding uptick in points? The answer more or less lies during what will hopefully be the coldest shooting stretch of the whole season back in mid-December from the 10th through the 21st. Detroit played 6 games, 5 of which were against teams that are projected to miss the playoffs, and managed to lose all of those games by just 8 goals combined. During those days, Detroit had the 4th best score-adjusted corsi in the league which means they were controlling play about the same as normal, but shots on goal went in the net at just a 1.5% rate during those 6 games - just 2 goals in 137 even-strength shots. Buffalo's borderline AHL roster shot a pretty average 8.6% during that same span, so this was a stretch of incredibly cold shooting. To illustrate how wildly these things can fluctuation, Detroit's recent 5 game winning streak comes on the back of some above-average shooting (not even counting PP where things were really humming), this time in the other direction. Chart to illustrate:

Date Range Record ES Shooting%
December 10-21 0-2-4 1.5%
January 13-20 5-0-0 10.4

If Detroit had shot 10.4% during those 6 games in December, they would have scored an additional 12 goals, meaning they would have gone from -8 to +4 during that stretch. I would have to imagine they would have come out of those 6 games with several more points.

I guess the greater point here is that weird stuff like this happens in hockey, and it makes it hard to just assume that a team is exactly what its record says it is at a given point in the season. We've got quite a few underlying indicators here that Detroit is a legit Stanley Cup contender right now, and that they've been progressively improving as the year has gone on despite hanging in the same general area in the standings. The team is top-5 in even-strength possession, top-5 in special teams, and top 10 in goaltending, so all the key pieces are there. The first ingredient was not quite there in October and November.

The Obstacles

All of this sounds great, but there are two pressing obstacles to winning the Atlantic. First is the health uncertainty at the goalie position. Howard has been plenty good enough, but when will he come back? And when he does, is he going to struggle to regain his form? Mrazek has looked excellent at times, but his occasional struggles (not all of which were his fault) the last few games give some reason for concern, while McCollum is not a valid option at this point. If you are a great possession team but your goaltending is bad, well, feel free to look up the Minnesota Wild in the standings to see how that goes. I think the Wings will be fine in this regard, but if something is going to go bust, this seems as good a candidate as any.

The other issue is the Tampa Bay Lightning. This seems a bit obvious at first glance since we appear to be in a 3-way division race, but if you glance up at the charts above, you'll notice that right up there with Detroit in dominating possession is Tampa Bay. Montreal is making their dough off shootout wins, 3rd period rallies, and lights-out goaltending. Some of each of those may be skill, but they're a decent bet to regress a little bit. Tampa Bay on the other hand is 2-4 in the shootout and is getting below-average goaltending, and despite all that they are still regularly pounding teams. Everything that I said above about Detroit trending upward is also true of Tampa Bay, and therein lies the real challenge in winning the Atlantic. Unlike the last two seasons, the Red Wings are absolutely good enough to win this division, but the competition remains equally good enough. Place your best guesses below in the poll and comments.

Possession numbers and charts courtesy of war-on-ice.com