'Expected goals' stat shows tightness of NHL matchups

The Western Finals begin Saturday night (NBC, 8 p.m. ET) when the St. Louis Blues visit the San Jose Sharks. San Jose will likely close in the -130 to -140 range in Game 1, closer to -130 for the series. (Boston entered its series at -160 to advance.)

If you’re a longtime hockey bettor, you know that margins can be razor thin in the playoffs. Teams do their best  in a parity-packed sport to create opportunities, then cash them in. Game and series upsets are common. 

Underdog bettors have gotten the best of it so far this postseason. The top point earners from the regular season in each conference (Tampa Bay and Calgary) were both eliminated in the first round. Respected contenders Pittsburgh and the Vegas Golden Knights were also knocked out early. 

A stat that captures the tightness of playoff hockey is “expected goals.” We tabulated second-round totals from data at hockey analytics website Natural Stat Trick… 

  • Boston outscored Columbus 18-11 on the scoreboard, but Columbus actually took “expected goals” 16.66 to 15.59. Great defense and goaltending from the Bruins helped overcome a virtual dead heat in flow of play. 
  • Carolina outscored the New York Islanders 13-5, but the Isles won “expected goals” 11.62 to 11.29. Not enough punch in New York’s lineup to find the back of the net. Carolina was nowhere near as dominant as a sweep would suggest. 
  • San Jose outscored Colorado 20-18, on a similar “expected goals” count of 21.08 to 20.21. 
  • St. Louis outscored Dallas 18-17, but should have been more dominant with an “expected goals” edge of 20.60 to 16.92.

All four survivors struggled on power plays in the last round: Boston 3/21, San Jose 2/19, St. Louis 2/22, Carolina 1/13. Such a dynamic helps keep games close. 

Teams that had earned home ice advantage were given slight nods in futures prices to win the Cup. Here were odds entering the conference finals from the Westgate in Las Vegas, along with equivalent win percentages in parentheses: Boston 9/5 (36%), San Jose 12/5 (29%), St. Louis 11/4 (27%), Carolina 4/1 (20%). (Those add up to 112% because sports books build a universe larger than 100% to create a house edge.)

Thursday night, the Boston bruins (-155) beat the Carolina Hurricanes 5-2 to take a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. If you watched, you know that the game was much closer than the final score suggests. Carolina was the more aggressive team much of the night. Boston pulled away in the third period thanks to two power play goals and an empty-netter. 

Carolina and Boston are back on the ice Sunday (NBC, 3 p.m.). 

 

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