Who would have expected the number 5 and 8 seeds to play for the NLA championship? All playoff previews were filled with a final matchup of ZSC Lions against Davos or some really optimistic prognostications might have even included either Zug or Geneva. But Lugano and Bern? Not a chance. Both teams went through a coaching change (Lugano actually twice, if you count Wohlwend’s two games behind the bench). Both teams weren’t given a lot of credit. Why would you? We’re talking about lower seeds. But is it right to dismiss their credibility just because neither team hasn’t had home-ice yet in the post-season? Did they just get hot at the right time or was a turnaround of their fortunes long overdue?
During the last few weeks I compiled a lot of data which you can check here. I’ll just go into Lugano’s and Berns‘ seasons as they are about to hit the stage and play for the NLA title.
Let’s start with the easiest thing first: How did their seasons go?
In the above graphic, we’re looking at points percentages – or actually moving points percentages, which takes 10-game-sprints and puts them together throughout the season. Lugano started very poorly and accumulated 19 points in 17 games with Fischer and Wohlwend (0.373 points percentage). As we can see, shortly after Shedden’s hiring, their percentages increased to astronomic highs and Lugano collected 61 points in 33 games with Shedden (0.616). This would have led to a 92-point-season and placed them second behind ZSC Lions. So their coaching change was a success. End of story,
Bern on the other hand didn’t start as poorly (28 points in the first 18 games –> 0.519), but a very bad stretch in November and December (15 points in 14 games –> 0.357) led to a coaching change. After that, they put together 24 points over 18 games to finish the season (0.444, the Leuenberger-era). So, they’re coaching change wasn’t as successful and only brought slight improvements but still not on their September/October level.
Based on that, we have to say that Lugano deserves to be in the finals. Bern not so much. To only managed to sneak into the playoffs because they piled up points early in the season.
Now, let’s move on and take a look at something more interesting: Shot ratios. Unfortunately, @SwissIceHockey does not allow us to track Corsi/Fenwick or stuff like even strength shots. So we have to go with entire shot totals. But this still allows us to have an indication on the team’s respective puck possession. I assume that we can generally agree: The more you have the puck, the more you can put it on net and the more likely you will get goals from it. So, if you have the puck more than your opponent and have a higher shot-total, you should probably win more often than not. Right? Right.
Again, we’re looking at 10-game stretches.
Do you remember what I said about Bern’s poor November? Yeah, they didn’t have the puck a whole lot and this continued way into the Leuenberger-Era and it took them until about game 38 of their season to recover and playing a better puck possession game. But one important take-away here: They still managed to stay above 50% puck possessions (only barely went below that mark). So, if you keep in mind what I said above: The more you have the puck, the more shots you generate and over time the puck is bound to find its way into the net.
Looking at Lugano, they posted almost comical possession numbers and only Langau (.449) managed worse rates (Ambri and Lugano had a similar .462). And as you can see here, it’s not really that the coaching change brought a lot of success, either. Eventhough they were starting to climb the standings, their shot-ratios fell. Their lowest point was a miserable .421 (after games 21 to 30). They finally improved a bit in that era right before Christmas and their Spengler Cup appearance. But still, this is not a very good hockey team when it comes to protecting the puck and keeping it away from your own zone.
So, when Bern has a high shot-ratio and possess the puck a lot and Lugano does quite the opposite, how is it possible that Lugano finished with 14 points more in the standings than Bern? The answer is simple: Luck.
In Swiss hockey, we do not give this enough ‚credit‘. Luck is something that exists and should be taken into account. Until recently we didn’t have a chance to put a number on luck or the identify it. But as hockey analytics evolved, we all agreed that luck can be measured and that it reflects the sum of team-save-percentage and team-shooting-percentage. Over the long run, your numbers will regress to 100 as you get lucky from time to time (or unlucky). But over short periods (even seasons), luck can be a huge driver in success. As recent examples in the NHL show (Colorado, Toronto, Calgary), this success is not sustainable and you’ll fall back on earth the next year if you just got a little too lucky over an entire season. So let me introduce you to this PDO graphic (the measurement of luck):
A general rule is, that you should stay around 100. If you’re above 1.02, you use way too much luck. If you’re below .98, your fortunes should turn around at some point as we are getting very unlucky. Again, we have 10-game-sprints.
Do you remember what I said about Lugano’s shot totals under Shedden? Yeah, they got worse. Looking at this graph now indicates that Lugano was relying a lot more on luck most nights than on actual skills. On luck and on their goaltending, actually. With Shedden as their coach, Lugano improved their shooting percentage by a mile (up from 7.765% to 10.899%) and had a slight increase in save-percentage. But both values were high above league average. Combined with getting less shots on goal than your opponents, this just does not look very sustainable and is bound to catch you sooner or later.
Bern again got extremely unlucky throughout the entire season. They never seemed to catch a break. A lot of injuries to key players did their part but they were trending between a PDO of .96 and .99 for most of the season. Actually, they posted the second worst PDO of the entire league. What’s the reason? Their shooting percentage is below league average. As stated above, this might be attributed to some key injuries. But what really hurt them over the course of the entire season was a league worst save percentage. Their save-percentage (.892) was way below league average (.906). With that, it’s surprising that they were even able to stay out of the playouts. Bad goaltending is going to kill your season. Below you’ll find those two graphics:
Based on the regular season performance of both teams, you have to assume that Bern is going to win this series. Looking at the playoffs let’s you come to the same conclusion. Here are some raw numbers for their respective playoff performances:
As we can see her, Lugano is being outshot on a nightly basis and relies on luck even more heavily than in the regular season. So you have to think that at one point, Lugano is going to run out of luck. What is helping Bern compared to the regular seoson is the fact that Stepanek has decided that it would be neat to stop a puck here or there. But Lugano definitely has the edge in goaltending and as we know, goaltending can win championships. Bern has to use their puck possession to their advantage in order to 1) keep the puck away from their own goal (they can not rely on getting saves) and 2) fire on all cylinders on Merzlikins because sooner or later one is going to get by. If Bern does not throw everything it has on Merzlikins, they are playing right into Lugano’s hands.