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The Penguins’ Win Meant Redemption For The Numbers, Too

When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup on Sunday night, it lifted Sidney Crosby’s standing among the game’s all-time greats and completed the redemption-story arc for once-maligned winger Phil Kessel. But it also provided some measure of atonement for hockey’s advanced statistics, which had been suffering through one of their worst seasons since hitting the scene in the mid- to late 2000s.

For instance, “Corsi” — the proportion of total shot attempts (including misses and blocks) that a team amasses in its games — is a stathead favorite because it tracks well with possession time, making it a good long-term predictor of a team’s success. But Corsi also did a relatively poor job of telling us where a team would finish in the standings this season:

paine-corsi-pens-1

And despite Corsi’s track record in the playoffs, the numbers were dealt a few early blows when the Los Angeles Kings (who ranked No. 1 in regular-season Corsi by some distance), the Anaheim Ducks (No. 5) and the Chicago Blackhawks (No. 9 this year but No. 1 last season) all bowed out in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But things got a little better for the stats as the postseason grinded along. The Eastern Conference finals pitted the Penguins (No. 2) and the Lightning (No. 3) in an elite Corsi-off, while the sixth-ranked Blues made it to within two wins of the cup final in the West. At No. 11, the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks weren’t anyone’s idea of a possession powerhouse — they would have been the lowest-ranked champ since the Penguins, of all teams, won in 2009 — but Pittsburgh’s victory ultimately contributed to a stat that still stands out as surprising (and impressive) for a sport that, at times, seems so random: 55 percent of Cup winners since the lockout have finished either first or second in Corsi.

SEASON CUP WINNER CORSI RANK
2016 Penguins 2
2015 Blackhawks 1
2014 Kings 1
2013 Blackhawks 1
2012 Kings 6
2011 Bruins 6
2010 Blackhawks 1
2009 Penguins 13
2008 Red Wings 1
2007 Ducks 8
2006 Hurricanes 15
Stanley Cup winners have great Corsi ranks

Corsi is event-, score- and venue-adjusted.

Source: Puckon.net, Hockey-Reference.com

The fact that Pittsburgh did it in such possession-heavy style — the Penguins outshot the Sharks 353 to 267 in the final — was just an added bit of vindication for the numbers. Hockey’s advanced analytics movement still has a long way to go in its evolution, but even in a down year for the metrics, the cup winner ended up being a team with proven statistical bona fides.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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