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Behind The Numbers

Hidden gems unearthed by analytics for remaining playoff teams

Deeper numbers shine light on undervalued players who contribute to success

by Rob Vollman / NHL.com Correspondent

One of the key elements of success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is having the right mix of unheralded players who will block shots, draw penalties, win face-offs and do everything else that's required to buttress the stars and help their team advance.

Hockey analytics can help identify these players who don't dominate the scoresheet or the highlight reels but are vital to success.

Here are one player from each of the eight remaining playoff teams who's been invaluable in performing the details that lead to team success:

 

Sean Kuraly, Boston Bruins

Kuraly, a center, has been handling a lot of the defensive-zone assignments so that the top players have a greater opportunity to score. He has started seven shifts in the offensive zone and 29 in the defensive zone for a zone-start percentage of 19.44 percent; that's the lowest on the Bruins and the fifth-lowest in the NHL among players who have played at least four postseason games.

Despite the defensive-zone assignments, the Bruins have allowed one goal in 97:39 with Kuraly on the ice at 5-on-5. They have scored six goals with Kuraly on the ice, and he has two goals and two assists.

 

Austin Watson, Nashville Predators

In the playoffs, it's important to have a player like Watson who hits, blocks shots, plays the tough minutes and provides some secondary scoring.

At even strength, Watson, a left wing, has started 68 shifts in the defensive zone and nine in the offensive zone for a zone-start percentage of 11.69 percent that ranks lowest among forwards who've played at least four games. Despite that defensive-zone duty, the Predators are outscoring opponents 8-0 with Watson on the ice.

Watson leads Predators forwards with 29 hits and is second in blocked shots among forwards with eight, one behind Mike Fisher. Watson spends an average of 1:51 per game killing penalties, most among Nashville forwards, yet is tied with Filip Forsberg for the Predators lead with five goals.

Video: NSH@WPG, Gm3: Watson wrists one by Hellebuyck

 

Riley Sheahan, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have lots of scoring, and will be relying, in part, on Sheahan's defensive play to advance. In even-strength situations, Sheahan, a center, leads Pittsburgh forwards with 40 shifts starting in the defensive zone, and his most frequent opponents against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Second Round are Evgeny Kuznetsov (20:07) and Alex Ovechkin (18:43), who have one goal at even strength while Sheahan has been on the ice.

Shorthanded, Sheahan leads NHL forwards with a total of 35:53, an average of 3:35 per game, during which time opponents have scored two goals. That's tied for the fewest among anyone to play at least 22 minutes shorthanded.

Sheahan's .556 face-off winning percentage is tied for ninth among players who've taken at least 100.

 

Marcus Sorensen, San Jose Sharks

Sorensen's performance on San Jose's fourth line has been a difference-maker in the postseason.

Despite a zone-start percentage of 32.14 percent, the Sharks have outshot their opponents 72-63 in 5-on-5 shot attempts with Sorensen on the ice, an SAT of plus-9 that ranks second on San Jose to linemate Melker Karlsson, who is plus-15. In that time, the Sharks have outscored their opponents 5-0, with Sorensen, a left wing, scoring four times. That places him in a first-place tie with Tomas Hertl for the Sharks lead in even-strength goals.

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm4: Sorensen dekes, scores while falling

 

Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

Point, a center, leads Tampa Bay forwards with 15:00 per game at even strength, and those have not been easy minutes. According to Natural Stat Trick, his most frequent opponent at even strength in the first round against for the New Jersey Devils was Taylor Hall (39:45). Through three games against the Boston Bruins, Point has been on the ice the most against top-line forward Brad Marchand (37:37).

Point is tied for second on the Lightning with eight points (two goals, six assists) in eight games, and leads the NHL with nine drawn penalties.

 

Brayden McNabb, Vegas Golden Knights

McNabb, a defenseman, has been tasked with taking on the top opponents for Vegas, which leads the remaining playoff teams with an average of 1.75 goals allowed per game.

According to Natural Stat Trick, McNabb's most frequent opponents at 5-on-5 have been Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings (62:09) and Joe Pavelski of the Sharks (42:40).

McNabb leads the Golden Knights with 22 blocked shots and ranks second with 39 hits, 48 defensive-zone starts, and average ice time at even-strength (19:03) and shorthanded (4:13).

Video: VGK@LAK, Gm4: McNabb pots slick dish from Smith

 

Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals

At 5-on-5, Niskanen, a defenseman, leads the NHL with 80 defensive-zone starts, ranks second in ice time with 267:41, and takes on top opponents.

In the first round, Artemi Panarin of the Columbus Blue Jackets spent 105:31 facing Niskanen. In the first four games of the second round, Sidney Crosby of the Penguins has spent 50:37 going against Niskanen, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Niskanen ranks fifth in the NHL with 37:27 spent killing penalties, and he leads the Capitals with 31 blocked shots.

 

Adam Lowry, Winnipeg Jets

Lowry, a center, has found many ways to contribute to Winnipeg's success. He has won 53.6 percent of his face-offs, is tied for second on the Jets with four drawn penalties, ranks fourth with 23 hits, and has an SAT of plus-23 despite their lowest zone-start percentage, 42.86 percent (minimum three games).

***

 

Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Coverage

Lightning vs. Bruins

Capitals vs. Penguins

Predators vs. Jets

Golden Knights vs. Sharks

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