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5 Things: What Went Wrong in RPI's 6-0 Defeat to Union?
RPI split the series with Union to open conference play, but have areas to improve in.
1. Union’s Effective Forecheck and Neutral Zone Defense
There isn’t one good definition to describe what it means to be “hard to play against” in hockey. I think sometimes it gets thrown around too often – obviously every team wants to be hard to play against, that’s kind of the point. Union though, were hard to play against for RPI. They stifled the Engineers’ style of play: preventing them from moving up ice cleanly and establishing possession in the offensive zone, something RPI had been so successful with up to this point.
This is best seen in comparing the zone entry and exit data from this past weekend to the rest of the season:
We only tracked the Friday night game, but there were similar (even more pronounced) trends in the second game of the weekend. Lower control and success rates across the board for both leaving the defensive zone and entering the offensive zone.
Fewer controlled entries and exits mean more dump-and-chase play and more chips-off-the-glass to exit the defensive zone. A lower success rate overall means more turnovers – ones that frequently lead to dangerous chances against too.
This gets at the core of why RPI failed to generate much offense over the weekend. Union’s forecheck forced turnovers in the defensive zone, and even when RPI could break through, they still did not get a clean exit more than half of the time. And when you enter the neutral zone without clean possession of the puck, it gets even more difficult to get a smooth entry into the offensive zone. When RPI were able to enter the offensive zone with possession, they were able to generate chances. The problem is that it just didn’t happen a whole lot.
Now, the good news here is that some of these more “tactical” problems are fixable. I have no doubts that the team can make some adjustments to clean these numbers up, but in the meantime, other teams have a pretty darn good playbook to run against the Engineers.
2. Blocked Shot Numbers are a Bit of a Red Herring
A lot of the discourse this weekend and even after the loss to Canisius centered around some of the blocked shots and faceoff stats from the games. Outside of shot information, these are some of the only stats made public during games, so I understand why they are frequently cited.
The problem is, I just don’t think they are as telling as they are sometimes made out to be. Blocked shots, for one, definitely show when a team is willing to put their body on the line to stop a goal. But the thing is that the best teams don’t block as many shots because they aren’t giving up shot attempts in the first place! They’re in the offensive zone taking the shots themselves.
Now, a big part of the reason Union blocked so many shots was that RPI took a lot of shots from the point in both games. Those kinds of shots have to pass through a number of bodies to get to the net, so the likelihood of them being blocked increases. The volume of shots from low-danger area is definitely an issue, but it’s much less of an issue than RPI giving up a bunch of shots in their own zone that they have to block themselves.
It's the reason why blocked shot numbers have actually been found to negatively correlate with winning. Teams that blocked more shots were losing more often than not. Obviously, RPI lost both that Canisius game and Saturday night at Messa, but I’m just not convinced it’s because they didn’t block enough shots.
I will also add, I track all the shot attempts in these games to get Corsi/scoring chance data, and I’ve seen numerous times when an RPI player will block a shot, but it won’t actually be counted as a block on the stat sheet. It’ll go down as a wide shot or sometimes won’t even be counted as a shot attempt. So, don’t always take the box scores as the be-all and end-all for what happened in the game – they can be wrong sometimes. It’s a difficult job to get 100% correct!
3. How Much Do Faceoffs Matter?
RPI lost the faceoff battle on the weekend 50 to 69 giving them just a 42% win rate on the weekend. Yet they still took right around 55% of the shot attempts at even strength. They won the possession battle despite getting blown out in faceoffs.
I’m not going to sit here and say faceoffs never matter because that’s just not true, but again, I think sometimes there is a bit too much emphasis placed on them. Typically, better teams will find quick ways to regain possession of the puck even after losing a faceoff.
Personally, I think the one publicly available stat that should be cited more as an indication of which team is performing better is shot attempts (Corsi). Sometimes it is a bit difficult to narrow this down to just even-strength shot attempts, so a couple powerplays for one team can skew the numbers, but even still, shot attempts are a fairly decent indication for how well one team is performing. Much better than blocked shots or faceoff percentages.
4. Losing 6-0 is Bad, but not End-of-the-World Bad
You never want to lose 6-0 to a conference rival, but at the end of the day, RPI and Union were fairly evenly matched through the first two periods on Saturday. Yes, RPI had problems breaking out of their own zone, but they were mostly limiting dangerous chances against.
The wheels really only started to fall off the wagon once Beaton was called on a “hook” right at the tail end of the second period. It was an unfortunate penalty in several ways, because at that point RPI were really starting to work themselves back into the game
After Watkins sniped in the powerplay goal to make it 2-0 though, it was all over. A combination of youth, some frustration, and quite a bit of misfortune, and you’re left with a 6-0 final score. It was bad and embarrassing, but overall I don’t view it as indicative of the true talent level of the team. Just a period where a lot of things didn’t go their way. It happens sometimes.
5. Brackett out, Mahshie In
Brackett missed the weekend with a slight knock, but it doesn’t sound like it will keep him out long-term. Brackett is quite the play-driving merchant, so it’s a big loss. His line with Muzzatti and Evans has probably been the best and most consistent line for the Engineers all season.
Mahshie, however, did return to the lineup and looked quite good, posting a 51% CF% and 56.4% xG% on the weekend. He looked fast, particularly when moving the puck up through the neutral zone. He’s one of the most important players on the team, so having him back in the lineup can’t really be understated.
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