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By the Numbers: On Holding Leads

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The Hurricanes have had leads in seven of their nine games so far, but have only won two of them. So what gives?

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NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Winnipeg Jets Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Hurricanes have struggled to hold leads this season. After all, the team opened the year by blowing three-goal leads in two consecutive games in Winnipeg and Vancouver.

But what has driven the team’s inability to grab two points from the games in which they’ve been ahead of their opponents? Some have said it has something to do with the fact that the team is so young. Others have contended that the defense has been a complete mess in the early going. Even more have suggested that shoddy goaltending has a lot to do with it.

The cases for all of these suggestions have their merits, but in my opinion, when you dive into the numbers, one of them stands out above all the others. Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong when things are going right this season.

Holding a Lead 101

For years, the league-wide trend in the NHL was for teams who had a lead to go into a complete shell. They would buckle down defensively, and when they had the puck, they’d just chip the puck into the opponent’s zone rather than attempt to carry the puck to set up shop in the zone.

The prevailing thought behind this philosophy was essentially to wonder why a team would need to try to score more goals if they were already ahead. After all, all they needed to do to secure a win was to prevent the other team from scoring for the rest of the game.

But some coaches began to realize that going into that shell only meant that their goalie would be facing more shots, and the more shots their goalies faced, the more likely one of those shots was to go in. So some teams have begun to place a huge emphasis on attempting to carry play even while leading late in games. Early on, the Hurricanes have definitely been one of those teams this season.

According to corsica.hockey, the ‘Canes have played about 129 minutes of 5-on-5 play while leading. In those 129 minutes, the Hurricanes are one of only three teams to break even or better in possession with the lead. The ‘Canes are second in the league with a 50.91% corsi share. That trails Los Angeles’s league leading mark of 60.78% by quite a lot, and it slightly tops Pittsburgh’s 50.16%.

Note: The Hurricanes do not take a disproportionate amount of penalties when they have the lead. Their penalty differential when playing with the lead is +1.

So they check the possession box, but raw corsi only measures quantity. What about how the Hurricanes do with controlling quality chances with the lead? The ‘Canes are above average there too, sitting at an expected goals share of 47.60%. That’s good enough to have them 14th in the league. They’re 16th in the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes with the lead.

So to recap all of that, the Hurricanes are a dominant possession team when they’re playing with the lead. However, they’re only slightly above average at controlling the ratio of quality scoring chances, and they’re just below average in how often they allow them.

Would you like to see those qualitative numbers improve? Yes, no question, but they’re also nowhere near bad enough to be the main cause of this team’s inability to hold leads.

Goaltending with a Lead

The sample size here is too small to point fingers at the individuals. Both goalies need to start finding ways to make saves when the team has staked them to a lead.

Eddie Lack has stopped 20 of 21 low and medium danger shots he’s faced while leading, but he’s surrendered 6 goals on 13 high-danger shots. That’s obviously not good enough, but it’s also likely not very sustainable considering that his career high-danger save percentage is a much better .800.

In virtually the same amount of time, Cam Ward has faced just seven high-danger chances. So we can conclude that the team is playing better defense for Ward while leading and playing at even-strength.

At all situations while leading, Ward’s save percentage is only slightly better than Lack’s (.854 compared to .841). That puts the team mark at .847, which is 28th in the league.

So when the team is 4th in raw possession, 14th in quality possession, 16th in quality chances against, and 28th in save percentage while leading, I think we can safely say that while there’s some (very minimal) room to criticize the defense, the blame for the team’s overall inability to hold a lead has to fall on the guys between the pipes.

There is time yet for them to turn it around, but given their respective performances so far between this year and last year, I’m not overly optimistic. Hopefully I will be proven wrong, but if this trend does not reverse itself soon, the Hurricanes might need to begin scouring the goaltending market to explore alternative options.