On ‘score effects,’ and the challenges of playing with the lead

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If you haven’t heard the term “score effects” before, you’re getting a great example of the phenomenon in the Pittsburgh-Columbus series, where it seems the first key to winning is falling behind by two or three goals.

Per Extra Skater, here are how Games 3 and 4 played out in terms of shot attempts:

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It’s not hard to see what happened in both games. The team that fell behind was the one that attacked and dominated possession in the latter stages, while the team that took the lead went into a defensive shell.

This is typical in hockey. We see the same sort of thing in football, when a team with the lead employs a prevent defense and allows the opposition to do pretty much anything but score. Hang back. Don’t blitz. Hope the clock runs out.

But is it a good strategy? Or, in other words, as much as it’s intuitive to avoid things like turnovers at the opposition blue line when you’re playing with a lead, is dumping it deep — essentially handing possession back over — and making sure you’re in good defensive position really the smart play?

Another question: even if a coach tells his players to keep attacking and avoid playing scared — and coaches definitely tell their players this at times– how big a psychological challenge is it for players to actually do it? After all, nobody wants to be the guy who makes the boneheaded turnover that costs his team the game. Best to just dump it in. Or if you’re in your own end, chip it out. Nothing wrong with living to fight another day. Right?

Obviously, this is not a new debate in hockey. How to play with the lead has been a consideration since, well, probably since the first lead was taken. What’s different now, though, compared to maybe 10 years ago is there’s all sorts of statistical evidence to show coaches exactly what happens when a team goes into a defensive shell.

And make no mistake, there are NHL coaches and general managers who look at these stats. Not all of them maybe, but definitely some. Take the Minnesota Wild, who reportedly endeavored this season to stop dumping the puck in so much after considering some statistical analysis which concluded that carrying the puck in — even if it brought more risk into the equation — was the optimal way to enter the zone.

“You don’t need to take any chances when you’ve got a lead,” said¬†Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams. “At the same time, you can’t sit back. That tends to give you more problems than if you just stick with your game. We did that a bit [Wednesday], especially in the second period. We were in our end way too much. We still want to get a lead.”

Game 5 goes Saturday in Pittsburgh.