When people say "you need goaltending and defense in the playoffs" -- as if you didn't need that any other time of year -- what they're really saying is you need everything you can to help the playoffs' coin flips to go your way.
Outshot? Hey, if you have the right goalie in the right spring, no problem. Hemmed in your zone? Hey, block enough shots and pray you take advantage of your counterattack opportunities to make the other team the frustrated loser.
In a playoff series, you hope to win the games you deserved to win and hope to steal one or two you didn't deserve. With plentiful overtimes and one-goal games narrowing the margin between victory and defeat, sometimes that's all it comes down to.
The Nashville Predators are an interesting case because they've been outshot all season long (by about three shots per game) while riding a fantastic goalie in Pekka Rinne and a great powerplay to a 104-point season. That's not an approach most teams can afford to take, but most teams don't have Rinne. It's no surprise the Predators were heavily outshot in their five-game series with the Detroit Red Wings as well, though it is a surprise the series was so short.
Part of that was Detroit mistakes; part of that was Nashville taking advantage of them.
The givens here are Rinne's heroics along with the steady play of star blueliners Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. That's a great base to make yourself competitive in any contest, but it's one Nashville has had before without getting past the Red Wings in the playoffs (and in fact, not getting past anyone until last year's first playoff series win over the Anaheim Ducks).
The Preds have always been a stingy, conservative defensive squad. Is anything different this season?
Well, over the past couple of years they've added some good specialty "playoff-style" forwards in Mike Fisher and Paul Gaustad (though they also lost one in Marcel Goc). They've also added some offensive skill in the Kostitsyn brothers and in Alexander Radulov's late-season return. In this series, they've received some bonus contributions from rookie Gabriel Bourque, whose goals pretty much define "opportunism."
So again, the Predators have routinely been outshot both in the regular season and playoffs (all five games of it) of 2011-12. They were outshot an average of 32 to 23.8 in the first-round series. Even limiting it to 5 on 5, their shots against per 60 minutes (via Behind The Net) was 33.1 to 23.2 for. Even if you discount them having late leads that required Detroit throwing the kitchen sink at their net, that is not a recipe most teams can use to win four out of five games.
Fans of advanced stats don't harp on this because they love their calculators -- they point it out because it's just so doggone rare (and, many would argue, unsustainable). Sometimes outliers are just statistical blips; sometimes there's something else (like Rinne?) tipping the scales.
The Predators were outchanced for long stretches -- Game 4 being a big example -- but they also had the lead and the Finnish destroyer of dreams in net to make that tolerable. Put it this way: If Pittsburgh desperately needed to keep the puck away from Marc-Andre Fleury's sphere of self-sabotage, the Predators can much more afford to say, "Go ahead, throw the pucks at Rinne by the shovelful. We'll be alright."
Granted, the reasons for the Red Wings' fall are many, and Detroit played an uncharacteristically mistake-prone series, with Jimmy Howard letting in a bad goal here and the Red Wings defense committing brainfarts there. The two home losses at Joe Louis Arena were particularly tough luck for the Red Wings, with otherwise good control of play being undermined by mistakes. (Speaking of mistakes, another good possession team in the Blackhawks -- outshooting the Coyotes an average of 40-28 through six games -- has been twice undermined in OT by Corey Crawford.)
The key in the first-round dumping of the Wings was that Nashville took advantage of those mistakes. They pounced on them.
One example: When the series was 1-1 going back to the Joe -- advantage Detroit, you'd think -- and the Red Wings were piling on to get the tying goal in Game 3. Under the mounting pressure it felt like it was on its way. Then this happened:
Sergei Kostitsyn Go-Ahead Goal
An important insurance goal, as the Red Wings would actually get one back minutes later.
Game 4 turned similarly. The Red Wings were pressing and a go-ahead goal seemed likely when they committed a massive collective brainfart, everyone (including Howard) following Martin Erat to the corner like little league soccer players as he gratefully fed a wide open Kevin Klein with a wide open net:
Detroit Defense Distracted by Man with Pretty Black Disc
Now that's a wonderful, opportunistic play by Erat (and I should note that some stat hounds view "opportunistic" as a dirty euphemism for good fortune), and you can argue it's the kind of opportunity that comes after you've frustrated a team for long enough that they take chances and forget their job.
But is it the kind of counterattack opportunity they can count on throughout the playoffs? Can Rinne keep this excellent play up for several rounds, such that teams will press and forget about the store? And will the Preds skilled forwards continue to take advantage?
Personally, I'm fascinated to find out (and I'm far from the only one). I don't think they should be viewed as the favorite that many commenters at this site see them to be -- all lust and envy for Rinne and Weber/Suter aside. They are clearly an outlier. But they're doing what works for them. And particularly with the forwards the Predators have added the last few seasons, they're equipped to line match and frustrate opponents' most dangerous offensive stars.
Embracing Who You Are
Generally speaking, teams that get outshot a lot do not win more over time. People with better understanding of how to crunch the numbers over time have pointed this out, as during Montreal's miracle run on the shoulders of Jaroslav Halak. But what usually happens and what can happen are two different things.
In other words, if you're not a dominant possession team, perhaps the capacity just isn't on your roster -- and certainly you can't just flip a switch and make it so. Does that mean you should quit and go home ("No no, you're outshooting us, I insist you take the wins and go to the next round."), or do you stick to your strengths, try to muck it out battle for battle and hope this is the year the coins flip your way? After all, as we've already seen in these playoffs, the difference between teams is close enough that good teams are getting knocked out -- and quickly. Regardless of the odds, we're still dealing with "anything can happen" season.
The Predators won't have to face the Canucks, and if they face the Blues it will be after that team has endured two three-time-zone series. Similarly, the Predators' next opponent will have slogged through at least five OT games to get there.
The Preds on-ice "model" is not one that works for most teams, and I'm not betting on them. But if the stars will ever align for a small market Team That Could with a fantastic goalie, it will be in a year with conditions like this postseason.