ECAC Tournament Wrap-Up

Updated: March 21, 2017

Over the weekend, the ECAC Tournament concluded in Lake Placid, NY. The semifinals were on Friday, with the Big Red playing the Union Dutchmen and the top-ranked Harvard Crimson playing the Quinnipiac Bobcats. As the semifinals were one-game matches rather than the three-game series in the quarterfinals, the winners were to meet Saturday in the final. As you probably know, Cornell and Harvard won their respective semifinal games, both by the score of 4-1. In the finals, Harvard beat Cornell by the same score, 4-1.

I have written at length over the past couple of weeks about how Cornell’s success this year has been a bit of a mirage; in fact, I predicted them to lose to Union in the semis. The reason I have been so down on them is that their underlying stats seem to indicate their success will not hold. Specifically, they tend to be chasing the puck and allowing their opponents to get more and better scoring opportunities. Also, they have been getting very lucky, which may be masking their true talent level.

In the end, however, they beat Union. Why was that? Did they get lucky yet again? Are advanced stats just a fraud? Actually, there are a couple of factors at play. First, Union is in a similar situation to Cornell, a team with low shot-attempt numbers and a high PDO (a quantitative measure of luck). That means that these teams were as evenly matched as they could have possibly been, and the winner would come down to who played better that day. And sure enough, Cornell was the much, much better team on Friday in the semifinal.

Let’s look at the numbers. Shots on goal were 34-33 in favor of Union; however, shots on goal after the first period were 21-7 in favor of Cornell! Although they didn’t score, it was only a matter of time before a shot went in. Shot attempts told a similar story: after the first period, Cornell was dominating 24-13 at even strength (not to mention they had seven shot attempts on their lone power play). Towards the end of the game, Union ended up taking control, making the shots on goal and shot attempts more or less even, but this is understandable and excusable. In the advanced stats, this is called “score effects,” and to fix this many people use a calculation known as score-adjustment, which weights shot attempts when the score is close more than when one team has a larger lead. Unfortunately, these numbers are not available at the NCAA level, but I believe the score-adjusted shot attempt numbers would favor Cornell.

Given this, the advanced stats actually did favor a Cornell victory. How about for the other semifinal, between Harvard and Quinnipiac? As you may recall, both of these teams had elite possession values; Harvard had a Corsi% of 53.5 entering the game, while Quinnipiac boasted an astounding 55.9. Despite this, I predicted that Harvard would win, since both teams would be able to get shots, and Harvard was more talented in all aspects. Sure enough, that prediction came true, as Harvard outclassed Quinnipiac on route to a 4-1 win; shots were 36-26 in favor of Harvard.

This brings us to the ECAC finals on Saturday. Unfortunately, this was not nearly as close for Cornell. Harvard outplayed them from the beginning and never let up; final shots on goal were 36-26. This should not have been surprising considering both the advanced stats and the teams’ respective styles of play. First, in advanced stats, as I’ve mentioned, Harvard is an elite possession team, while Cornell is anything but (53.5 to 48.4). Secondly, consider that Cornell’s defensive structure is to collapse in front of the net and prevent shots from getting through. On the NCAA-sized ice of Lynah Rink, this may be an effective mechanism. However, in the Olympic-sized Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, that just allows for way too much space in the offensive-zone for the opposing team. With big ice, it is important for a team to be more aggressive. Cornell took that advice against Union and won. They retreated back into their defensive shell against Harvard and got destroyed.

This should not be a problem next weekend when the NCAA Tournament starts; Cornell is playing the University of Massachusetts-Lowell at the Southern New Hampshire University Arena, which is regulation-sized. However, while that may make their defensive structure more viable, the underlying stats are, once again, against them. U Mass-Lowell brings a 51.5 Corsi% into the first-round match, while Cornell is at 48.6%. Additionally, Mass-Lowell is seeded higher than Cornell, meaning they may be a more talented team as well.

A more detailed preview for Cornell’s match this weekend (and, perhaps, beyond) as well as for the NCAA Tournament as a whole will be posted later in the week.

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