Hockey is a uniquely challenging game. Over an 82-game regular season, players have to possess the stamina of a soccer player, the physicality of a football player, and, a few hundred times a season, the fighting prowess of a professional boxer, all while skating more than 20 miles per hour on ice.
"Half the game is mental,” the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jim McKenny once said, “the other half is being mental."
Each season, NHL players put themselves through a grueling eight-month gauntlet in pursuit of the league’s ultimate prize: the Stanley Cup and the championship title that accompanies it. This year’s Stanley Cup final features the Colorado Avalanche, making their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 2001, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, winner of the last two Stanley Cups.
We’ll take a look at the storied history of the Stanley Cup, explore some advanced hockey statistics, and preview this year’s finals matchup. You can explore the data for yourself in our 2022 Stanley Cup Preview workbook and make a personal copy to do some analysis of your own.
As Shawn Roarke wrote for NHL.com on The Cup’s 125th anniversary, the Stanley Cup “is almost mystical in its aura. It brings smiles to the most stoic of men, tears to the sternest and renders mute even the most talkative.”
Such is the prestige and storied history of the trophy – the oldest in North American sports – that this is hardly hyperbole.
Unlike other sports trophies like MLB’s World Series trophy and the NFL’s Vince Lombardi trophy, the Stanley Cup is not reproduced every year. The Cup that exists today is the same one that’s been in use since 1963 when the original bowl was retired. When the captain of the winning team raises the Cup above his head in the traditional celebration this year, he’ll be raising the same cup that’s been hoisted by giants of the game like Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby.
Their names, along with more than 3,000 others, have been engraved on The Cup’s bands; the names of Stanley Cup champions are literally etched into the history books.
Like its legendary status, The Cup itself has grown over its 125-year-plus history. Originally a single bowl measuring just 7.28 inches tall, today’s Stanley Cup is nearly three feet tall and weighs 34.5 pounds. The size is fitting for a trophy that’s considered by many to be the most famous in the world.
Like baseball, hockey is an analytics-driven sport. Some of the metrics used are simple. The number of goals a team scores in a game is their Goals For (GF) and the number of goals they allow is their Goals Against (GA); the difference between the two is a team’s Goal Differential (GD).
Other metrics are more complex. Corsi and Fenwick are two of the most common advanced metrics used in hockey analytics. Corsi (CF, CA, CF%) statistics measure shots on goal, goals, missed shots and blocked shots. Fenwick (FF, FA, FF%) statistics are similar, but exclude blocked shots which are sometimes considered to be a matter of luck and not skill. Corsi and Fenwick stats, measured for both teams and individual players, are indicative of how often a team controls the puck compared to their opponent.
PDO, the sum of a team’s On-Ice Shooting Percentage (oiSH%) and On-Ice Save Percentage (oiSV%), gives similar insight into a team’s overall performance.
Other advanced statistics are situational. HDF (High-danger scoring chances for) counts the number of shot attempts that a team makes from the slot and rebounds. HDF can be used to derive other stats like HDF% (the percentage of high-danger chances in a team’s favor) and HDGF (the number of high-danger chances successfully converted to goals).
As with all sports analytics, these metrics are derived from past performance and aren’t necessarily predictive of how teams will perform in the future. But they can tell us a lot about a team’s style of play, their strengths and weaknesses, and how we might expect them to match up against their opponents.
Comparing advanced metrics across the regular season, the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning look relatively evenly matched heading into the Stanley Cup final.
At even strength (when both teams have all five players on the ice), Tampa Bay has had a slight edge when it comes to controlling the puck (FF%) but has been less effective than Colorado at converting or stopping good scoring chances (axDiff). As a result, Colorado’s season-long goal differential (+78) is about 44% greater than that of Tampa Bay (+54). That disparity is reflected in both teams’ Simple Rating System (SRS), a metric that rates teams based on their average goal differential and strength of schedule (SOS) and which Colorado leads.
When both teams find themselves in high danger scoring chances, however, they’ve had similar success in converting those situations to goals (HDC%).
Looking at pre- and post-All Star Break splits for some more basic metrics like the percentage of shots converted to goals (S%) and percentage of faceoffs won (FO%), Tampa Bay appears to have the edge. By graphing these metrics as 10 game rolling averages, however, we can see that Tampa Bay’s advantage here was relatively minor for most of the season.
And if we compare the teams’ win percentages, we can see that Colorado’s edge in advanced metrics contributed more to their success than Tampa Bay’s advantage in the more basic metrics.
For more than half of the regular season, Colorado’s win percentage sat comfortably above Tampa Bay’s. That trend continued into the Stanley Cup playoffs; Colorado’s road to the final only took them 14 games (4-0, 4-2, 4-0) compared to Tampa Bay’s 17 (4-3, 4-0, 4-2).
You can explore this data yourself in our 2022 Stanley Cup Final Preview workbook.
Because Tampa Bay and Colorado only faced each other twice during the regular season, there isn’t much head-to-head data we can look at to predict what might happen in the Stanley Cup final this week.
Looking at our metrics, Colorado seems to have a few advantages. Colorado’s playoff goal differential (25) is more than double that of Tampa Bay (11) despite playing three fewer playoff games. That easier road to the final may also benefit Colorado, as their team has had more rest since their last series and less overall fatigue.
Colorado’s higher CF% (53% to Tampa Bay’s 50.1%) tells us that they should have more control over the puck, and when they find themselves in good scoring situations, their higher axDiff (+33 to Tampa Bay’s +19) indicates that they should have more success in converting those chances to goals.
But the series won’t be so cut and dry, and there’s one area where Tampa Bay has the “x-factor” – experience. In a high-pressure situation like the Stanley Cup final, it helps if you’ve been there before and know how to meet the moment. And as the winner of the last two Stanley Cups, Tampa Bay has that experience in spades.
The 2022 Stanley Cup final begins Wednesday, June 15 at 5pm PST/8pm EST on ABC and ESPN+.