When you think of teams that win the Stanley Cup, you usually come back to these main trends: quality goaltending, reliable defense and explosive offense. The Chicago Blackhawks, though, are once again proving the importance of one of hockey's most fundamental concepts: good old-fashioned puck control.
The Blackhawks were the regular-season's best team by shot differential, outshooting their opponents by 731 shots, or 8.9 shots per game. The Pittsburgh Penguins, the second-place team, were not even half as good, outshooting their opponents by 4.2 shots per game. Not only were the Blackhawks the season's best team by this measure, but they were one of the all-time best. Here are the top 12 teams of the past 12 years, all of whom managed to outshoot their opponents by at least 550 shots on the season:
The Best At Shot Differential
These are the best 12 teams of the past 12 years in the shot differential category, which speaks to puck possession ability. Check out how far most of them have advanced.
Shots/ Shots Against/ Playoff
Team Season Game Game Differential Result
Red Wings 2008 34.4 23.5 10.9 Won Stanley Cup
Red Wings 2007 33.8 24.6 9.2 Lost conference final
Blackhawks 2010 34.1 25.1 9.0 In Stanley Cup final
Red Wings 2009 36.2 27.7 8.5 Lost Stanley Cup final
Devils 2003 31.7 23.6 8.1 Won Stanley Cup
Blues 2000 29.8 22.1 7.7 Lost first round
Red Wings 2006 34.1 26.6 7.5 Lost first round
Devils 2000 33.1 25.6 7.5 Won Stanley Cup
Blues 1999 30.1 22.8 7.3 Lost second round
Flyers 1999 29.9 22.9 7.0 Lost first round
Devils 2001 31.6 24.7 6.9 Lost Stanley Cup final
Blues 2001 30.4 23.6 6.8 Lost conference final
This is a very good group of teams, containing three Stanley Cup champions, two other Stanley Cup finalists and two conference finalists. Eight of the 12 teams on the list made the conference finals.
We can also see that the list is dominated by three teams: the 2006-2009 Detroit Red Wings, the 2000-2003 New Jersey Devils, and the 1999-2001 St. Louis Blues. Both the Wings and the Devils were the dominant team of their era. The Blues had the misfortune of peaking at the same time that Colorado and Dallas were also at their zenith, and never managed to break through in the playoffs.
What do all these teams have in common that allows them to dominate play and shots to this extent?
Multiple puck-moving defensemen. The Red Wings' blue line has been patrolled for nearly two decades by Nicklas Lidstrom, arguably the best of his generation. In the 2000s, he was paired first with Mathieu Schneider and later with Brian Rafalski. The 2000-2003 New Jersey Devils had one of the finest troikas of defensemen ever assembled, with Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and, again, Rafalski. The 1999-2001 St. Louis Blues had a young Chris Pronger and a gray-haired Al MacInnis, a combination that -- with better goaltending and a little luck -- could have produced a Cup (as Pronger has since shown). While all of these teams had All-Star forwards, their defensemen are what really set them apart.
It now becomes obvious why these Blackhawks are so good at outshooting their opposition. In Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell, the Blackhawks have assembled the best blue line in the NHL. Keith is the heir to Lidstrom as the finest two-way defenseman in the NHL; even on an Olympic team with Niedermayer, Pronger, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, he led the team in ice time. Campbell is the offensive sparkplug, capable of making the most dangerous clearing passes and jumping into the rush. Seabrook is the defensive rock, tasked with shutting down the opposition's top lines, but with enough offensive skill that he's dangerous with the puck and can still man the power play. Among all NHLers, Keith was No. 1 in outshooting the opposition while he was on the ice, with the Hawks outshooting their opponents by 259 shots at even strength. Campbell was No. 2.
The Hawks are also helped by the complete game that their forwards -- think Jonathan Toews -- bring to the ice. Apart from his scoring touch, Toews is one of the best faceoff men in the NHL, winning an incredible 57.3 percent of his draws, second only to Patrice Bergeron among players with 1,200 or more faceoffs. He also is among the league leaders in takeaways, no small feat when your team seemingly always has the puck. The Blackhawks have many other forwards, such as Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland, who can both play physically and threaten to score. All this helps puck possession.
The Blackhawks' recipe is simple: Take a few All-Star defensemen, add some forwards who know how to backcheck, and never let the other guys touch the puck. It's a recipe that other teams would love to emulate -- and the Philadelphia Flyers can only hope to stop.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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