The Neutral Zone Battle

As anticipated the series between the Sharks and Blues has been an absolute cage-match for puck possession. Both teams have fought for every inch of ice in St. Louis, and I'm sure that will continue as the series moves out west. As we discussed extensively in the lead up to the series, The front-line of this battle has taken place in the neutral zone. Both teams are well known around the league for a ferocious 1st and 2nd man in on the forecheck. There is no doubt that when it comes to generating chances, the bulk of the work is through both teams' forecheck. This raises the question, who has won the neutral zone battle?

While the definitive answer probably involves tracking zone entries, (as has been tracked for the Flyers at Broad Street) which directly addresses the neutral zone, that's unlikely to happen here. We can, however, use a surrogate in even strength shift by shift CORSI to help uncover some answers. I took the NHL play by play feed from both games 1 and 2, and broke down the CORSI (which is a stat that we can use as a substitute for possession) numbers into shifts and zones. The 2 broad categories of shifts are; 1) those that come directly after a faceoff without any player coming off the ice (labeled 1st Shift), and 2) any shift in which atleast 1 player has changed since the faceoff (labeled On The Fly). I further broke down each shift based on where the last faceoff took place.

A brief disclaimer: This data is cut sushi thin, and is by no means a definitive answer to the question posed above. I think we may start to see trends in the data, but we won't know for sure how everything falls until this series is over. Realistically, it would probably take somewhere around 30-40 games before we could claim statistical significance, ie. half-predictable, half-noise. I should also recognize JaredL, who first published similar data earlier in the year. That's a good reference article for league wide averages.


What you see here above in the bar graph, and in numerical form below in the table is what I call "1st Shift." This is the Corsi% (proportion of goals, shots, misses, and blocked shots directed at the opposing net) for a shift directly following a faceoff in which none of the players have changed. I further subdivided the data into zones. Above we see the data split by a offensive zone face off win (FAC won O), neutral zone faceoff win (FAC won N), and defensive zone faceoff win (FAC won D).

The table above has interesting trends.

  • SJ looks to be slightly better after an offensive and neutral zone faceoff win. STL, however, has done a better job of controlling possession after a defensive zone win. This seems consistent with what I've seen on the ice, STL's forecheck has limited SJ's ability to break out of the defensive zone.
  • In fact the Blues generated as many shots (Corsi For/60) after losing an offensive zone draw (the equivalent of a SJ defensive zone win) as a neutral zone win. This effect may be due to home ice last change.
  • Both teams have been very responsible defensively in their own end. As Neutral has discussed in both scoring chance recaps, the majority of the quality scoring chances have come off the rush, further highlighting the importance of getting through the neutral zone cleanly./

The bright spot for the sharks has been their play following an offensive zone faceoff win. The Sharks have generated a lot of shots in the limited time they've spent after an offensive zone faceoff, producing a +50 Corsi/60. The overall Corsi/60 after a neutral zone faceoff is split exactly even with 16 a piece (ie. 0 Corsi/60). The blues have generated a lot of shots as well. As has been noted in both game reviews, there has been a lot of shots from the perimeter, with both teams doing a good job of limiting quality scoring chances from dangerous areas. Despite slightly elevated Corsi/60 totals in their respective zones as compared to league average, the scoring chance count has not been similarly elevated. This certainly confirms the fact that both teams have stayed very responsible in their own end.

1st Shift

Last Faceoff Shifts TIME H Corsi V Corsi H Corsi% V Corsi% H Corsi For/60 V Corsi For/60 H Corsi/60
FACwon OHOME 23 9.97 15 3 0.83 0.17 90.30 18.06 72.24
FACwon NHOME 26 15.88 11 7 0.61 0.39 41.55 26.44 15.11
FACwon DHOME 17 9.15 3 3 0.50 0.50 19.67 19.67 0.00
FACwon O AWAY 17 6.52 1 14 0.07 0.93 9.21 128.90 -119.69
FACwon N AWAY 19 11.22 5 9 0.36 0.64 26.75 48.14 -21.40
FACwon D AWAY 22 12.42 9 5 0.64 0.36 43.49 24.16 19.33
Total 124 65.15 44 41 0.52 0.48 40.52 37.76 2.76

Next in the table below we have what I call "On The Fly." This represents a shift in which at least 1 player from either team has changed. "Total All" at the bottom is both "1st Shift" and "On The Fly" combined. There is a lot of noise in the individual data by zone, so I think it's best to look at the Total column. After 46+ minutes of even strength play following a change the Sharks and Blues are pretty evenly matched.

On The Fly

Last Faceoff Shifts TIME H Corsi V Corsi H Corsi% V Corsi% H CorsiFor/60 V Corsi For/60 H Corsi/60
FACwon OHOME 22 5.67 7 7 0.50 0.50 74.12 74.12 0.00
FACwon NHOME 50 14.30 21 16 0.57 0.43 88.11 67.13 20.98
FACwon DHOME 41 15.65 12 19 0.39 0.61 46.01 72.84 -26.84
FACwon O AWAY 14 2.12 7 8 0.47 0.53 198.43 226.77 -28.35
FACwon N AWAY 9 4.07 5 1 0.83 0.17 73.77 14.75 59.02
FACwon D AWAY 24 5.00 11 9 0.55 0.45 132.00 108.00 24.00
Total 160 46.80 63 60 0.51 0.49 80.77 76.92 3.85
Total All 284 111.95 107 101 0.51 0.49 57.35 54.13 3.22

We'll have to re-visit this data as the series continues before we can claim a definitive answer to our question of who has been the better neutral zone team. The data above is pretty consistent with what I've been seeing on the ice. The Sharks have struggled at times moving the puck out of their own end, but overall have done reasonably well. It seems as though the Sharks coaching staff has emphasized quick short passes to escape the Blues forecheck, which has worked well for most of the players. In San Jose McLellan will get the matchups he wants (although it might look similar), and provide more insight into which team has controlled the neutral zone.