For years now, Florida Panthers fans have had to deal with their team limping out of the gate and falling behind early on, failing to even keep the games interesting before bowing out and going through the motions until the end of the third period.
This season was a little different, as the team could at least keep the games interesting, but the poor starts continued, with the team being outscored 41-59 in the opening frame, with two tilts left to go. Now, we know that goals are random events in hockey (see law #3), and so we'll look at the team's score-adjusted shot attempts for percentage (SAT%) at 5 on 5 in the first period, and sure enough, the team only controlled 49.3% of the shot attempts during the first period, which is a mediocre 22nd in the league.
The third period was similar to the first, as the team was outscored by opponents 61-66, and had a sc-adj SAT% of 50.2%; better than the 49.3% in the first, but still in the bottom half of the league overall, as this percentage is good for only 18th in the league.
Move onto the second period, however, and things start to get weird. Here, the Panthers actually performed incredibly well, outscoring opponents 88-79, and posting a sc-adj SAT% of 53.9%, good for 4th in the league. Overall, the change between their performance in the second period and their performance in the other two periods is the greatest in the league.
So, in the first and third periods, the Panthers are barely in the top two thirds of the league.
In the second period? They're one of the top five teams in the league.
Something's a little fishy there.
What could be the reasons for the differences in SAT% in the periods? Random variance could be the case, but it doesn't quite make sense here; we can see trends in other teams in the NHL. Some are like the Panthers; better during period two than periods one and three, while some are good during periods one and three, but poor during period two, the opposite of the Panthers.
So what else could be a factor? What changes between the odd number periods and the even period for every team in the league?
The answer is something that the NHL has started to use in overtime to increase goal scoring; the long change.
More goals are scored in the second period than in the odd periods, mainly because teams have to skate further in order to change lines. This results in teams getting pinned in their own zone more often than they normally would, and with fatigued defenders on the ice, opposing teams are more likely to score.
So the Panthers excel when they have the chance to pin their opponents in their zone, either on the forecheck, or by dominating the neutral zone and consistently maintaining possession while entering the zone, and then cycling down low. The team's best forechecker was Sean Bergenheim, who started to be in and out of the lineup after Game 37, the first point circled on the graph below. The team's best player at entering the zone with possession could arguably be Jaromir Jagr, or one of his linemates, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Those three were also incredible when it came to cycling the puck down low in the zone. The team acquired Jagr before Game 62; his first game is the second point circled on the graph.
So both players had a positive effect on SAT% in the second period, likely due to their styles of play. Jagr in particular has had a unique effect on the team; since his arrival, their SAT% in the odd numbered periods has gone down by -1.5%, while their second period SAT% has gone up by 7.8%.
Though it's no guarantee that players or playing style effect SAT% in specific periods, the oddity of this trend certainly begs for additional analysis. The amazing war-on-ice.com currently doesn't allow us to separate player performance by period, though hopefully that will change soon.
It's not too much of a stretch to think that player style will make certain players more effective in odd numbered periods than they are in even numbered periods, and I think that we can take the peculiar statistics of the Panthers this season as a sign that this may be worth looking into.
After all, wouldn't it be nice to know that the Cats could add Player X and finally stop starting out hockey games looking slower than a three-toed sloth on it's way to take a nap?