U SPORTS WHKY: The Impact of “Puck Luck” in Toronto’s Run to the McCaw Cup

“Puck Luck” has often been critical to winning hockey games, which was evident throughout the last season of U SPORTS hockey. In his latest project, Rich Coffey examines some of the biggest wins in U SPORTS this season and how puck luck affected their possibilities. 

Toronto, ON- We are getting to about that time in quarantine where we try and do new things. For me, that new thing was math. More specifically, the math involved in advanced hockey stats. I was never really great at understanding math in school, but advanced stats have always fascinated me, and I figure I have time now; I am a huge hockey fan, might as well try playing around with some numbers.

That leads me to this piece. U Sports hockey databases (despite all the tremendous work the folks around U SPORTS have done) unfortunately do not provide a significant amount of statistical data to analyze. There is one thing that is examinable from U SPORTS data, and that is PDO. Pretty straight forward, PDO is one of the simplest advanced statistics and is essentially puck luck.

It is taking a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage and putting them together. Sportsnet did an excellent job of explaining the value of why this is important:

“Because the combined shot and save percentages will always equal 100 per cent — a shot on goal either goes in or it doesn’t — a team above that number can usually expect a regression over a large enough sample size, while one below can expect the opposite”. (Sportsnet, October 2018)

Basically saying the higher the PDO, the more likely luck is factoring into your play. All this leads me to the main point I want to examine.  

The Toronto Varsity Blues 2020 Playoff Run

Benjamin Steiner/49 Sportnet

The Toronto Varsity Blues had the looks of an incredible season in 2019-2020 and looked to carry it into the 2020 McCaw Cup Playoffs. The roster carried by offensive firepower in Natasha Anthanasakos and Gabby De Serres and strong play between the pipes from Erica Fryer boasted the top record in the OUA by eight points.

McCaw Cup QuarterFinal 

#1 Toronto vs #8 Guelph

Now, this matchup was the most likely to be a walk in the park for Toronto after losing most of their top talent. In spring 2019, the Gryphons spent the season in limbo, only earning their spot on the final day of play. At least in this round, the numbers back up the results seen on the ice.

Game 1: Toronto win 3-2
Toronto PDO: 99.8 (6.3 SH% + .935 SV%)
Guelph PDO: 100.0 (6.4 SH% + .936 SV%)

This game was interesting because Guelph was right on the money at 100 percent, and Toronto was very slightly worse. The main reason for this goes to the goalie for Guelph Aurore Beaulieu, who stopped 44 of 47 shots, but it was a Gabrielle De Serres overtime winner that sealed up Game One for Toronto.

When they got into the playoffs, though, it almost felt like either they stepped off the pedal a little, or things got just more challenging, but the Blues struggled to dominate the way they had previously. At least from my eyes, it felt like that; even as this team marched to the McCaw Cup, something just felt off about their play. So with the championship a month and a half in the rearview, I thought I would look at their PDO from each series and see if it could answer some of the questions.

Game 2: Toronto win 2-1

Toronto PDO: 101.4 (5.1 SH% + .963 SV%)

Guelph PDO: 98.6 (3.7 SH% + .949 SV%)

In this game, the discrepancy between the teams showed a little bit harder as Beaulieu matched Erica Fryer shot for the most part. Still, it was Toronto’s finishing ability that kicked in when it mattered with a Laura Ellis overtime winner ending the first-round series in two games for Toronto.

Toronto Series PDO: 100.5 (5.6 SH% + .949 SV%)
Guelph Series PDO: 99.3 (5.1 SH% + .942 SV%)

This series was pretty straight forward. Aurore Beaulieu was solid in the Gryphon net, stopping 76 of 81 shots, but it was Guelph’s lack of offence (5.1% shooting percentage in the playoffs vs 9.1% in the regular season) that doomed them. This was especially the case given the strong play of Erica Fryer. The numbers back it up as well, as Toronto, thanks to Fryer’s strong game and a regular pace of the offence, ended up just over that magic 100 that PDO is looking for, while Guelph ended up close but was doomed by the lack of scoring.

McCaw Cup SemiFinal
#1 Toronto vs #5 Ryerson

This matchup posed an exciting challenge for the Toronto Varsity Blues. The Ryerson Rams had struggled in the two matchups during the season, losing 2-0 in October and 6-4 in a wild game in January, but Ryerson was riding high heading into this series. A team that continually has been on the rise the past three seasons, the Rams knocked off the Brock Badgers in two games to be the only lower seed to advanced out of the quarterfinals. They entered this end of February series searching for their first trip to the McCaw Cup in program history.

Game 1: Ryerson win 3-2
Toronto PDO:  96.6 (8.6 SH% + .880 SV%)
Ryerson PDO:  103.2 (12.0 SH% + .912 SV%)

This game was the one that made people nervous about U of T’s chances, as for one night, the puck luck shifted dramatically in the other direction. Ryerson, fresh off that two-game sweep of Brock, would pick up two goals in the first, add one in the second and hang on to top the Blues as Erica Fryer seemed slightly off of her game all night, putting up her worst single-game performance of the playoffs.

Game 2: Toronto win 4-3 in Double Overtime
Toronto PDO: 100.1 (9.5 SH% + .906 SV%)
Ryerson PDO: 99.8 (9.3 SH% + .905 SV%)

This game was by far the biggest coin flip of the entire McCaw Cup Playoffs. After a Lauren Nicholson goal made it 1-0 heading into the third, the teams went back and forth five times before heading into overtime tied at three. It took 25:05 of overtime, but thanks to a little bit of puck luck for Taylor Trussler, she managed to pot the winner, and Toronto headed back home for Game Three.

Game 3: Toronto win 3-2 in Overtime
Toronto PDO: 101.4 (13.6 SH% + .952 SV%)
Ryerson PDO: 91.1 (4.7 SH% + .864 SV%)

If there are Ryerson Rams fans reading this, this is where things get very frustrating. Despite for all intents and purposes, running the Blues up and down the ice Ryerson could not get seem to get that goal that they needed. They managed to fight back from two deficits to send it to overtime off the back of a beautiful Olivia Giardetti goal.

In overtime, the Rams were in utter domination mode for 15 minutes, outshooting Toronto 10 to 1. Still, it was that one shot, a little squeaker by Natasha Athanasakos, that snuck past Rachel Seeley and gave the Blues a chance at their first McCaw Cup in 17 years.

Toronto Series PDO: 101.5 (10.3 SH% + .912 SV%)
Ryerson Series PDO: 97.4 (8.0 SH% + .894 SV%)

In their second-round series, you started to see the influence of puck luck begin to shift, both in the numbers and just what happened. They did have their worst game for puck luck in Game One as Erica Fryer struggled mightily, but in Game Two, their fate shifted, and they got the overtime winner to push them to a rubber match. In that rubber match, you seriously saw the impact of puck luck as Rachel Seeley couldn’t make all the stops she needed to, Erica Fryer seemingly just made ALL of the stops, and the Blues were able to squeeze past a strong Rams team to the McCaw Cup Final.

McCaw Cup Final #1 Toronto vs #2 York

Toronto Wins 3-1
Toronto PDO: 112.8  (15.7 SH% + 97.1 SV%)

York PDO: 87.1  (2.9 SH% + .842 SV%)
This Game. Oh boy, this game, this was the game where you start to feel like the puck luck was just truly going the Varsity Blues way. As the absurd 25.7 Point discrepancy shows, the York Lions could not get anything to go right for them on that cold March night at Varsity Arena. It wasn’t for lack of trying; they outshot Toronto in each period, 34-19 across the entire game, and they almost tied it at the end if not for a controversial call back of the goal. Time and again, though, Erica Fryer stood on her head as she had every game during the McCaw Cup playoffs for the Varsity Blues, ultimately taking home McCaw Cup MVP.

So what did we learn from this exercise? It is pretty clear that as the 2020 McCaw Cup Playoffs rolled on that the Toronto Varsity Blues got on an absolute PDO bender, including the incredible difference in the McCaw Cup Final. Is that really a bad thing though? PDO by virtue of its design is analyzing luck and when things get brought down to just three game series or even single games luck is a factor that can play a significant part. The Toronto Varsity Blues certainly found a way to use luck to their advantage and that is what gives them the right to raise a new banner for women’s hockey at Varsity Arena in Fall 2020.

(Toronto Varsity Blues)

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