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Game-breakers: Defining the clutch player, and discovering a few lurking on the Habs roster

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Having the ability to score that big goal when your team needs it most is a lauded intangible in the sport of hockey. Looking at a few key situations can make it visible from a statistical perspective.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

With a mind to try to quantify what is seen as a key intangible quality of a hockey player, I decided to take a look at game-breaking ability. I wanted to find evidence of that clutchness of our favourite overachievers. To define a game-breaker, I consider him a player who would score a timely goal to help his team's fortunes.

I focused my attention on two scoring states at five-on-five: tied, and trailing by one goal. Why five-on-five? Because those third- and fourth-liners that we love so much rarely see power-play time, so they would be frozen out of an all-situations analysis. We should see the importance of their contributions by this analysis, especially if we calculate their scoring per 60 minutes of even-strength time.

Basically, the bottom-six players should be on the same footing as the two first lines. I limited the sample to those who had played a minimum of 10 minutes at five-on-five in each of the past four seasons, and had scored at least two goals in each season.

Let's see the game-breaking ability of the players in the NHL over the last four year.

Tiebreaking NHL goal-scorers

There have been several players to reach double digits in goals scored while the game is tied since the start of 2012-13, while there are only a select few who can give their team a lead during five-on-five play on a regular basis.

Trailing NHL goal-scorers

It is much harder to score when trailing by one than when teams are even on the scoreboard, and very few players have shown a repeatable ability to erase a scoreboard deficit when both teams are playing with their full complement of players. The cutoff for elite status in that category has been about 15 goals over the past four seasons.

With a baseline set for what constitutes clutch goal-scoring in the current NHL, here are the combined results for the Habs last year. I took only the first 15 players in terms of primary points per 60 minutes of five-on-five. (Click a column heading to sort the table by that category.)

Player Pos Minutes G G/60 Primary A Primary points (P1) P1/60
Alex Galchenyuk C 614.0 16 1.56 3 19 1.86
Max Pacioretty LW 638.0 9 0.85 10 19 1.79
Dale Weise RW 429.0 6 0.84 3 9 1.26
Tomas Fleischmann LW 498.0 6 0.72 2 8 0.96
Brendan Gallagher RW 396.5 5 0.76 3 8 1.21
Lars Eller C 554.0 5 0.54 1 6 0.65
Sven Andrighetto RW 335.8 4 0.72 4 8 1.43
David Desharnais C 467.0 4 0.51 6 10 1.29
Tomas Plekanec C 619.8 4 0.39 8 12 1.16
Mark Barberio D 250.0 2 0.48 2 4 0.96
Daniel Carr LW 139.0 2 0.86 0 2 0.86
Andrei Markov D 809.0 1 0.07 10 11 0.82
Darren Dietz D 84.0 1 0.71 0 1 0.71
Lucas Lessio LW 84.3 1 0.71 0 1 0.71
Joel Hanley D 60.0 0 0.00 3 3 3.00

Joel Hanley is a surprise there because of the small sample size. Usually defencemen tend to score less and benefit more from secondary assists. Nonetheless, four of them appear in the top 15, and Nathan Beaulieu, Morgan Ellis, and P.K. Subban ranked 17, 18, and 19, respectively.

For Mark Barberio to figure in the top 15 is a good thing for him, and for a Subban-less team in 2016-17.

I'm not surprised to see Andrei Markov is there. No matter what some of his haters might say about him, the guy is still efficient in terms of offence in the twilight of his career.

Let's get back to our focus. Alex Galchenyuk appears with the second-highest primary points per 60 minutes, but his pace for goals is in another class. Of his 16 game-breaking goals, he scored eight when the game was tied and an amazing eight when the Habs were trailing (remember, the elite players have scored around 15 over the last few years combined). He benefitted from a shooting percentage of 17.8%, something that he probably will not repeat. He almost doubled the player who has been known as the designated sniper, Max Pacioretty.

Then in third is the ever-surprising Dale Weise. Yes, looking at it this way, the guy is as clutch as Pacioretty in terms of goals per 60 minutes. The remainder of that early-season third line is here, as well: David Desharnais and Tomas Fleischmann. With Weise, the issue has never been his offence but more his shot suppression when on the ice. The two-way aspect of game-breaking would need to be analyzed more in depth in another article. This is just a picture of last year.

Lars Eller is a special case. Out of his five goals, four of them came when trailing by one. Pacioretty and Gallagher were close to him that category with three goals each.

Applications

It's tough to score when trailing. One year is a very small sample size, but nonetheless it was the first time that Galchenyuk was allowed to play in the centre of the top line for an extended period of time, and he showed great things.

If you are trailing, play the guy with another beast like Brendan Gallagher, who was injured last year and still managed five game-breaking goals.

This year's Stanley Cup Playoffs showed the importance of a good third line. If used well it can be a major contributor to the team's offence, as Desharnais, Fleischmann and Weise were in the first part of the season. I can't praise the guys because of the circumstances of their deployment and shooting luck, but neither can I deny the fact that they scored those important goals that helped the team hold the NHL's best record two months into the campaign.

Desharnais definitely can fit that third-line role with proper offensively oriented forwards. If the coach wants to shelter new guys like Artturi Lehkonen and Alexander Radulov, the team could reap the benefits of that with timely production from these guys.