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Minnesota Golden Gopher Hockey: A Statistical Anomaly

Over the past four games, the Gophers' defensive numbers are trending in the right direction. But an odd statistical anomaly might be the reason the team struggled though the middle part of the season.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Let me start by saying I'm no MVofDT when it comes to statistics.  He's an expert; I'm not.  He uses black magic to generate visualizations; I use Microsoft Excel (at least I changed the colors on the chart from blue and red to maroon and gold! RAH!).

I started with a simple premise: Last year, the Golden Gophers' defense was better than this year.  I created charts and graphs and spent a lot of time on it.  Turns out, it wasn't that interesting.  Obviously last year's defense was better than this year.  The goals against average was 2.15, this year it's 2.54.  Try stretching this paragraph out over 500 words and you'll know how I felt about my article.

Then I noticed something odd about the results this season: Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) has four shutouts this year, the team has allowed 2 goals (no more, no less) on eleven occasions, but the team has not limited an opponent to just one goal (no more, no less) in a single game.  Odd, right?  Thus began my foray into a statistics-based article.

Here are some facts.  Over the 28 games played this season, the Gophers are allowing 2.54 goals against per game, with a standard deviation of 1.52.  Based on those two numbers, and assuming a normal distribution around the average, we can determine the frequency at which the Gophers should allow only one goal.  By that I mean, over a long enough period of games, statistical anomalies (like never having a 1 goal against game) should disappear.  I generated a fantasy season in which Minnesota played 4,898 games.

In 1,045 of those games, or 22% of the population, the team allowed just one goal against.  Translated to this season, we would have expected the Gophers to have had six one-goal-against games so far.  Strangely, the number of two-goals-against games is much higher than the distribution predicts by a ratio of 1.5:1.  Having trouble visualizing?  Excel to the rescue!

Hockey Anomaly

Now, what you do with this data is up to you. You could cherry pick games in which you could remove a goal from the opponent, and see how the record changes, essentially turning the two-goals-against games into one-goal against games.  Using this method, you could turn two losses into [at least] ties, both of which came against Minnesota-Duluth.  You could also turn a tie against Wisconsin into a win.

The rest of the two goal games are already wins.

This changes the season record from 16-9-3 to 17-7-4.  If they end up winning the two games against UMD (say in OT), the record is 19-7-2.  The second scenario probably puts the Gophers into the top 10 in the Pairwise rankings.

I realize that this whole exercise is fallacy, but it's interesting.

If you want to talk about why games are either shutouts or two goals against affairs, I don't even have a valid opinion.  The easy explanation is something murky like "mental toughness,"  but I don't think that's fair.  It's not like two goals against is a bad number for a game.  The shortcoming in the three games I mentioned above was below-average offensive production rather than a defensive problem.

If you're looking for a way to connect this data to this weekend's series against Penn State, it won't be easy.  The Nittany Lions have decent offensive (3.39 GPG) and OK defensive (2.75 GAA) stats, but they have played a predictably atrocious schedule (48th out of 59, by KRACH).  Even their conference schedule has been light, as they've already played 10 of their 12 scheduled contests against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State (who just swept Penn State last weekend).

The stretch run may be less kind as includes six games with the top teams in the conference, Michigan and Minnesota.

To wrap this up, if the Gophers allow only two goals per game this weekend, they should be in a pretty good position to pick up the sweep.  Penn State does not play particularly good defense, and they don't have a goaltender on the roster that scares anyone.  Matthew Skoff (Winnipeg Jets) sees the majority of minutes, but his save percentage is just barely north of .900.  Minnesota's offense should have a productive weekend.

Obviously, if the law of averages has any meaning this weekend, the defense is overdue for some one-goal against games, and if that's the case, it will be a very good weekend for Minnesota.  So here's my prediction, for the series, Minnesota sweeps Penn State on the road, winning 3-1 and 4-1.  Math wins.