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The Kraken and the trouble with the early goal

The Kraken finally broke their losing streak on Sunday, and against the Washington Capitals no less. It’s the kind of spark the team desperately needed after a sluggish start to the year. The strange thing is, they’re in many ways exactly the team many projected them to be prior to the season — they don’t generate a ton of shots offensively and they’re really good at limiting the amount of shots their opponents get in a given game. And yet, at this moment, their record is worse than what many of those early projections suggested it would be.

There are plenty of reasons for this, but one big one seems to be that Seattle has a tendency to always be playing from behind. Even in this win over Washington, we saw it again — it took less than 4 minutes for the Caps to open the scoring. Seattle has scored first in exactly a third of their games (6/18 so far). And even when they do score first, the opponent never seems to take too long to catch up.

The Kraken have given up a goal in the first 5 minutes of a game 8 times. They’ve allowed one before the halfway mark of the first period 11 times. In only 3 games have they managed to prevent their opponent from scoring at all in the opening period.

Now, pitching a shutout in the NHL is hard to do. While this all feels really bad, one does have to acknowledge that nearly every other team is giving up at least a goal in nearly every other game. Are the Kraken actually allowing goals earlier than a normal team?

To find out, I used a method called survival analysis. Survival analysis is a statistical method used to analyze the expected time frame until a specific event will occur. It has previously been used by Pro Football Focus to determine how long an offensive line can hold up before allowing their quarterback to be sacked. We can adapt it to hockey to see how long a typical team can hang on to a shutout bid before giving up their first goal.

Using data from the past two full NHL seasons plus every game already played this year, here’s how likely teams are to hold on to a shutout after any given point in the game.

As expected, the likelihood that a team has not allowed a goal decreases as the game goes along, but never quite reaches 0. That accounts for the chance of not allowing a goal in regulation.

Now, let’s isolate just the 18 Kraken games this year and see what their survival curve looks like compared to the league average.

First of all: yikes. As it turns out, the Kraken are indeed far more likely to give up an early goal than an average NHL team. That severe downward slope on the left-hand side shows that Seattle’s tendency to give up an early goal is real, identifiable, and abnormal.

We can isolate any team in the league in this manner as well to see how they compare to league average. Take, for instance, the Washington Capitals.

The Caps (featuring Kraken legend Vitek Vanecek) have been above-average so far this year at taking shutouts deeper into the game. By the 10-minute mark of the first period, there’s nearly a 3 in 4 chance Washington hasn’t yet given up a goal. The Kraken, at that same point in time, are already more likely than not to have allowed a goal.

Some of these early goals are the result of a great play by the opponent…

And others simply feel like rotten luck…

The real question that’s on every Kraken fan’s mind now is a simple, somewhat deflating one.

Is it going to be like this all year?

We can’t know for sure, but what we can do is look back at last year to see just how well each team’s survival curve in their first 17 games predicted their survival curve for the rest of the year. And it turns out there’s reason for Seattle to be confident in a turnaround!

Take a peek at some of the teams with red curves (representing the first 17 games) below the league average line. Calgary, LA, and Ottawa jump out a bit as similar to Seattle’s curve this year. All three of those teams finished the rest of the year with a survival curve right around league-average. The nerds typically refer to this as “regression to the mean.” That means the early defensive struggles that have plagued Seattle are less likely a fundamental team problem, and more likely an unfortunate streak of bad luck.

And some of that bad luck already appears to be turning around. Yes, there was yet another early goal on Sunday, but that Capitals game was arguably the best we’ve seen Philipp Grubauer look all year. He made several key saves in this one, including a a few off the rush in the first period that kept Seattle in it long enough to tie the game. And the way he survived a barrage of shots in the third period really cemented the notion that the Vezina finalist goaltender the Kraken signed in the offseason is still there.

If you’re entering every Kraken game with the feeling of an impending opponent goal, there’s a really good reason for that. They do in fact give up goals much earlier than any other team in the league. The good news is that history tells us it won’t be a season-long issue, and they’ll become a far more normal team by the end of the year. And if they can manage to at least stay tied by the end of the first period a bit more often, this team will find it much easier to win more hockey games.