April 13, 2012

Western Conference Playoff Picks 2012

As is customary, I'm posting half of my picks after the playoffs already started. I swear, though, I picked these before they played.
The best teams in the West are Vancouver, Detroit, and Nashville, but because of matchups only one of them will likely make it to the Conference Finals. As a result, I predict a very anticlimactic Western Conference Final featuring Vancouver and Phoenix. Go Yotes?

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
Everyone knows the Kings' story this year: they can't score on you, and you can't score on them. Defensively, Vancouver has similar numbers, though LA does have a slight edge. Offensively, Vancouver should blow them out of the water. A low-scoring series benefits the Kings, but Vancouver can play that game, too, if they need to. Vancouver lets up more shots than LA, so they need the good Luongo to show up. If he does, the Kings can't win.
Vancouver in 6

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks
St. Louis is good, but painfully bottom-heavy. San Jose is more balanced in that they're mediocre at everything except the penalty kill, which they are awful at. The Sharks don't have the goaltending to win a defensive battle, but don't quite have the offense to make this series anything else. They lack scoring past their first line, which is why they score over 25% of their goals on the powerplay. This series will be boring and I'm planning on watching exactly none of it.
St. Louis in 7

(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks
I've seen a lot of people picking Chicago in this series, which baffles me. Statistically speaking, they're the worst team in the playoffs. They've got the 5th best offense in the NHL, but are near the bottom of the league in pretty much everything else. Phoenix isn't a great team by any means, but they have a solid goaltender and their scoring at even strength is nearly as good as Chicago's. Now that Ulf Samuelsson is safely back in Sweden, I don't even feel bad about picking the Coyotes to win.
Phoenix in 5

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
Picking this series has given me fits. The more numbers I look at, the more confused I am. Nashville has better special teams, but Detroit gets a lot more powerplay time than they give up. Detroit is better at even strength, but they lack quality goaltending. That's all right, though, because their shots for/against ratio is fantastic, while Nashville's is the worst in the playoffs. Somehow, though, Nashville has the most balanced scoring out of playoff teams (only 26% of their goals come from their top line). Detroit is second. I give Detroit the edge in this series, but I'm fully prepared to be wrong.
Detroit in 7

April 11, 2012

Eastern Conference Playoff Picks 2012

The Eastern Conference Finals should feature the Rangers vs. the Bruins or Penguins, with the Bruins/Penguins winning and moving onto the Stanley Cup Finals. This is barring major upsets, which is a big "if". There are upsets every year.
There's no telling for sure which team will make an improbable run, but upsetting teams in recent years have had a certain look to them. They almost all get goaltending above and beyond what they got in the regular season- key to stopping powerhouse teams that outclass you up front. They also have good PP and PK, despite mediocre or lopsided offensive and defensive numbers. This is a sign of a coach who knows how to coach situationally given what he has, which can have a greater impact in the playoffs. Think of the 1980 Olympics, when the US beat a better USSR team because they were coached for that exact matchup. Without Kurt Russell, they didn't have a chance.
God bless America.

Based on that profile, the team that looks most like an upsetting team this year is the Pittsburgh Penguins, which is hardly helpful. So much for predicting the improbable.

(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators
The Senators are a great scoring team and are tougher than I always assume they are, but they don't have much of a chance in this series. The Rangers' offense can be shut down, but not by a sieve-like defense and Craig Anderson, who is not what I could call a "starting" goaltender. Ottawa will score enough to make things interesting, but unless Anderson pulls a .940 out of his a**, they're not good enough to win this one.
Rangers in 6

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals
In my mind, the Caps are the worst team in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They're 13th in scoring and bottom half of the league in everything else. They don't have a statistical strength, and their supposed strength (Ovechkin) has always been easily handled by the Bruins' de. Also (and this may be a bit of an inside joke for Bruins fans): Dennis Wideman.
Bruins in 5

(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils
Florida's stagnant offense could really use a matchup like this against a weak goaltender. Unfortunately for them, the Devils' defense has done a remarkable job of shielding their goalies all year, letting up the 2nd fewest shots per game and owning the league's best penalty kill. Jose Theodore thrives in the first round, and the Devils may have trouble scoring on him, but the Panthers de is terrible and I believe they will score in the end. Both of these teams are incredibly beatable, but New Jersey seems to be better coached.
New Jersey in 7

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
These teams are very similar. Both are offensive powerhouses with weak goalies, a surprisingly successful formula in the postseason. The only noticeable difference is their penalty kills- Pittsburgh is 3rd and Philly is 17th. This speaks to the different quality of defensemen they have, which will be very important considering the quality of goalies involved. Philly leads the league in PP time, which means they score about 1/4 of their goals with the man advantage, as opposed to Pittsburgh's 1/5 (and Boston's Conference-low 1/6). With fewer powerplays awarded in the postseason, Philly could see their scoring drop. This series could really play out any way, with either team coming out on top, but Pittsburgh has that look about them this year.
Pittsburgh in 7

April 4, 2012

Is Scoring or Goaltending More Important to Winning a Cup?

Growing up, certain facts about hockey were drilled into my head as common knowledge. Bobby Orr was the greatest hockey player ever. Ulf Samuelsson is the physical incarnation of evil. The goaltender is a team's most important player in the playoffs.

I realize now that the first two "common knowledge" facts are only common knowledge in the city of Boston. For years, though, I still believed goaltending was the deciding factor in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I'm starting to suspect that the last fact has more to do with Ken Dryden than statistics.

My parents saw Dryden steal a 1971 series for the Canadiens against a Bruins team that was arguably better than the ones that won the cup in 1970 and 1972. This left an impression in their minds: a hot goaltender can ruin everything. It's true that in the most surprising recent upsets (Montreal beating Washington and Pittsburgh in 2010, Tampa beating Washington and Pittsburgh in 2011), unexpectedly good goaltending was the difference. But overall, goaltending appears to be more of a wildcard factor- capable of stealing series, but not a Stanley Cup.

Since the lockout, there is no discernible pattern in the goaltender quality of Stanley Cup winners. Their regular season SV% ranges from 1st (the 2011 Bruins) to 23rd (2010 Blackhawks). Only Boston and Anaheim had goaltenders in the top 10 in SV%.

Other factors are also all over the board. Goals against displays a weak connection to winning, at best. Special teams have no bearing, which makes sense given that fewer penalties are typically called in the playoffs. Powerplay quality is especially irrelevant.

It appears that the one weakness a team cannot afford to have in the playoffs is lack of scoring. Every winner since the lockout has been top 10 in regular season scoring. In fact, out of the 12 teams to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals since the lockout, 11 were among the top 10 in scoring. Only the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, at 15th, were below this marker.

The Oilers are an interesting case. One could argue that, had Roloson not gotten hurt in the Finals that year, they would be the exception to this rule. However, he did, and they lost, so the rule stands: your team must be top 10 in scoring to win a Stanley Cup, no matter how well your goaltender plays.

Even last year's Bruins prove this rule. Tim Thomas played phenomenally in the Finals, but he couldn't have won that series alone. He had a 1.67 GAA in his three losses- hardly something to complain about. It wasn't until the team started scoring that the Bruins won games.

This all means that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with their incredible offense and incredibly mediocre goaltending, have a better chance at the Cup than the New York Rangers or St. Louis, who are both out of the top 10 in scoring. In all likelihoods, neither the Rangers nor St. Louis will even make the Finals.

Dryden won the Cup for Montreal in 1971. It's possible that Lundqvist or Elliot are good enough to break this rule. But things have changed since the 70's. If I were a betting gal, I would keep my money on Boston, Detroit, or Pennsylvania.