Saturday has arrived and I'm excited! I'm also excited to announce that I'll be tracking scoring chances for this series with a post up the morning after every game. Looking around the internet, it seems most folks are predicting Chicago for the win, which makes sense since what with them being the better team over the course of the season. But this isn't a regular season title, oh no. It's a seven-game series and the games haven't happened, so we all know that the outcome hasn't yet been decided. Now, before you all think I'm going to be brave and choose the Flyers, that just isn't the case. Hawks in five, I say! But who wants to read another article about that? After the jump, I'll briefly outline my pick and then give a detailed look at how the Flyers might be able to win this thing even if the goaltending is even with particular attention to some of the matchups I expect to see play out over the next (couple of?) week(s).Before really beginning I need to give a big thanks to Vic Ferrari for scraping the data I've used throughout the playoffs and for making it publicly available for free. Simply amazing. Anyway, below are three tables comparing the Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks. The first table is a breakdown of the out-shooting results for each team in the regular season, both in terms of Shots (on goal) percentage and Corsi (all shots directed at net) percentage. This is the percentage of total shots (for and against) each team managed during the regular season and I've included the overall totals and the results with the score tied (the "score tied" results limit the effect of "playing to the score"). The second table is the percentages on the season, both shooting percentage and save percentage, again including both overall results and the results with the score tied. The final table has the EV save percentage numbers for the starting goalies (Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton). I've included their totals for the 2009-10 regular season and for their last four years, though neither of them have a tonne of shots against in either sample. The third number in that chart is the goal differential on special teams in the regular season and then and the Oiler connection, which for the Hawks is pretty much non-existent. After the data, I'll talk a bit about my expectations for the series and give my prediction on the outcome.
These charts basically confirm what most folks are already saying: Chicago has been the better team this season. They've been the most dominant team territorially all season and have a big edge against the Flyers in that category despite Chicago playing a much more difficult schedule. They also have an edge in the percentages and they have the more accomplished goaltender (in Antti Niemi! Ridiculous!). So yeah, as I said, Hawks in five. But what if I wanted to pick the Flyers? Could I do it without a huge "if they get the goaltending performance of the decade?" I think so and that's what the rest of this article is about.
My fundamental assumption in all of this is that Joel Quenneville will control the match-ups. He has aggressively pursued his match-ups so far in the playoffs and I fully expect that to continue. In order to look at how the Flyers might win this series - without out-of-this-world goaltending - I'll project the match-ups I think Quenneville will pursue against the Flyers, based on what he's done in the playoffs so far.
Against the Sharks, Joel Quenneville tried his best to get Bolland's group out against Joe Thornton. Against The Canucks he did the same thing against Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin. It seems somewhat likely to me that Bolland will draw this line against Philadelphia. If so, Bolland's trio will no doubt have the support of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook behind them. But that was also the case when Bolland's group was outchanced against both the Canucks and Sharks. This Philadelphia trio was used together most of the season and usually against tough competition. Simon Gagne has a long track record of success in that role and Mike Richards has been handling the tough sledding well all year. It's possible that Laviolette replaces Carcillo with Jeff Carter as he did at the end of the series against the Canadiens, but I really think that against a team with Chicago's depth, he'll need to save Carter for another line. Even without Carter, the Flyers could win this matchup. They'll need to in order for Philadelphia to win.
I know that Ville Leino was on this line against the Canadiens, but Jeff Carter had this spot most of the season and, frankly, he'll need it back. So far these playoffs, Leino, Briere and Hartnell have been feasting on offensive zone faceoffs but that's not going to be possible against a team that owns the puck position game with all four lines like the Hawks. Instead, Briere and Hartnell will need to go back to playing in their own end like they did in the regular season and try to get the puck moving the right way against Chicago's most dangerous scoring unit. Considering his zone start during the regular season, Briere's Corsi rates (with Carter and Hartnell in particular) are damn impressive. It's blatantly obvious that anytime these Hawks are on the ice, it will be top four defenders for Philly. What I'm saying here is, these Phillly guys could get the puck moving out of the defensive zone, they've done it all year. They have a chance.
Note: it's quite possible that Quenneville will try to flip these two match-ups and if that happens, this group really needs to put the boots to Bolland's group while Carcillo and Richards goon it up against Toews and Kane. It's also possible that Laviolette stays with Leino on this line and loads up the top line with Carter. Personally, I think that would greatly decrease Philadelphia's odds of winning.
This kind of mismatch is going to happen. Quenneville uses Hossa's line in offensive situations and Laviolette uses Betts to take defensive zone draws. If you're hoping for a Flyer victory, this is the time in each game to take our the rosary. Honestly, just hope that these guys can make it through without getting beat up too badly so that getting the better of the chances in the rest of the game is still good enough to win.
These players will need to produce for the Flyers. They will probably be the go-to line for offensive zone draws if the Flyers have the lead and maybe even with the score tied, so they'll have opportunities for goals or at least to maintain pressure. A lot of those chances will come against Madden, though Giroux's line will probably play substantial minutes against Sharp and Hossa as well. Those shifts will be an enormous test. It's really this bottom six where Chicago outclasses the Flyers on paper. But... this line produced a tonne of offence against Montreal which has me believing in them (well, in Giroux anyway) at least a little bit more than I otherwise would.
I didn't talk too much about defense because I think that part is pretty straightforward. The Flyers will ice four defenders (I honestly wouldn't be too shocked if this ends up being literally true). It seems reasonable to me that instead of worrying about always having Pronger against Toews, Laviolette will just roll his top four guys at even strength much like he did against Montreal. Such is the luxury of having both Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger on your roster. The Hawks, on the other hand, have five guys that they trust and will no doubt run the defense more by puck location than by personnel, though I'm sure that Seabrook and Keith will come out with Bolland consistently against whichever group they try to check. But they play so much that they'll be out at other times too. A defensive zone draw? Out come Seabrook and Keith. They're not available? Time for Hjalmarsson and Sopel. An offensive zone chance? It's Brian Campbell time. Now, Quenneville won't be dogmatic about this, but these are the general trends I expect to see.
So that's how the Flyers could win on merit. I doubt it happens though. I expect the Flyers' defense to get worn down by an aggressive forecheck, something they didn't see consistently from any of the Devils, Bruins or Canadiens. By the time Game Five rolls around, those defenders will be wiped. Beyond that, I expect the Hossa-Sharp connection to absolutely destroy the Flyers' bottom two lines so that even if the top two lines end up slightly in Philadelphia's favour, it won't be enough. Finally, I expect the Flyers to take many more penalties (a 3(00):4(02) ratio sounds about right) than the Blackhawks and for that to cost them. But I also expect it to be exciting. You never know.