NHL Playoff Preview - Western Conference

Although the season is over for the Edmonton Oilers, the playoffs are set to begin this Wednesday, and I'm not afraid to admit that I'm pretty excited. The playoffs always produce great hockey, and that's something we Oiler fans haven't seen enough of so far this season. This year's favorite, the Vancouver Canucks, are my least favorite (if you know what I mean), so even though I don't really have a rooting interest I most definitely have a rooting-against interest, which is why I was almost as excited as Joel Quennville when the Wild gave the Canucks a much tougher match-up in the first round. I'll be counting scoring chances for that series, and will post results the next day. Living in the Lower Mainland, many of my friends live and die with the Canucks, and they're all fine people, so this animosity I harbor is all in good fun (unless the Canucks win; that's not fun). After the jump, I'll have a brief preview of that and the three other series in the Western Conference.

The first thing to look at is how the Western Conference teams did against other good teams. Were they running up a strong goal differential against also-rans and struggling against playoff teams? It would be good to know. As such, the first table is each team's record and goal differential in regulation against other teams that made the playoffs. The table is organized by Pythagorean Winning Percentage (PW% in the chart), which is based on goal differential:

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The good news begins early! Although Vancouver was a dominant team this year, they weren't all that good against playoff teams, trailing all of San Jose, Chicago, and Nashville in winning percentage and both Chicago and San Jose in goal differential. For what it's worth, Dallas went 16-21-12 with a -21 goal differential against playoff teams, so another big thanks to Minnesota!

Before going on to the individual series, I'll give a brief explanation of the data (which has been gleaned from Vic Ferrari's Time on Ice and Gabriel Dejardins' Behind the Net). Each series will get three tables. In the first table, we'll see how the two teams compare in terms of controlling possession at even strength, both overall and with the score tied. In the second table, we'll see how these teams have benefited from the percentages at even strength a the team level. In the third table, we'll look at the longer term goaltending trends for each team's starter (data from 2007-08 to the present, both regular season and playoffs), and look at each team's shot differential on the power play and on the penalty kill. All of this data is based on the full 82-game schedule, not just the games against other playoff teams. After the data, I'll talk a bit about each series and make a prediction (over the last two years, I've had 20 out of 30 series correct, which would compare to 17 out of 30 correct for my imaginary nephew who always takes the team with home ice advantage).

 

(1)  Vancouver Canucks v. (8) Chicago Blackhawks

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Once again, we see that this isn't a traditional one versus eight match-up. The Blackhawks are a very good team who didn't make their shots with the score tied this year, which cost them a lot of leads, and in turn a lot of one-goal games, but this is a team that can run with the Canucks at even strength. One of the reasons I believe the Canucks struggled against good teams is Alain Vigneault's strategy of bush-sitting the Sedins to give them a lot of offensive zone starts. Against teams that can play them even, that results in either more starts in the defensive zone or less ice time overall for their best players. With Manny Malhotra out, I can't see Vigneault sitting on his best, so the Sedins will be playing a different game than they were in the regular season, although with Dave Bolland out for the Hawks, the depth at center is pretty much a wash. The Canucks do, however, still have a few big advantages. Their goaltending is substantially better (the starters here are Roberto Luongo and Corey Crawford), and they've got the edge on both special teams as well. They also have stronger depth on defense (although I like Chicago's top four more), which makes it more difficult to exploit a bad change or a tough icing call. This is going to be a great series, but I think that the closeness of the even strength game will be really tough on Vancouver, and given their record against the best teams in the league, I'll take the Blackhawks winning this series in seven.

 

(2) San Jose Sharks v. (7) Los Angeles Kings

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This series could be extremely one-sided. Even if we look at the full-year data, the Kings look overmatched in almost every category. I tracked scoring chances for this team for the first dozen games after Dustin Penner's arrival, and they didn't look at all like a playoff team. The only forward line that came close to holding its own at even strength (and they did that and more) was the Penner-Kopitar-Williams group, and now two thirds of that line is out of commission. The Sharks, meanwhile, have been excellent for the last half of the season as well as excellent overall. They have an amazing power play, and although I'm not exactly Antti Niemi's number one fan, his performance over the last couple of seasons does compare favorably to that of Jonathan Quick. The Sharks biggest weakness is probably on defense, but the Kings just don't have the horses up front to take advantage. This series is, in my mind, the most likely in the Western Conference to end in four straight, so I'll go with the Sharks in four.

 

(3) Detroit Red Wings v. (6) Phoenix Coyotes

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If the Kings top guys were healthy, this would in fact be the most lopsided series in the Western Conference. Looking at these tables, it's hard to point to a single advantage the Coyotes have once you get past Ilya Bryzgalov in goal. Even if Martin Hanzal can handle the tough defensive duties he's been assigned all year (and I think that's very unlikely against either Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg), the massive disparity in performance on special teams would be enough to sink the Coyotes all on its own. I'll give Bryzgalov a game and say the Red Wings win this series in five.

 

(4) Anaheim Ducks v. (5) Nashville Predators

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This is a wonderful series, mostly because the Predators and Ducks have gotten to this point in such different ways. The Predators have great penalty killing, but a poor power play, whereas the Ducks have an awful penalty kill but are fantastic on the PP. The Ducks rely on a few star offensive players and have filled the rest of the roster with castoffs, goons and young'uns, whereas the Predators have their stars on defense, and need to rely on getting something from each of their four forward lines. Will a two-line team be able to score enough against Shea Weber and Ryan Suter? The answer to that combined with the status of Jonas Hiller (who's had vertigo problems for well over a month) is going to determine this series. The uncertainty around Hiller, the Predators' superior numbers at even strength, and their better results against playoff teams have me picking them to win their first playoff series. It would be a nice touch if they did it at home, so I'll take the Predators in six.

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