NHL Playoff Preview - Eastern Conference

On Monday, I looked at the playoff match-ups in the Western Conference, a group of teams that I've seen with my own two eyes a whole lot, but because of that, also a group of teams that I judge based somewhat on how I "feel" about them. The Eastern Conference is a whole different animal. I don't think I've seen any of these teams more than five or six times this season, and there's not a single one that I really can't stand (although any team that employs Matt Cooke gets the stink-eye). As such, my predictions for the Eastern Conference will rely more on statistics (if you can believe it), which is too bad because these series look to be, in general, quite a bit closer.

So just as with the Western Conference, the first thing I'll look at is each team's record and goal differential against the other fifteen teams that made the playoffs. The table below is for regulation time results only and is organized by Pythagorean Winning Percentage (PW% in the chart), which is based on goal differential:

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What a mess. In the Western Conference, the teams that won the most games had the decency to have the best goal differentials too. This time? Not so much. Two of the best three teams by goal differential, are also two of the three worst teams by winning percentage, and two of the four worst teams by goal differential are the top two by winning percentage. The Rangers, in particular, confuse me. The club was able to blow strong opponents out of the water a few times this season (including 7-0 and 6-0 wins over their first-round opponent!), but that success in individual games did not translate into winning more than they lost.

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.

 

(1) Washington Capitals v. (8) New York Rangers

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Whenever you have a team with a sterling goal differential (the Rangers were +35) and a very good record in games decided by two or more goals (the Rangers were 18-12, fourth-best in the Eastern Conference), but a poor record overall, the big question is whether the team was unlucky in close games or being buoyed by a few strong performances. I don't think the answer to that question is always the same, but in this case, it looks to me like it's the latter. The Rangers have not been very good at controlling territory at even strength, but have had a strong PDO, to help prop them up. Despite getting shellacked by the Rangers a couple of times during the regular season, the Capitals look like the better team at even strength. Their power play is also the best in the Conference by shot differential, and significantly better than New York's. The big question for the Capitals is in goal. I have Michal Neuvirth starting even though I think Semyon Varlamov is probably the better goalie, but I'll bet that we see both play at some point during these playoffs. The Capitals are also dealing with significant injuries on the blueline (Tom Poti, Mike Green, and Dennis Wideman could all be out with Green being the most likely to return), but the emergence of John Carlson and Karl Alzner as a terrific tough minutes pairing will really help to stem those losses. I think the Capitals take this series in five.

 

(2) Philadelphia Flyers v. (7) Buffalo Sabres

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Judging by the sizeable gap between the "when tied" numbers and the overall numbers, the Flyers look like they played with the lead an awful lot this season. The team also hasn't been very good since Christmas, which just so happens to be the part of the season that Chris Pronger missed big swaths of (he played in 15 of the team's 47 games). Their Corsi percentage since Christmas is just 48.1%, and with the score tied over just 49.0%. The Sabres, by contrast, had a terrible start to the season but have been flying since the Christmas break. Their overall Corsi percentage of 49.6% isn't all that impressive, but 52.6% with the score tied is pretty darn good. The Sabres also have a goaltender with a nice long track record of good results as compared to a raw rookie for Philadelphia. I do like Philadelphia's depth up front, and if Pronger was guaranteed to be healthy, I'd be picking the Flyers, but with Pronger's status up in the air, I'll go with Buffalo in seven games.

 

(3) Boston Bruins v. (6) Montreal Canadiens

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Tim Thomas should win the Hart Trophy. To me, there ought not be any debate. The man set a new record for save percentage in a season, which isn't exactly an easy thing to do. He should win. Unfortunately for the Bruins, in every other category, they're just a little bit worse than the Canadiens. A little bit worse at evens, a little bit worse on the PP, a little bit worse on the PK. Still, the Bruins have the best player at every position (Thomas, Zdeno Chara, and Patrice Bergeron), and the forward group is filled with players who know what they're doing. Montreal's defense, on the other hand, just doesn't give me much confidence. "Old and Slow Plus Subban" seems like a fair description to me, and I just can't believe that that will be good enough. I'll take the Bruins to win in six games.

 

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins v. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

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The big question for me was whether or not this team is any good without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Guys like Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy, and Jordan Staal are good players, but they've been complementary players for basically all of their time in Pittsburgh. In addition, Crosby and Malkin represent $17.4M in cap space, which is almost a third of the team's payroll, so you'd have to think that the Penguins would struggle without them. And yet, at least at even strength, this hasn't been the case. Since Malkin left the lineup for good on February 4th, the Penguins have a 54.4% Corsi percentage (both overall and with the score tied) in 29 games. The Penguins also have a very strong top four defense, which helps them to match against a Lightning squad that relies heavily on two lines to do most of its scoring. If the Penguins can match Staal's line against Steven Stamkos, which shouldn't be a problem at home, I like their chances. I'll take the Penguins in five.

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