NHL Playoff Predictions - Second Round

Matt Greene's helmet reminds us that we're in Round Two.

So the first round didn't go exactly as I thought it would. Of my eight projected winners, only four have come through to the second round with two of my lower seeds winning (Kings and Devils) and two of my higher seeds winning (Rangers and Blues). I've been making these predictions since the start of the 2009 playoffs, and this opening round record of 4-4 brings my overall record to 33-20, which is only slightly better than my imaginary nephew (he's 31-22 and was also 4-4 in this year's opening round) who always picks the team with home ice advantage. But at least I'm winning!

After the jump, I'll take a closer look at the four match-ups we have to look forward to in Round Two.

The first thing we'll check back on is how each of the playoff teams did against other good teams. This is the regulation record and goal differential of each team left in the playoffs (all games that went into overtime are counted as ties, and for the calculation of Pt%, I gave two points for a win and one for a tie). For what it's worth, trusting just in these numbers would have netted me a record of 5-3 last round. Here's the chart:

Round_two_medium

It's just brutal that the Devils and Panthers played in the first round of the playoffs because neither one of those teams had any business advancing. It's similarly brutal that the Blues and Kings will play each other this round because they're easily the two best teams left in the Western Conference, and probably the two best teams left in the playoffs period. The other Western Conference match-up also looks very close on this chart with the Predators and Coyotes separated by a single goal.

Next, let's take a look at the specific match-ups using a few significant statistical categories (against all teams) as a base. I'll be using Fenwick percentage during five-on-five with the score tied during the 2011-12 regular season, even strength save percentage of the starting goaltender over the last four years (Elliott, Lundqvist, Quick, Bryzgalov, Holtby, Rinne, Smith, and Brodeur), five-on-four shot differential during the 2011-12 regular season, and four-on-five shot differential during the 2011-12 regular season:

Round_two_medium

The Picks:

St. Louis in seven: This pick would be made a lot easier if Jaroslav Halak was healthy. I know that Brian Elliott has played well this season, but his long-term track record is atrocious. The Kings were also excellent in the twenty-one regular season games after acquiring Jeff Carter from Columbus, posting a Fenwick percentage of 57.6% at even strength and 61.2% with the score tied, which is just phenomenally good. Jonathan Quick may also be undersold by what's already a very good save percentage number in the chart above. So why am I still going with the Blues? I think that being better on the PK and on the PP will help them; I think that they're one of only a few teams in the league with the forward depth to handle L.A.'s top nine; and I think that Ken Hitchcock will be better at making adjustments throughout the series than Darryl Sutter, especially since he's got home-ice advantage. Barring some kind of catastrophic run of injuries, I can't see myself betting against the winner of this series the rest of the way.

Nashville in six: I watched all of the Nashville-Detroit series (here are the chances for Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, and Game 5), and even though the Predators were outchanced overall (83-80), they actually won the chances battle in the three home games, and played with the lead much more frequently, which meant a lot of sitting back in the third period to protect leads. Overall, I was very impressed with the Predators, especially with their second defense pairing of Roman Josi and Kevin Klein, which generally did very well playing a lot of minutes against Detroit's top six forwards. As you can see from the chart, the Predators have been a stinky possession team on the year, but they made some significant additions late in the season (Alexander Radulov, Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad, and a potentially-returning Hal Gill), which have made them much better: since the trade deadline, the team's Fenwick percentage at even strength is 49.7% (though just 47.3% with the score tied), a substantial improvement on what they've accomplished overall. Add to that superior goaltending and special teams, and I think Nashville should be able to win this series. Of course, Phoenix is a team I've never been able to believe in, much like last year's Lightning. I bet on them to be very poor in the regular season, but they were pretty good. Then I bet on them to lose in the first round, but they won. Now I'm betting against them again. Their forward depth just doesn't look good enough (they're playing both Marc Pouliot and Gilbert Brule!), and I can't get myself to trust that Mike Smith really is a good goaltender.

New York in five: What a splendid first round for the New York Rangers. I was pretty confident that Pittsburgh and Boston were the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and both teams went out in the first round. That gives New York a pretty clear path to the Finals so long as they can beat the middling teams that the other favorites couldn't. One of those middling teams is the Washington Capitals, my pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup. The Capitals have actually been the better possession team so far this season, but New York's numbers are held down by a very poor stretch to start the year. Over their last 60 games, the Rangers had a Fenwick percentage at even strength of 51.3% and 52.1% with the score tied. And while Washington has the green rectangle under goaltending, I'd much rather trust in the long and excellent NHL track record of Henrik Lundqvist than the less-than-1,000-shot sample that makes up Braden Holtby's NHL career. That's especially true when you consider Holtby's AHL career has been something quite a bit less than uniformly excellent (he had a .906 save percentage in 40 games this season). I don't think that the Rangers are a great team, but they should be able to get to the next round.

Philadelphia in five: New Jersey's record against good teams is just so bad that it's hard for me to think they can handle a team like Philadelphia, which has excellent depth up front, and a solid top four defense. With Andrej Meszaros already out they don't have a lot behind those top four, which makes them quite vulnerable to injury, and Nicklas Grossman is already a bit dinged up, but I expect that he'll be good to go for the opener. The biggest weakness would seem to be the crazy Russian between the pipes, but forty-year-old netminders aren't exactly ideal either, and with New Jersey's defense looking pretty ugly, I think Philadelphia's forwards will once again carry the day.

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