NHL Playoff Preview and Predictions - Conference Finals

Bruce Bennett

In the first round of this year's playoffs, a lot of the higher seeds fell, but in the second round, the four teams with home-ice advantage all advanced to the Conference Finals. I did quite well picking some upsets in the first round, and after a solid 4-for-4 showing in the second round, my overall record this year is sitting at 10-2, and my overall record has improved to 46-26 since 2009, a decent track record compared to how the higher seeds have performed over that time period (39-33). As we look to the Conference Finals, there isn't a weak team left in the field; in fact, the four teams left have won the last four Stanley Cups.

So how does one go about choosing between them? First up is a look at how each of these teams performed against other playoff teams during regulation time over the course of the regular season:

Conference_finals

Things look pretty clear so far: Pittsburgh and Chicago are well ahead of the two lower seeds, but both Boston and Los Angeles were able to hold their own against other good teams. Acknowledging that they look to be at a disadvantage, does a bit of digging into some of the underlying statistics provide a reason to pick against the favorites? is there reason to pick against the favorites?

In the next table, I'll look at some key statistical categories for each of these match-ups: full regular season data for 5-on-4 shot differential, 4-on-5 shot differential, and Fenwick percentage (shots for + missed shots for / total shots + total missed shots) with the score tied, plus the starting goaltender's even strength save percentage over the last four seasons combined (regular season and playoffs). The goalies I've picked as starters are Corey Crawford, Jonathan Quick, Tomas Vokoun, and Tuukka Rask (with Vokoun establishing himself as Pittsburgh's starter over the last two series, those picks should be pretty uncontroversial). Here's how the match-ups look:

Conference_finals

The picks:

Los Angeles in Six: This is a series that I could see going either way, but if forced to choose between these two, I think Los Angeles has the edge. Quick is a notch better than Crawford, and L.A.'s possession numbers offer a big enough gap that I feel somewhat confident with this pick. I'd feel much better about it if Jarret Stoll, a player that Darryl Sutter relied on heavily for work in the defensive zone, wasn't out for at least the start of the series (and possibly the entire thing). Without Stoll, it's very likely that Mike Richards or Anze Kopitar will be forced to take on Chicago's big guns, which means a lot more time starting in the defensive zone. The Blackhawks tend to give their best offensive players plenty of opportunity in the offensive zone, and that kind of bench management will likely to mean some of L.A.'s best guys are spending a lot of time playing defense. Of course, those guys are really quite good at playing defense, and if Chicago loads up one line with Toews, Kane and Sharp playing together, the other of L.A.'s two top offerings should be able to really make some hay. If Chicago decides not to split those three across two lines, I think that, while the top six will be close to even, L.A. probably has the two best lines. The Kings will have a better chance if Stoll is able to return, but when the high-end skill is close to even, I'm not about to start feeling bad for taking the team with superior goaltending.

Pittsburgh in Seven: I really wanted to pick Boston here. Both of these teams have very good depth up front, and I like Boston's defense more than Pittsburgh's. I also really like what Boston was able to do on the PK this season (playoff percentage notwithstanding), which should help them against a very good Pittsburgh power play. But no matter how much I'm tempted to pick Boston in this series, I keep coming back to a Pittsburgh lineup that features four strong lines and two of the very best players in the game. Yes, Pittsburgh's possession numbers are sub-par this season, but they were excellent in both 2011-12 and 2010-11 with a similar core group (Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz, Dupuis, Letang, Martin, Orpik). With a shortened season in 2012-13, I tend to value those past numbers more than I might otherwise, especially with Pittsburgh taking a kicking with Crosby on the sidelines. They're far from unstoppable, but with Tomas Vokoun providing quality goaltending, it's hard to imagine Pittsburgh losing unless the opposition has a fabulous bottom six forward group. Boston does have a great third line, but not much quality beyond that, which gives Pittsburgh another small advantage. Over one game, a poor fourth line can be hidden, but in a long series, I think that makes a difference, especially if players further up the lineup end up either out of the lineup or hanging in while playing through a significant injury.

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