What an exciting first round! I had a lot of fun counting scoring chances for the Canucks and Kings and will be tallying again for the Canucks and Blackhawks in Round Two. Derek, meanwhile, counted scoring chances for the Sharks and Avs (mostly the Sharks) and will take the other Western Conference series between the Sharks and Red Wings. Overall, the Western Conference went pretty much to form but the Eastern Conference is a mess. Things broke pretty much perfectly for the Pittsburgh Penguins who can now advance to the Conference Finals without beating an opponent who posted a positive goal differential during the regular season. And they came into the playoffs as the fourth seed. Crazy. My one upset pick was the Bruins and they came through which makes me an about-even-with-everybody-else five for eight overall in my predictions.
After the jump, I'll preview each of the four series in Round Two, the first of which begins tonight! (Full Playoff Schedule) In Round One, I was an about-even-with-most-folks five for eight overall with my predictions though scored a nice win choosing Boston only to let it slip away by choosing the Kings to beat the Canucks. Of course it's the Canucks. I hate the Canucks.
Before I begin I'll explain what you'll see below (but before that, I'll give a big thanks to Vic Ferrari for scraping the data and making it publicly available). For each series I've created three tables with some statistics that I like to use when measuring team play. 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, both overall and with the score tied (the "score tied" results limit the effect of "playing to the score"). A percentage of 50% would mean the team took 50% of all shots taken by both teams 5-on-5 (so that's league average). Since we're now in the second round of the playoffs, anything lower than 50% is pretty much terrible while anything approaching 60% is very good. The second table is the percentages on the season, both shooting percentage and save percentage, both overall and with the score tied. I'm open to both of these things involving some skill but any really good numbers are probably good luck more than anything else. The final table will have EV save percentage numbers for the starting goalies, both this season's number and the number that goalie posted over the last four seasons (which is probably a better indication of his true skill level). It will also include the special teams goal differential of each team from this season and... my favourite ex-Oiler on each team. The team with the advantage in each category will be highlighted in green, the team with the disadvantage in red. After the data, I'll talk a bit about each series and give my prediction.
#1 San Jose Sharks v. #5 Detroit Red Wings
I remember a time when there was peace between C+B and Sharks' bloggers everywhere. The Avalanche wanted to talk about the Sharks fragile psyche and Sharks fans could come here, look at the scoring chances, and be once again reassured that the percentages would even out enough for them. They were just that dominant. Not any more. In this series, the Sharks are likely the underdog and will need some help from the percentages in order to come through. Against playoff teams, the Sharks were actually outshot this year, while Detroit was the second best team in the Conference. The Avalanche were 14th (which is about where I'd put them in the Conference on talent). Joe Pavelski and Co. were dominant against the Avalanche because the Avalanche have absolutely no depth to speak of. That's not true of the Wings who will likely roll the Datsyuk's (Holmstrom/Franzen) and follow them with the Zetterberg's (Bertuzzi/Filppula). And they've got Nick Lidstrom who is, to my mind, still the best defender in the whole league. What I'm saying is, the Sharks scorers won't be getting the same cream puff match-ups they just finished with.
The only area that I'd say the Sharks have an advantage is in goal. Evgeni Nabokov has a much longer track record and Jimmy Howard's performance this season - and it has been outstanding - isn't enough for me to turn a blind eye to several seasons of mediocrity in the AHL. Nabokov struggled at times against the Avalanche but he did end the series with a very respectable (and predictable) .924 EV save percentage (.926 overall). If the Sharks win this series, it will be because their good special teams outplayed Detroit's good special teams and because Nabokov was clearly the better goalie. In the end, I don't think it happens. Wings in six.
But before we move on, I'd just like to congratulate Dwight Helminen on scoring his first ever NHL playoff goal. They may never make a "What if Dwight didn't play six years in the minors" video but maybe they should. Helminen has already played in as many playoff games as he did regular season games for the Sharks this season. Good stuff, man.
#2 Chicago Blackhawks v. #3 Vancouver Canucks
Chicago holds a clear territorial advantage at evens and a smaller but not inconsequential advantage on special teams. After watching the Canucks kill penalties against the Kings (they were downright awful for the first three games) the Hawks would seem to have a significant edge there. The Canucks didn't get particularly strong play from some pretty important players in the last round, guys like Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler. If those guys aren't substantially better the Canucks will get run out of the rink trying to contend with the depth that Chicago has at forward. These guys don't beat you with one dominant line. They beat you with every line. On the back end, Brian Campbell is already back from injury and Willie Mitchell far from it. Without Mitchell, even Vancouver's top defenders often had trouble handling bodies in front of the net, which means a guy like Dustin Byfuglien could have a big series against the Canucks for a second year in a row. The only possible snag is goaltending. I thought Luongo played well against the Kings, and Niemi did the same for Chicago. The goaltending numbers in the third chart are actually for Luongo and Huet because Niemi doesn't really have any track record to speak of which means it's hard to get a handle on his actual level of ability. His .914 EV save percentage in the regular season is close to league average, but he's a wildcard. If the Canucks win this series, it will almost surely be the result of Luongo vastly outplaying Niemi. I actually live in Vancouver and a lot of people here are excited to get another chance at the Blackhawks. I don't really understand why. Redemption is not inevitable: Hawks in five.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #8 Montreal Canadiens
I guess I chose the wrong group of erstwhile Oilers! Congratulations to Jaroslav Spacek, Roman Hamrlik, Marc-Andre Bergeron and the rest of the Montreal Canadiens on their upset of the Washington Capitals. BUT. If Pittsburgh gets to the Stanley Cup finals, they will have had the easiest path there in recent memory. This is the first time since 1998 - when the NHL was a 26-team league - that one team has played two rounds of the playoffs without facing a team with a positive goal differential. In 1998 Dallas played San Jose in the first round and the Edmonton in the second before running into a very good Detroit team (+54) in the Conference Finals (Detroit went on to win the Cup). Should the Penguins advance, they'll have either Philadelphia (+11) or Boston (+6) which means the combined goal differential of their three playoff opponents cannot be higher than -8. The last time a team made it to the Stanley Cup Finals by playing three teams who combined for a negative goal differential was 1987 when the Edmonton Oilers played the Los Angeles Kings, Winnipeg Jets and Detroit Red Wings - who combined for a -29 goal differential - on their way to their third Stanley Cup. 1987. Nineteen. Eighty. Seven. You know, when the Whalers, Nordiques and Jets existed and the league had 21 teams in total. The hockey gods have smiled on Pittsburgh here. They'd best not fuck it up.
The East's embarrassing record aside (three of the four Western teams have a better goal differential than all four remaining teams in the East and all four Western teams had more regular season points), this series should see Pittsburgh smash Montreal. The catch is goaltending, as it has been for each of the favourites. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't had a good season and didn't play all that well against Ottawa. His long-term track record has more reps than Halak but the performance is also significantly worse. Halak probably earned himself the starting job in Montreal with his performance against Washington. If he can duplicate his performance, he may earn more than a few worshipers. And they won't be doing it in jest.
But I doubt Halak does it. Pittsburgh is actually better territorially than Washington and they may have better depth too. Montreal has a few good forwards (Gomez in particular) but that hasn't been enough all season long, so it's not likely to start being enough now. Finally, Pittsburgh's record against non-playoff teams is outstanding. And if we're being honest here, Montreal is not playoff quality. I'll take the Penguins in four.
#6 Boston Bruins v. #7 Philadelphia Flyers
This series is going to be a lot of fun for fans. With the top three teams in the East done, there's a real opportunity here to make a run. The fans know it. The players know it. Passion will be the order of the day both on the ice and in the stands. I'm excited.
I picked Boston to win over Buffalo, so you know that I rate them. Last year I thought they were overrated when they were riding the percentages and this year I think they're underrated for that same reason. By the numbers, they may actually be the best team left in the East, though if it ends up being Pittsburgh and Boston in the Conference Finals I'll need to think long and hard about who to pick. For this one, Boston has both the better goaltender - they actually have the two best goaltenders - and they're outclassing the Flyers in terms of territorial advantage as well. The fact that Marc Savard is coming back from injury and pushing everybody down the line-up should have a positive trickle-down effect too. Philadelphia is dealing with the opposite problem now that Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and (okay, this one isn't so bad) Ian Laperriere on the sidelines. That's a whole lot of value to go without and I suspect the Flyers may have more trouble than usual scoring goals. Even though it's hard to see an area where the Flyers are noticeably better (perhaps on defence as they'll have one of Chris Pronger or Kimmo Timonen on the ice almost all game), I still think this is going to be a long and physical series: Boston in seven.