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NHL Playoff Preview - Conference Semi-Finals

Timmy Hasek.
Timmy Hasek.

It all started so promising, but after losing three of four Game 7's I went from 7 of 8 in imaginary best-of-five land to 5 of 8 in the real world. Way to close things out, Buffalo! Way to carry your team to the golf course, Jordan Staal!

Despite these setbacks, I am undeterred, mostly because I think predictions are fun. They give you a rooting interest in every series, which makes the game more enjoyable. This time around, things are a bit different because I'll be cheering hard against one of my picks. I bet you can't guess which one!

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. (5) Nashville Predators


When I picked Chicago to beat the Canucks it was because - when I squinted just right - they looked like the better team. This time, no matter how much I squint, Nashville just looks inferior. The possession metrics aren't really close, and while Pekka Rinne might give the Predators an advantage over most other teams in goal, he doesn't against the Canucks who have one of the best goaltenders in the entire league. Looking at things on paper doesn't help. The Canucks have tremendous depth, and a coach who hunts for mismatches against a defense that includes a rookie (Jonathan Blum), a sophmore (Cody Franson), Kevin Klein, and Shane F. O`Brien. Nashville's forwards are also without a single game-breaker. The Blackhawks had consistent success when they had Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane running around together. David Legwand is not Jonathan Toews. Believe me when I say that I'll be cheering hard for the Predators, but I'll still take the Canucks in five.


(2) San Jose Sharks v. (3) Detroit Red Wings


This looks like an extremely close series. Both teams have dominated their opponents in terms of possession during the regular season. Both teams are coming in as healthy as they've been all year long. Both teams have a track record of success that extends well beyond this season. Even the goalies - Jimmy Howard and Antti Niemi - are pretty much identical since breaking into the league. That said, I'm giving the Sharks the edge here for three reasons. The first is the simple value of home-ice advantage. It's not a big thing, but the extra home game does make a difference. The second is San Jose's prolific power play, which generates a ridiculous number of shots. Finally, the third is San Jose's play against other playoff teams during the regular season: the Sharks went 20-13-11 in regulation against other playoff teams this year, compared to just 14-17-11 for Detroit. For all of these reasons, I'll take the Sharks in seven games.


(1) Washington Capitals v. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning


This looks like another very close series with Tampa Bay actually boasting a slight (at least) advantage across the board in the possession metrics. They also have Dwayne Roloson in goal, who I'm pretty fond of for obvious reasons, and yet I still can't seem to convince myself that this team is going to beat Washington. Just like I couldn't convince myself that a team with basically the same cast of stars wouldn't be able to improve enough on a -43 goal differential to make the playoffs. Just like I couldn't convince myself that they could beat Pittsburgh. To quote Kevin Lowe, "Is it me?" Statistically, the thing to point at is the power play. Washington is very good, while Tampa is merely okay, and Roloson has a long track record of mediocrity when his team is down a man. I'll bank on special teams being the difference and take the Caps in six.


(2) Philadelphia Flyers v. (3) Boston Bruins


How the hell do the Philadelphia Flyers end up starting Michael Leighton for a playoff game? Bad enough that you can lose him on waivers in the regular season, but good enough to play ahead of the two guys you had ahead of him all season long. That's just crazy. I have no idea what the Flyers are going to do, so I just kept Bobrovsky's in there, but could just as easily be Boucher, or Leighton, or the Fat Guy in the third row. Goaltending may be a deceptive mistress, but honestly, I feel confident in saying that the Bruins are way better between the pipes. The Flyers look like they have an advantage by the possession metrics, but like I said before the series against les Canadiens, I believe Boston is better at maintaining possession than they showed this regular season, both because they rocked the house last season, and because they made some really nice additions at the deadline, which made them deeper up front and on the blue. But this is mostly a vote for Timmy: Boston in six.