Saturday, May 16, 2009

#121: Conference Finals Preview

---Hockey's Final Four---

Another three out of four for Steeltown Sports (see this post for details).

This blog is at 75% at picking winners (nine out of 12) based on one important statistic: Shots on Goal Differential.

The trick is going to be refining the formula a little more so that next year, the number will be higher.

Here's what happened in round two:


Eastern Conference

1. Boston -0.5 (-1.9)
6. Carolina +3.1 (+2.8)

Carolina won in seven games (plus overtime).

Carolina was the predicted winner here. The only miscalculation was that the series would not go more than six games.

One reason is that, Carolina only outshot Boston by an average of 2 shots per game, instead of the projected 3.6 to 4.7 shots that the formula above indicated.

Perhaps the Hurricanes are cooling off. This will put the onus squarely on Cam Ward for the Conference Finals.


2. Washington +4.0 (+7.0)
4. Pittsburgh -1.3 (+6.5)

Pittsburgh won in seven games.

The early statistics indicate that Washington would win fairly handily. The late statistics pointed to a long-series win for Washington. The previous post on this allowed for a Penguins victory, dependent on the play of Simeon Varlamov.

What was not anticipated is that the Penguins outshot the Capitals in each game of the series, and winning the SOGD battle by a staggering average of 10.9 shots per game.

Varlamov held his own, and, occasionally, carried his whole team for the first six games, having a save percentage of .907. He faced 226 shots and allowed only 21 through. While that may not seem inhuman, consider that Varlamov's experience at the NHL level includes just five regular season starts. That means he started 14 games in the Stanley Cup playoffs and was crucial in Capitals rallying from a three-games-to-one deficit against the New York Rangers. Then he has to come in and face the two top forwards (not on his team) in the next round, and try to come back from a three-games-to-two series deficit.

By contrast, Marc-Andre Fleury had a save percentage of .888 through the first six games (.878 for the series). If not for the unforeseen onslaught by the Penguins, the Capitals may have prevailed.

Still, head coach Dan Bylsma's new system has made the Penguins' +6.5 post-deadline SOGD look like the rule, rather than the exception.


Western Conference:

2. Detroit +8.4 (+9.0)
8. Anaheim -0.2 (+3.3)

Detroit won in seven games. Five was the prediction.

If not for the .931 save percentage of one Jonas Hiller during the series, this series would have been over in four, and the Anaheim Ducks would have gone the way of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Red Wings outshot the Ducks by a total of 302-193. That makes the average difference a ridiculous 15.6 shots per game.

As far as Anaheim scoring goals against a so-called "weak link" in Chris Osgood, it's tough to complain too much about a .911 save percentage for the series.


3. Vancouver -0.7 (-1.3)
4. Chicago +4.1 (+5.0)

Chicago won in six games after spotting the Canucks Game One.

Vancouver only outshot the Blackhawks in one game (Game Six). For the series, the 'Hawks averaged 5.3 shots better than their Canadian counterparts. The regular season differential was in Chicago's favor by 4.8. That number is pretty dead on.


Of the four teams left, three have a positive SOGD for the season. The Penguins are the only one that finished with a negative, but you almost have to go with the post-trade deadline number (+6.5) with the Penguins because they have been very consistent with their puck possession under the philosophy of Dan Bylsma.

All the pretenders have been eliminated.

Now, looking ahead to Round Three, it should provide us with two very competitive series.


Western Conference Final

2. Detroit +8.4 (+9.0)
4. Chicago +4.1 (+5.0)

Detroit's advantage in the season-long "magic stat" is about double that of Chicago's. It's just slightly less than that after the trade deadline.

However, Detroit vanquished a stronger opponent in Anaheim than Chicago disposed of in Vancouver.

The Red Wings might not average 40 shots a game, but Nikolai Khabibulin (one-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie) will have to do a pretty good Jonas Hiller impression to make this series go beyond five games. From what I saw in the Vancouver series, though (allowing more than two goals in four of the six contests), I don't think it's likely. Plus, Chicago's youth, at this stage of the playoffs, will take its toll.

Red Wings in five.


4. Pittsburgh -1.3 (+6.5)
6. Carolina +3.1 (+2.8)

This is the series that the "magic stat" takes sort of a back seat on. Looking at the Penguins' charge from 10th place to 4th in a little over a month, with no sign at all of slowing down in the playoffs, one would have to favor the +6.5 number here.

That said, Carolina has only played one more post-season game than the Penguins (14 vs. 13), but in both Game 7s, they needed late-game heroics to advance.

Goalie Cam Ward will give the Hurricanes the best chance of staying in games and stealing a road game or two in this series. He is unshakable and has a 4-0 record in Game 7s.

The Penguins will have to keep the shots coming to the net and hog the vulcanized rubber as much as they can. They will also need to ensure they don't have a letdown in Game One (coming from a series with as much hype as any in recent memory to a series where there is no real rivalry).

Sidney Crosby has turned his game all the way on (perhaps), and it's only a matter of time before Evgeni Malkin reawakens and Chris Kunitz joins the fray.

Penguins in six.


More blog-like thoughts (read: less stat-like thoughts) on the Penguins/Hurricanes series -- (aka - long, listing, stream of consciousness that might not have a point... thanks in advance for reading)

- Just like in the Capitals series, the Hurricane fans are already planting the seeds in the case of their team's eventual demise.

Once again, message boards and blogs (and even the infrequent column) talks about how the only reason the Penguins keep winning is because NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is trying to arrange it so Sidney Crosby can lift the Stanley Cup.

I remember thinking similar things in 2001 when the Colorado Avalanche defeated the New Jersey Devils in a seven-game classic. "Colorado only won because the League hates the trap defense and they want Ray Bourque to win it all."

I know what it's like. Colorado is my least favorite NHL franchise, and it made me smile that they finished last in their conference this year. I just wish they had done so with Patrick Roy in net.

Example taken straight from a Yahoo! message board (appropriately, from a Yahoo...)

"My cousin's wife's brother's father in law knows one of the refs who worked game 4 of the Pens-Caps series and after a couple of drinks he said that they were told by the NHL (not in writing or by email) to make tons of calls against the Caps so that "Crosby the Canadian" (as the refs call him in private) would have better stats than Ovechkin. He also said that the refs were given instructions last year in the SCF to favor the Penguins but, because astute people ... were onto the conspiracy, the NHL decided to let the Wings win the series even though they have a large number of players of European descent."

Before I continue, I'll give you a chance to go buy a new brain on eBay, or scoop up as much of the one that just oozed out of your head as you can. I can't guarantee it will... I dunno... gelatinize?

I know I advocate non-confrontation in sports talk, but I don't think there's any answer to that kind of mind-numbing prattle except for a palm strike to the nose. It's like the Seattle Seahawk apologists and the (somewhat smaller number of) Arizona Cardinals apologists in the NFL about the refs giving the Steelers a Superbowl title or two.

I guess, for the world to accept that the Penguins/Crosby/Malkin/whoever are the real deal, they will have to win all their playoff games when they are at a decided disadvantage on penalty calls (because it couldn't possibly be the caliber of talent the other team is trying to stop that leads to penalties on them).

News for you: The Penguins received more penalties than the Redwings in 3 of the 6 games, and it was even in a fourth game. Overall, Pittsburgh was called for 38, and Detroit was called for 36. "Missed" calls about evened out. Unfortunately, there's no way to keep track of this.

Washington fans in this most recent series would seem to have a better beef. In no game did the Penguins take more penalties than the Capitals. Total margin: Capitals 38, Penguins 23.

One of the more misunderstood aspects of hockey: more shots leads to more power play chances, not the other way around.

How often do you see the statistic "Shots on Power play" after one expires and, maybe, the team who had the PP only fired one or two shots?

Detroit took 10 fewer penalties than Anaheim in their series. Chicago took 2 fewer penalties.

The lone anomaly is Boston. They lost the shots battle by a small amount overall, but they took 8 fewer penalties and still lost. Of course, that may be why Carolina didn't outshoot the Bruins as badly as the statistics would indicate they should have.

Conspiracy quashed (as effectively as a falsely-but-firmly held belief can be quashed).


One other quick thought. Brooks Orpik is not a thug. Carolina message boards make him out to be the next Bobby Probert or Adam Foote or something, but it's not quite that bad. He can level a dirty hit, no doubt. But that's not how he makes his living.

He can do this, too:

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