Thursday, April 29, 2010

#147: On to Round 2...

---SOGD goes 5-3 in Round 1---

I'm not off to as good a start as I was after one round last year.

If this is the first time you've read "Steeltown Sports," the past couple of years I have been tracking NHL playoff series results round-by-round, using regular season shots-on-goal differential, or SOGD (taking the average shots a team takes per game throughout the year, and subtracting the number of shots given up). A negative SOGD is pretty much the death knell insofar as actually going on to win the Stanley Cup.

Last season, I introduced a wrinkle, taking into account a team's SOGD after the trade deadline and tried to predict series winners off a combination of both the entire season and post-trade numbers. I went 6-2 in the first round (11-4 overall in predicting series).

This year, I really didn't change my approach. "Steeltown Sports" is 5-3 after the Conference Quarterfinals, which, in my opinion, is not that good.

San Jose, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Boston all advanced, but Washington, New Jersey and L.A. fell.

With Round Two about to get under way with San Jose/Detroit Game One (in less than an hour as I write this), I feel I have to write quickly to make "valid" predictions.

First, a quick review as to what "went wrong" in the three series I missed.

1) L.A. in 7 over Vancouver.

I even called it "a thrilling 7". The teams were very close statistically, but L.A. had the slight edge. Vancouver, though, as a unit, had experience.

In the six games, L.A. only outshot Vancouver twice (not the same two games that they won, though). That said, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick was not up to the task and finished with an inferior save percentage (a vastly more telling stat that Goals Against Average) for the series than his Canuck counterpart, Roberto Luongo (.884 for quick, vs. .893).

Had L.A. gotten the better of the shots-on-goal, they might have won. Experience (or lack thereof) seems to be the chief difference, at least at a preliminary glance.

2) N.J. in 6 over Philadelphia.

This is simply a matter of Flyers goalie Brian Boucher absolutely shining over Martain Brodeur of the Devils. Unlike the L.A./Vancouver series, this wasn't even close. In the five games it took Philly to oust Joisey, the Devils won the shots on goal battle in four of them. Philly won Game One 2-1, despite getting only 14 shots.

For the series, Boucher had a sterling SV% of .940, and Brodeur looked tired or uninspired with a mark of .881: virtually first and last among all qualifying goalies in the opening round. Few saw that coming.

And, you may have noticed that Boucher is getting all the press.

The only match for the SOGD statistic is a hot goalie. How to predict a hot goalie is the quandry I have yet to solve.

3) Washington in 5 over Montreal.

The shocker of the tournament. Even if Montreal beats Pittsburgh in Round Two, it will not be the gargantuan giant-felling that this 7-game epic was.

And, just like Boucher in the Phi/NJ series, it's a goaltender of the underdog who is getting the credit (and rightfully so): Jaroslav Halak.

Halak is just a shave behind Boucher in the SV% department (.939), but he faced nearly twice as many shots.

The Capitals, meanwhile, seemed to not know how to handle the increasing pressure, having blown through to a division title and the President's Trophy.

Montreal had (and still has) nothing to lose.

Moving now to a quick look at Round 2.

Here are the SOGD averages for the season (and the SOGD averages after the trade deadline) of the surviving teams.

Eastern Conference
4. Pittsburgh +4.1 (+8.9)
6. Boston +1.9 (+4.1)
7. Philadelphia +3.0 (+2.0)
8. Montreal -3.5 (+0.4)

Western Conference
1. San Jose +0.4 (+0.7)
2. Chicago +9.0 (+7.3)
3. Vancouver +1.4 (+1.4)
5. Detroit +4.0 (+7.1)

Western Conference

#1 San Jose vs. #5 Detroit

The Sharks struggled against the only team in the tournament with a negative SOGD in both the regular season and trade deadline categories.

Now, they're facing a Red Wings team that finally found their championship stride in the final two periods of Game 7 against the otherwise very game Phoenix Coyotes.

Statistically, Detroit should roll in five, especially if you take into account San Jose's goalie Evgeni Nabokov's tendency to underperform in the playoffs.

That said, I think San Jose was looking past Colorado and allowed them to gain some confidence. They know they're up against the two-time defending Western Conference champions, so that should light more of a fire. Still...

Red Wings in six.

#2 Chicago vs. #3 Vancouver

The roles are reversed this year, with Chicago having home ice advantage.

What is the same, though, is that Chicago has a decided advantage in SOGD, both for the entire season and post-deadline.

The only thing weighing a little more in Vancouver's favor is that their SOGD is in the positive this year (unlike last year), so they're not necessarily a "sure thing" to be eliminated from winning it all.

Luongo could perform better this series than last, but his counterpart, Antti Niemi faced five more shots than Luongo in round one and made nine more saves (.921 SV%).

Luongo will very likely face several more shots than he saw against the Kings and will have to start performing better from the moment the puck drops at the United Center on Saturday.

Blackhawks in six.

Eastern Conference

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #8 Montreal

For Montreal, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire.

They oust the President's Cup winner in historic fashion (the first #8 seed to defeat a #1 after falling behind three games to one), only to face the defending Stanley Cup champions who looked pretty impressive most of the time against Ottawa.

In order to win, Jaroslav Halak will have to perform like he did in Games Six and Seven of the Capitals season at least four times. Montreal's defense, also, will be tested. They blocked a bunch of shots that never even made it to Halak, and that takes a toll.

Finally, they face their tallest task in Game One. They will have had only one day to revel in their victory only to travel from Washington to Pittsburgh to face a rested Penguin team.

If Montreal can win Game One, that might almost be more impressive than their Game Seven win against the Capitals.

The Penguins are starting to hit their stride, and unless goalie Marc-Andre Fleury implodes, Pittsburgh should finish Montreal quickly.

Penguins in five.

#6 Boston vs. #7 Philadelphia

This will be the most entertaining of the series. Boston's goalie Tuukka Rask was fourth overall in SV% (.927), so if both he and Boucher can perform at similar levels, there won't be many goals scored.

Not only that, but the season-long SOGD works in favor of Philadelphia, but the post-deadline stat sways toward Boston. The tiebreaker here might just be Boucher's save percentage combined with Boston's low scoring percentage during the regular season (a league-low 7.5%). It was only 7.8% during round one, so not much better.

With Flyers captain Mike Richards potentially injured and/or not at 100%, there are a lot of questions, but Philadelphia has more recent playoff experience and should prevail.

Flyers in seven.

Enjoy! (And feel free to comment)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

#146: Lay Off Big Ben. Now.

---Public Can Shove Its "Opinion"---

The only thing more irresponsible than Ben Roethlisberger flirting with underage girls in a Georgia bar early last month is the reckless journalistic vigilantism, both local and national, still trying to make him out to be a thuggish sexual predator despite the absence of criminal charges.

TMZ is leading the national smear campaign. For those who don't know TMZ, it is essentially the premier gossip tabloid on the internet. It thrives on rumors of social decadence and overscandalizing the famous.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh media has just never liked Big Ben, probably because he isn't as accessible to the media as other big-time athletes in the city like Sidney Crosby or Jerome Bettis. Therefore, he must be an obnoxious jerk 24/7.

Even one of the media members with credentials to get into the press conference called by Baldwin County District Attorney Fred Bright, asked such a barbed question, that should have been enough to have those creditials revoked:

Are you aware if the alleged victim or the bar owner at Capital City received compensation from Roethlisberger?

I'm sorry. I thought that there were going to be no charges filed. I would also "dare" to think that money trails would turn up in an investigation. Unless, of course, Ben just paid everyone off - bar owner, accuser, police, bouncers, and district attorneys alike.

That certainly does make more sense and is far less complicated than considering that no rape or sexual assault occured.

OK. No it doesn't.

Regardless of the lack of evidence, the public has swallowed all of what remains - hook, line and sinker.

This must be due to our world view for the past 15 years or so, ever since O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder back in 1995. Very few people today believe Simpson is innocent (myself included), and even a civil court ruled that Simpson owed the family of the deceased Ron Goldman money for wrongful death (an obvious contradiction from the criminal court findings).

Now, seemingly all celebrities who are accused of criminal activity are crucified in public, regardless of whether the case is ever heard in the courts.

In Roethlisberger's case, it's made no easier by the civil case he already faces in Nevada for a sexual assault that allegedly happened in 2008, according to the plaintiff, Andrea McNulty.

Upon reading this court filing (in PDF format - Adobe Acrobat), it is going to be difficult to convince a judge, or perhaps a jury, that the story is not a complete fabrication. It really begins to get "out there" on page 14 into page 15, when she accuses the other defendants in the suit (employees of Harrah's Casino in Lake Tahoe) that they tampered with her personal computer records to paint her as an unstable individual.

While a civil trial does not require "proof beyond a reasonable doubt," as a criminal trial does, the plausible-but-highly-unlikely back story doesn't scream in favor of a monetary award.

Back to Georgia, the public is labeling Roethlisberger as a "serial rapist" as though the accuser (note: not "victim") is as much a saint as the Steeler QB is a sinner.

Some simply say "he's done it before" (referring to Lake Tahoe), without reading the unlikely circumstances in the court filing above, and without taking into account that Roethlisberger has not been charged by law enforcement in a town that has no specific loyalty to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Stories like this are the ones getting all the exposure.

Not stories that point to conflicting statements by the accuser and her friends. Again, from the Fred Bright press conference:

[T]he first words out of his lips, the police officer’s, he said, ‘Did he rape you?’ And her response was, ‘No.’ Next, the first officer said, ‘Did they have sex?’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m not sure.’ And then – and I’m giving you the spectrum here – we go to her first statement in her own handwriting, and I think it’s still pretty clear she was still intoxicated at that point; this was down at the Milledgeville police station. And she said in her own handwriting, ‘I don’t know if this is a good idea. He said It’s OK. He had sex with me.’ Then the progression will go to her second statement, in her own handwriting, and this is probably 12, 13 hours later, again at the Milledgeville police department. She’s sober by now and coherent, and in her own words she said, and this is in her handwriting, ‘I told him it wasn’t OK. No. We don’t need to do this. And I proceeded to get up and try to leave. I went to the first door I saw, which happened to be a bathroom. He followed me into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. I still said no. This is not OK. And he then had sex with me. He said it was OK.’ And I’ll give you one more at the hospital: The doctors and nurses have in quotes, and this will be coming from the victim, ‘A boy kind of raped me.’ I don’t really want to go any further than that, but I’m trying to give a fair spectrum of the progression from the initial statement.

The irresponsibility of the media and the prejudice of the public at large are (and already have) started to open the flood gates.

Could Ben be guilty in one or more of these allegations? Sure, but you have to show it to me by proving it to a jury, since I am not personally involved. Conspiracy theories and venomous labels amount to no more than a witch hunt.

In the meantime, the only judgment that I, or anyone else, can level is that Roethlisberger needs to start hanging out with women in (or close to) his own tax bracket.

Monday, April 12, 2010

#145: 2009-2010 NHL Playoff Preview...

---...Shots-on-Goal Style---

It's time to crunch my favorite hockey numbers yet again and how they will translate into Stanley Cup contenders, as well as a projected winner.

Last year using Shots-on-Goal differential (SOGD), I accurately predicted the winner in 11 out of 15 series, including the first-round stunner that was #8 Anaheim over #1 San Jose (though the reason for the upset wasn't what I thought it would be).

Interestingly, if you look at the numbers from the past few seasons from the playoff participants, there were roughly an average of 6 teams out of the 16 who entered the playoffs with a negative SOGD on the season. This year, there are just two (Montreal and Colorado), and they are both the #8 seeds in their respective conferences.

For those of you just reading about SOGD for the first time, it's simply the average number of shots a team takes per game, then subtracting the average number of shots it allows. Historically, only two teams have won the Stanley Cup since 1990 with a negative SOGD, and each had mitigating circumstances.

The 1990-1991 Penguins made significant acquisitions at the trade deadline, most notably face-off wizard Ron Francis and intimidating defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. Their contributions were not enough to completely offset the negative SOGD the team had accrued to that point.

Last year's Penguins had similar circumstances, though the most significant change came at head coach. Under Dan Bylsma, the Pens' offense transformed into a puck possession teams, emulating the Detroit Red Wings and ultimately eliminating them for hockey's greatest prize.

Enough exposition. Let's crunch some numbers.

Below is how each team finished the regular season in their respective conferences. Next to each team is its season-long SOGD. Next to the playoff teams only, in parentheses, is the SOGD starting March 3 (trade deadline) through the end of the year.

Eastern Conference
1. Washington +1.9 (+3.5)
2. New Jersey +3.0 (+3.8)
3. Buffalo +0.2 (+0.2)
4. Pittsburgh +4.1 (+8.9)
5. Ottawa +1.2 (+1.5)
6. Boston +1.9 (+4.1)
7. Philadelphia +3.0 (+2.0)
8. Montreal -3.5 (+0.4)
9. NY Rangers -0.3
10. Atlanta -3.7
11. Carolina -2.1
12. Tampa Bay -2.5
13. NY Islanders -1.5
14. Florida -5.7
15. Toronto +2.8

Western Conference
1. San Jose +0.4 (+0.7)
2. Chicago +9.0 (+7.3)
3. Vancouver +1.4 (+1.4)
4. Phoenix +0.9 (+1.8)
5. Detroit +4.0 (+7.1)
6. Los Angeles +1.6 (+2.1)
7. Nashville +1.4 (+2.7)
8. Colorado -4.2 (-2.4)
9. St. Louis -0.3
10. Calgary -0.3
11. Anaheim -3.2
12. Dallas -0.4
13. Minnesota -1.8
14. Columbus -2.1
15. Edmonton -4.8

The fact that there are only two teams in the entire field that are - historically speaking, at least - virtually eliminated from Cup contention based on SOGD means that we're going to be in for a spectacular tournament, with lots of deep series.

Unfortunately, I don't have much time to break everything down the way I'd like, but here we go with some mini-capsules and picks. We'll start out west.

Western Conference

#1 San Jose vs. #8 Colorado

The Avalanche are much improved over last year's conference-worst finish in the standings. Still, they have a long way to go. This series with the Sharks should help the younger players on this squad where they need to start.

The Sharks have not played their puck-possession game as consistently as they would like, out-shooting their opponents by a ton, then getting out-shot by a similar margin the next night.

If the Sharks decide to catch fire right now, this will be a sweep.

Still, Avs goalie Craig Anderson has shown he can withstand a barrage of shots from time to time and may be able to help his team take a game or two.

No first round exit for San Jose, regardless.

Sharks in five.

#2 Chicago vs. #7 Nashville

I'll say right now that Chicago is my pick to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, provided they don't sustain any more injuries. Brian Campbell, one of their top defensemen, was injured during a game against Washington, but he may end up being ready for this series against Nashville. If he isn't hampered too badly, Chicago's run to 12 wins may be even shorter.

The Predators only hope of prolonging this series is keeping five men on the ice as frequently as possible.

Statistically, this should probably be a sweep for the Blackhawks, but, as they are divisional foes, Nashville probably has a trick or two up their sleeve that might make this a bit more interesting.

Blackhawks in six.

#3 Vancouver vs. #6 Los Angeles

Last year, I predicted the St. Louis Blues would defeat the Canucks and was soundly proven wrong by a four-game sweep by the Northwest Division champions. Once again, this year's SOGD numbers show an edge to Vancouver's opponent.

One has to wonder how much, if any, effect, playing all the way through to the gold medal game of the Olympics may have drained superstar goalie Roberto Luongo. The onus will once again be on him to prevent a first-round "upset," just as he did last year.

This will be a super series that will go down to the wire. Can the Kings contain the Sedin twins? Can Anze Kopitar and crew crack Luongo? Will all the investments made by the Kings in the offseason result in an appearance in the conference semi-finals?


Kings in a thrilling seven.

#4 Phoenix vs. #5 Detroit

A tale of two franchises. One is a perennial stalwart who very few want to see in the postseason, and whose fan base is legendary. The other is a team that might not even be in its current city after this season and has been considered something of a laughingstock.

Phoenix, a town that rarely sees a snowflake, let alone entire sheets of ice, has nothing to lose by being here. The Red Wings are better than 1-to-2 favorites in this series according to most sports books.

But the disrespect card and a formidable goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov won't be enough to even slow down Detroit's Red Machine.

Phoenix may very well go the way of last year's Blue Jackets.

Red Wings in four.

Eastern Conference

#1 Washington vs. #8 Montreal

Montreal has been playing better hockey overall since the Olympic break, and some think that the Capitals are about ready to fizzle after earning 120 out of a possible 164 points in the standings during a stellar regular season.

Not so.

Washington may not be invincible, but the Canadiens do not have what it takes to beat a team that has shown a hunger all year since their loss to the Penguins last year in a seven game series, the finale of which wasn't even close.

This one could be over quickly, but we'll get to see what Habs netminder Jaroslav Halak is made of. He tends to do well when being under constant bombardment, and he is certain to see several pucks flying his way.

Capitals in five.

#2 New Jersey vs. #7 Philadelphia

Slow and steady wins the race. Especially if you're New Jersey. The Devils have managed to stay a competitive - if not elite - team since various rule changes after the lockout a few years ago opened up the game and nullified their effective, if unexciting, trap defense.

They have not been in the headlines very often amongst teams in their division, what with the Stanley Cup champion Penguins, two teams from New York, and the ever-interesting Flyers gobbling up the attention, but the Devils outlasted them all to win the Atlantic while no one was watching.

Much has been made of Philadelphia's 5-1 regular season record against New Jersey, but I don't think that factors in here. While Jeff Carter has returned from injury, he won't be at 100%, and I think the Flyers would need him to be a central figure in this series if they were to win.

It should still be a good one, filled with all forms of ire and hate as they cross back-and-forth across the Delaware river.

Devils in six.

#3 Buffalo vs. #6 Boston

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller is a stud, and if Buffalo prevails against Boston it will be due to a combination of Miller and Boston's poor shooting percentage.

Still, Boston has received some good goaltending of their own and are a better puck-possession team, as indicated by their superior SOGD (nearly four shots per game better).

And, finally, the experience factor. Buffalo has been absent from the playoffs for two seasons, whereas Boston was a #1 seed last year without the benefit of a positive SOGD.

More divisional rivalry fun in round one.

Boston in seven.

#4 Pittsburgh vs #5 Ottawa

The only thing that can kill a return to the Stanley Cup Final for Pittsburgh is Marc-Andre Fleury.

Apologists in the media in the fan base try to blame the defense or say that he still hasn't reached his prime yet or some other limp excuse, but when your only shutout of the year occurs after facing just 17 shots against the worst-shooting team in the league, it is obvious he needs to ratchet it up a gear of five.

Once again, Bylsma's team is turning a high SOGD, which should have been enough to hack out a couple of wins that turned out to be losses.

The Penguins are stacked and should be able to move steadily through the East.

On the flipside, Ottawa's fortunes depend on how tall rookie Brian Elliot can stand in goal and how much his defense helps out against a team that throws a tied-for-conference best 32.8 shots per game.

During the regular season, Ottawa was able to contain that somewhat. But, as you've heard for as long as you've watched hockey, the playoffs are a different atmosphere, and one in which the flightless birds have become quite accustomed.

Elliot's not ready for this yet, but he might be by this time next year.

Penguins in five.

Right now, I see Detroit and Chicago in a Western Conference final rematch and Pittsburgh and Washington in the East, with Chicago defeating Pittsburgh for the Cup, but the landscape may change drastically in a week and a half from now.

Visit again for the second round preview, and, by all means, feel free to comment with your predictions.