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.


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