Friday, May 28, 2010

#150: Stanley Cup Final 2010

---And the Cup Goes to...---

On the road, but I wanted to make sure I got a prediction in before the Final started.

First, Shots on Goal Differential (SOGD) in predicting series outcomes is now 9-5 after both Philadelphia and Chicago advanced as predicted in the last post.

The short story: Chicago is at a +9 for the season, Philly at a +3.

Philadelphia is not "guaranteed" to lose this series because they're in the positive, as well, but Chicago is becoming the new Detroit Red Wing machine (as much as they would probably hate that comparison).

I hope to edit this before the series starts and add some numbers and factoids, but just in case I don't...

Third time's the charm, and Marian Hossa finally raises the Cup.

Blackhawks in five.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

#149: 2010 Conference Finals

---7-5 Through 2 Rounds---

The more you think you know, the less you actually do.

Followers of "Steeltown Sports" since it began have to admit there is a pretty solid trend with regard to individual series winners having the greater Shots on Goal Differential (SOGD).

This year, though, it's been a bit more of an adventure. Through twelve series, the formula has already failed more times (5) than in all 15 series last year (11-4).

Still, the only historical trend that is stronger than the rest is that only two teams since 1990 have won the Stanley Cup with a season-long SOGD in the negative (1990-91 Penguins, who acquired a bunch of help at the trade deadline to boost their numbers late; and the 2008-2009 Penguins, but it was their change in coaches - and subsequent philosophy change - that reversed their numbers after the trade deadline).

With no drastic mid-season changes, though, as long as a team is dead even in SOGD or better on the season, they have a chance, even if it's a +1 team taking on a +9.

This still does not explain the phenomenon that is the tireless Montreal Canadiens. More on that in a bit.

Chicago and Philadelphia both advanced per my predictions, and, most notably, both advanced in the predicted number of games (success or failure of my series predictions aside, I'm terrible with picking the correct number of games).

Now, with what went wrong.

Detroit and Pittsburgh both fell, the former as the lowest seed remaining in its conference, the latter as the highest seed in its conference.

The Red Wings were predicted here to win in six, but fell in five. San Jose won all four of their games by a single goal, where as Detroit won their only contest by six. In the final three games, Detroit outshot the Sharks, but the overall shot totals were dead even (166).

The rookie goaltender for the Red Wings Jimmy Howard's save percentage was admirable (90.9%), and, in fact, better than his primary counterpart in blue, Evgeni Nabakov (88.6%). However, if you take out Nabakov's bad game where he was pulled after allowing five goals on nine shots, his save percentage in San Jose's four wins was 91.9%.

There was also some chatter on message boards that San Jose was practically handed the series by the referees, but we don't complain about officiating here. Detroit fans pulled the same stuff about the Stanley Cup Final the past two years, and that was unfounded. Still, even if there was a bad call (or ten bad calls), the motto is:

Champions Overcome.

San Jose won all the close ones, and the series could have easily gone longer. It makes one wonder if Detroit, as a team, was kind of gassed after playing the last two seasons to their limits, and that was the intangible difference.

Detroit's nemesis the past two seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins, also appeared to have run out of gas. The pick here was Pens in five, but there were some eerie predictions in that series capsule.

One was that Montreal was going to have a whale of a time winning Game One just two days after ousting Washington on the road (Pens won 6-3, going 4-for-4 on the power play).

Another was that goaltender Jaroslav Halak was going to have to stand on his head in the series. How's 203 saves on 219 shots for standing on one's head (94% save percentage)? Take out the first game, and it that number improves (94.5%).

The Pens spread the puck around, too. Sidney Crosby had 17 shots in the series, as did Chris Kunitz and Sergei Gonchar. Pascal Dupuis had 18 shots and Tyler Kennedy had 19. Defensemen Alex Goligosky and Kris Letang also shot a fair number of times (15 and 13, respectively).

For Penguin fans who think trying to trade Evgeni Malkin to get Crosby a winger and/or the team a solid defenseman, they need to consider Malkin led the team in shots this series. By a wide margin. Try 31.

Alexei Ponikarovsky played in only five games, and generated just as many shots. He was a big body that could have had several chances had he parked himself in front of the net. Halak wasn't giving up many rebounds, but Poni was playing by the boards too much.

Worse, Ruslan Fedotenko played in only four games, and was benched when he was only able to generate two shots on net.

That was the factor I did not conceive.

And finally on the second-round-prediction front (and we quote here) -

"[U]nless goalie Marc-Andre Fleury implodes, Pittsburgh should finish Montreal quickly."

Fleury's save percentage for the series: 89.2% (148 saves on 166 shots).

I'll go ahead and take out Game Seven to give you a number, even though that's the contest that anyone can ill-afford to have a bad game: 90.8% (139 saves on 153 shots).

The number looks better because it's on the plus-side of 90, but he needed to outplay the guy on the other end of the ice four times. He only did so in the three wins.

Pens fans should give Halak all the credit in the world, but they need to recognize that Fleury needed to be better, especially when facing 53 fewer shots in the series.

One final note on Fleury, in his two shutouts this season (one in the regular season against Boston and one in this past series against Montreal), he faced 17 and 18 shots respectively. No shutouts when facing 19 or more shots all year. Oddly, both shutouts came on the road.

No matter. What's past is past.

The Conference Finals begin this afternoon, so it's time to get my projections out.

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

Eastern Conference
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)

Western Conference

#1 San Jose vs. #2 Chicago

These two teams fought until season's end to determine their conference's regular season champion, so it's only fitting that they will meet to determine its Stanley Cup Final representative.

They have not met since January 28th (a 4-3 road win for Chicago) and the Blackhawks had a record of 3-1 against the Sharks.

In the four games, Chicago has outshot San Jose each time, with an average differential of +14.5 (a 47-14 shot their only loss, oddly enough, skews that statistic a bit.

The Sharks have the home ice advantage in the series, but Chicago won both games at the Shark Tank this year.

The X-factor in this series will be Antti Niemi. He has never faced San Jose prior to today. We'll get to see if the crowd in San Jose and some game planning will help the Sharks neutralize what will probably be a Chicago-dominated performance in terms of shots on goal.

Both Niemi and Nabokov are below save percentages of 91% in the 2010 playoffs, (90.9% and 90.7% respectively), so that does seem to indicate that number of shots generated will be key.

Chicago is becoming very Detroit-like in their ability to possess the puck in the offensive zone for long stretches, and that will likely be the undoing of San Jose.

I've said it (twice) before, and I'll say it again.

Blackhawks in six.

Eastern Conference

#7 Philadelphia vs. #8 Montreal

A series loss by either team here will be seen by its fan base as a huge letdown.

For Philadelphia, there's talk of "destiny" after rallying from a 3-0 series deficit, and a 3-0 Game 7 deficit to win both 4-3. Now, they have home ice against a team most experts thought would have been golfing after the Washington series.

For Montreal, they have completed back-to-back upsets of historic proportions to get here. As an eighth-seed, they were the first team to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to shock a top-seeded team, and then they became the first number eight to defeat the President's Cup champion and the defending Stanley Cup champions in successive rounds. So, to some observers, it will be like the Canadiens will be taking the game off the "Expert" level and playing on "Hard", or, perhaps, "Normal".

The Flyers don't figure to get as many pucks to the net as the Capitals or the Penguins, but they probably don't figure to be as finesse of a team. They have actually been fairly good about staying out of the penalty box, but will likely take some penalties, crash the net, and try to disturb Halak and his team's defensive harmony.

The Canadiens, with nothing to lose from the start of the postseason, will have no problem returning the favor, knowing that Philadelphia is thin at goaltender (especially healthwise).

Oh, but this is going to be an ugly series. That's generally what a lower seed wants, because it means it has a chance.

It's very hard to pick against Halak here, even if the SOGD statistic favors Philadelphia. Not to mention that the Canadiens have a sizeable contingent of past Stanley Cup winners in their ranks.

Philly is banged up, but they've managed to plug the holes and have players rise at the right times. And they've been playing more disciplined hockey than many would acknowledge.

Don't miss a minute of this one, as it will almost certainly go seven games.

Do I actually have to pick a winner?


Shots on goal differential breaks all ties.

Flyers in 7.

But what do I know?

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

#148: Stanley Flop

---Pens Suffer Letdown to Inspired Habs---

This has been an odd year for playoff hockey in general.

The top two seeds in the Western Conference will vie for a chance at hockey's Holy Grail while it is possible that the bottom two seeds will meet for the Eastern Conference's berth.

The Montreal Canadiens' seven-game stunner over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins is one of the great statistical playoff upsets in NHL history, and is the top statistical upset in franchise history (surpassing the '93 Islanders series and the '96 Panthers series).

Perhaps the greatest shock of the series was the relative ease with which the Canadiens came into the Mellon Arena, with a crowd amped to do their part to see to it that the final game at the venue would not be played that night, and had the game won by the middle of the second period.

While Montreal played sound hockey, the kind of game they needed to play in order to have a chance against another high-powered offense, many Penguins did not rise to the challenge. Trade deadline acquisitions Alex Ponikarovsky and Jordan Leopold did not improve the team as the front office had hoped. Ruslan Fedotenko and Tyler Kennedy were absent the entire playoff run.

Even two of the world's three best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could not find a way to outshine the workmanlike Habitants.

The talent and the stats in favor of the Penguins, and the fatigue that many expected Montreal to display following their hang-on-for-dear-life comeback over the Washington Capitals did not manifest in the way many thought.

Now, Montreal has gained a little more respect.

Las Vegas' futures propositions for Cup winners (as of this post) read like this:

Boston Bruins +800

Chicago Blackhawks +160

Montreal Canadiens +350

Philadelphia Flyers +900

San Jose Sharks +160

In layman's terms, Chicago and San Jose are running at a dead heat (1.6 to 1 odds) to win it all, with Montreal, for the moment, the best out of the East. This is partially due to the fact that Boston or Philly needs to win one more game.

Will the Canadiens be the favorites in their next series despite not having home ice advantage?

Were I a bookmaker, I certainly would make them so. In fact, as of right now, a major sports book has Montreal at -120 now to win the Eastern Conference.

And why not?

The Canadiens are doing what almost all championship-caliber teams do in May: Peak.

The past couple of hockey-related posts on this blog have indicated that Montreal is historically doomed in terms of winning Lord Stanley's Cup, having a season-long Shots on Goal Differential (SOGD) in the negative. The operating theory is that being beaten in shots per game over the long haul will overwhelm a team at some point, especially in a best-of-seven series.

So far, that has not been the case for Montreal.

The Penguins outshot Montreal by an average of 7.0 shots per game.

In the Capitals series, Montreal was outshot by nearly double that amount per game (13.9).

The foil of the SOGD theory is the hot goalie, and Jaroslav Halak has been the epitome of one such athlete.

In order for the Penguins to have emerged as the victors, they needed a bit more from Halak's counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury.

Pittsburgh media and the die-hard fans are already defending Flower, saying that he was hung out to dry by his defense on a number of critical goals.

When will the fans realize that if Fleury is to emerge from the "overrated" label which most of the rest of hockey has him under, he needs to take command of a game (nay, several games) by himself and make the critical saves. Without help.

Halak made some huge stops in both series when he was left out to dry by his defense. The Pens were still able to get nearly 32 shots a game, which does not include the ungodly amount of shots that were blocked on their way to the net. Halak helped himself as much as his defense did.

Fleury didn't face nearly the number of shots, nor did he make a proportional number of stellar stops.

Between the pipes, it was the Slovak who looked like a first overall draft pick.

In the first two series, Halak was shot at 450 times. He stopped 430. A save percentage of 93.3%

Fleury, in contrast, stopped 302 of 339. 89.1%

If Flower had stopped 89.1% of 450 shots, he would have allowed roughly 49 goals - nearly 2.5 times more than Halak.

If Fleury backers want to say that he just wasn't sharp in these playoffs and that he'll come back next year, I can accept that. To say that he shouldn't bear a large portion of the blame, however, is the very definition of "homerific". If that's even a word.

Montreal had a plan and was crisper in its execution of said plan.

It's not unreasonable to think that Montreal can advance to the Stanley Cup Final, because neither Philly nor Boston get the puck to the net as much as Washington or Pittsburgh.

It's also not unreasonable to think that the Canadiens could subconsciously let their guard down after having vanquished two juggernauts in consecutive series to face a squad that will be considered by many to be a tier lower on the totem pole.

Either way, there are folks in San Jose and Chicago who no doubt think that their upcoming best-of-seven tilt truly is the Stanley Cup Final.

But in an odd playoff year like this one, I wouldn't bet the house on it.