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.


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