Sunday, April 10, 2011

#197: NHL Playoff Preview

---2010-2011 Edition---

I'll try yet again to be an outstanding prognosticator of the NHL Postseason. Last year didn't go quite as smoothly, but mainly due to a guy named "Jaroslav Halak." Fortuantely, he plays for the St. Louis Blues this year, and they're not in the tournament (though statistically, maybe they should be...), so he can't ruin it.

Last year's record using the "Shots on Goal Differential" (of "SOGD") comparison: 10-5 (.667). The year before was one game better.

What I'm looking forward to in this postseason is a far more wide-open tournament. There are people talking about all sorts of different teams to win it all. Vancouver has the this year's President's Trophy-winning team, and it wasn't even close (for all the good it did Washington last year...). San Jose seems to have found a solution in goal with 2010 Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi, who was jettisoned by Chicago. Philadelphia is out to defend its Eastern Conference crown. The Penguins nearly managed to win the Atlantic Division despite not having Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin for half the season. Washington is surging. Anaheim is surging. Tampa Bay can score, and on it goes.

However, San Jose (currently my prohibitive favorite to win it all) has the best SOGD in the league (+5.6). This is actually pretty low when you take into account recent years.

Last year, Chicago led the league in that statistic (+9.0 - won the Cup). The three years previous, it was Detroit: +8.4 in '08-'09 - Cup runner-up; +10.9 in '07-'08 - Cup winner; and +9.2 in '06-'07 - slain by Anaheim's goalie J.S. Giguere.

The Sharks' season-leading regular season SOGD is nearly 3 shots per game less than Detroit's "worst" showing over that stretch.

In other words, this year is practically wide open, and there should be plenty of exciting, long series (of course, I said that last year and wasn't quite right...). Nevertheless, I'm highly anticipating using the Shots-on-Goal formula to see if it can predict series upwards of 66.7% again.

I still have not determined a way to figure out when a goalie is primed to counter the differential. As has been said here for a couple years, the only thing that truly defeats a significant Shots-on-Goal Differential advantage over the course of a best-of-seven series is a hot goaltender. Still, we're going to base predictions two different ways and see which is more likely to bear fruit.

That said, all official predictions will be based on the old SOGD formula, but we'll keep track of the save percentages.

A friend of mine is convinced that taking a 5-on-5 Shots on Goal differential average for the season is an even better way than taking into account all shots, but I am not yet convinced. I'll see how this year plays out before I start tinkering with that.

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 save percentage of each team, which will be used as a tiebreaker if the SOGD are comparable.

Eastern Conference
1. Washington +2.3 (.920)
2. Philadelphia +1.6 (.913)
3. Boston +0.2 (.930)
4. Pittsburgh +3.1 (.916)
5. Tampa Bay +3.1 (.901)
6. Montreal +0.8 (.919)
7. Buffalo +2.1 (.909)
8. NY Rangers +0.5 (.919)
9. Carolina -2.5
10. Toronto -2.2
11. New Jersey +2.3
12. Atlanta -0.9
13. Ottawa -2.2
14. NY Islanders -2.6
15. Florida -1.4

Western Conference
1. Vancouver +1.9 (.927)
2. San Jose +5.6 (.912)
3. Detroit +3.1 (.906)
4. Anaheim -3.8 (.912)
5. Nashville -1.8 (.924)
6. Phoenix -2.3 (.918)
7. Los Angeles +0.9 (.914)
8. Chicago +3.4 (.907)
9. Dallas -3.0
10. Calgary +2.0
11. St Louis +2.5
12. Minnesota -5.8
13. Columbus +0.7
14. Colorado -2.6
15. Edmonton -5.1

Every team in the Eastern Conference has a shot, as they are all in the positive.

Remember, only two teams since 1990 have won the Stanley Cup with a negative SOGD. The 1990-1991 Penguins (acquired face-off man Ron Francis and fearsome defenseman Ulf Samuelsson at the trade deadline...not enough to push the season average into the positive), and the 2008-2009 Penguins (switched coaches - and therefore changed to a Shots-on-Goal system - with only two months to go in the regular season).

From the Western Conference, we can ultimately eliminate Anaheim, Nashville and Phoenix at some point. At least one team will advance to round two because Anaheim and Nashville play each other in the first round.

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Chicago

Using SOGD, it appears that Chicago is going to win for the third straight year.

Throwing in save percentages from both teams, and calculating them both against how many shots their own team gives up -and- how many shots the other team generates, it looks like Vancouver will have the edge after all.

Chicago shots allowed per game (28.7) times Chicago's save percentage (.907) = number of saves per game expected (26).

Using that formula, Vancouver looks to average 2.7 goals per game (28.7 - 26).

I also took number of shots Vancouver takes per game (32.0) times Chicago's save percentage (.907) = number of Chicago saves expected per game (29).

That way, Vancouver is primed for closer to 3 goals per game (32.0 - 29).

Reversing the data, using Vancouver's save rate (.927) against both number of shots Vancouver allows (30.1) and number of shots Chicago takes (28.7) yields between 2.1 and 2.2 goals allowed per game.

SOGD says Chicago in 6. (official Steeltown Sports prediction)

SOGD with save calculations says Vancouver in 6.

Oh, fun.

#2 San Jose vs. #7 Los Angeles

This might be San Jose's best team in years. L.A., meanwhile, is without superstar Anze Kopitar.

SOGD says San Jose in 5. (official pick)

SOGD with save percentage seems to say San Jose in 6.

#3 Detroit vs. #6 Phoenix

Another rematch from last year, and fans in Phoenix are probably looking forward to it. However, this year's Phoenix squad isn't nearly as fearsome as last year's. Then again, neither is this year's Detroit team. But this time around, home ice belongs to the Red Wings.

SOGD says Detroit in 4. (official pick)

SOGD with save percentage seems to say Phoenix in 7.

The more I do this, the more ridiculous this second approach seems. Then again, the Red Wings in four was last year's pick, and the Coyotes took it to 7 before succumbing, so maybe it's worth watching, just this once...

#4 Anaheim vs. #5 Nashville

Nashville isn't as good as it was last year statistically - though goaltender Pekka "Could-I-Be-Any-More-Finnish?" Rinne should be a Vezina nominee - and Anaheim is vastly overrated. Something has to give. Both teams are in the negative on SOGD, so the winner doesn't look to advance to the Conference Finals.

SOGD says Nashville should win in 6. (official pick)

SOGD with save percentage says Predators in 7.

Eastern Conference

#1 Washington vs. #8 NY Rangers

Washington is back with home ice advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs.

However, this year, the Capitals aren't saddled with the mile-high expectations they had last year when they just crushed everyone and had everything locked up early. They've dealt with injuries this year and stiff competition from Tampa Bay...and even the rest of their division to a point.

And, believe it or not, their SOGD statistic is actually better this year.

The Rangers, after just barely missing the postseason party last year and just barely squeaking in after the statistically inferior Carolina Hurricanes coughed up their chance in their season finale, are just happy to be here.

The Capitals lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round last year in the most colossal upset in recent NHL history, blowing a 3-1 series lead. The year before, the Caps were able to -erase- a 3-1 deficit to these same Rangers.

SOGD says Washington in 6. (official pick)

SOGD with save percentages - Washington in 6. (wouldn't that be interesting if that actually worked out?)

#2 Philadelphia vs. #7 Buffalo

The Flyers find themselves on the other side of the #2/#7 showdown this year, after managing to win the Eastern Conference out of the next-to-last slot last season.

They are actually not as strong this year in the SOGD department, and there is no team in the negative, so a return to the conferences pinnacle appears to be more difficult.

Buffalo, meanwhile, has also actually improved in their differential, despite not winning their division like they did last year. Philadelphia will need to have solid goaltending in this one to escape.

SOGD says Sabres in 7.

SOGD with save percentage says Flyers in 7.

(If nothing else, perhaps we can figure out a better way to determine the length of a series?)

#3 Boston vs. #6 Montreal

Prepare for a low-scoring series here. As a hockey fan who loves low-scoring tilts, this might be my series to watch. Of course, this series is also the most likely to be filled with a number of which time it will cease to be my series to watch. Both teams have had excellent goaltending this year (especially Boston).

The Bruins shoot a lot, but allow a lot of shots in return (read: a more wide-open style of hockey). Montreal doesn't shoot as much, but doesn't give up as much.

SOGD predicts Montreal in 7. (official pick)

SOGD w/ S% indicates Boston in 6.

#4 Pittsburgh vs #5 Tampa Bay

A lot of folks are sitting here in the Steel City area saying, "Tampa Bay is a good draw for the Penguins. Too bad about not being able to catch Philadelphia, but this is a great match-up."

The organization that was once referred to as Pittsburgh-South, as several Penguins found their way there over the semi-recent years (including Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Michel Oullet, Adam Hall, and even Mark Recchi), is still regarded as a somewhat inferior organization that had their heyday the year before the infamous lockout.

The truth is, this Lightning squad could take a significant step toward a Stanley Cup birth with a series win over the Penguins (especially if Sidney Crosby does not return for Round One).

The Pens and the Bolts are tied for the best SOGD in the East (only San Jose and Chicago are better, and Detroit is tied with them).

Goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who was cruelly denied a Stanley Cup when he was injured in Game One of what turned out to be a seven-game series loss for his then-Edmonton Oilers to the Carolina Hurricanes, has one more push to make. His presence has already rescued the team save percentage from sub-.900.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, finally appears to have figured out how to win without either of its two superstars (Crosby and Evegni Malkin) after half a season. They still have to get production from two of their main trade deadline acquisitions, James Neal and Alexei Kovalev. And even the goaltending has improved from last year (up to .916 from .900).

Pittsburgh can certainly win this series, but it's gonna be a white-knuckler.

And the winner looks like it has a very good chance to play for Lord Stanley's Cup.

SOGD is identical, so... using the save percentage as a tie-breaker says Penguins in seven. (official pick)

Actually running the SOGD through the save percentage calculator says Penguins in 6 (would have been 5, except Roloson has helped pull Tampa's save percentage up).

If all the official picks would happen to come through, I would foresee San Jose over Detroit in the Western Final, and Pittsburgh defeating Washington in the East. The Sharks would claim the Cup over the Pens. And this is all in the crystal ball without Sid the Kid.

Visit again for the second round preview, and, by all means, feel free to comment constructively and/or give your predictions.


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