Tuesday, April 10, 2012

#250: 2012 NHL Playoff Preview

---Starring our Favorite Statistic---

It's that time of year again when I post a lengthy, statistically-based preview of each round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and try to determine winners series by series (and take a stab at the overall winner).

It's a post that people will see because some Google search will bring them here in 2016.

Anyway, for those who have followed this blog that past few years, I set the table using a statistic called "Shots on Goal Differential," called "SOGD" hereafter.

Up until last year, using this aggregate alone had been good enough to be Vegas-accurate (better than 60%).

In 2010, it did seem like there were some chinks in the armor, as a hot goalie named Jaroslav Halak upended both the high-powered Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, despite getting barraged non-stop.

So, in 2011, I introduced another statistic into the equation, one that most hockey fans are familiar with: Save percentage (hereafter "SV%").

Last year, I ran a concurrent experiment, basing my picks off of SOGD alone, then putting a secondary pick (but not the "official" one), below it for comparison's sake. It turned out that SOGD alone had a 7-8 record, while the experiment went an astonishing 12-3.

This year, we're going to follow both again, only this time, the SOGD+SV% will bring us our official picks.

For those of you just joining us: SOGD is calculated by taking the average number of shots a team takes, then subtracting the average number of shots surrendered.

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. NY Rangers +0.7 (.920)
2. Boston +2.6 (.918)
3. Florida -0.9 (.914)
4. Pittsburgh +6.5 (.903)
5. Philadelphia +3.8 (.903)
6. New Jersey +0.7 (.907)
7. Washington -2.2 (.909)
8. Ottawa -0.6 (.910)
9. Buffalo -2.1
10. Tampa Bay -3.3
11. Winnipeg even
12. Carolina -0.9
13. Toronto -2.2
14. NY Islanders -2.6
15. Montreal -1.4

Western Conference
1. Vancouver +0.7 (.924)
2. St. Louis +3.9 (.929)
3. Phoenix -2.0 (.925)
4. Nashville -3.2 (.919)
5. Detroit +5.2 (.910)
6. Chicago +2.9 (.901)
7. San Jose +5.3 (.912)
8. Los Angeles +3.2 (.924)
9. Calgary -3.3
10. Dallas -2.6
11. Colorado +1.9
12. Minnesota -4.8
13. Anaheim -0.9
14. Edmonton -4.0
15. Columbus -1.0

A couple of notes vs. last year's numbers:

The New York Rangers are just a tad better in both categories this year, yet they were the 8th seed last year.

The Boston Bruins (who won it all last year) have a better SOGD by 1 full shot, as well as a team SV% that is .05 better.

The runners-up, though, the Vancouver Canucks, are a little worse in both categories, despite managing to win the President's Cup Trophy again.

Now, looking at the playoff teams, we can usually write off the teams in the negative as having a chance to win the Cup. A series, maybe two, yes. But not the whole thing.

Remember, only two teams since 1990 have won the Stanley Cup with a negative SOGD, and both teams had some pretty remarkable happenings mid-season. 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).

Still, with the addition of Alexander Radulov in Nashville very late in the season, and the return of Nicklas Backstrom (whose first name is actually "Lars," interestingly enough) and Mike Green to Washington from injuries, those two teams might bear some watching.

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles

I think some out there expect the moxie of the team that has the Sedin twins and Roberto Luongo has the edge, especially since they came oh-so-close last year (two chances to close out the series with a win).

However, I think some folks forget about some of the playoff veterans who are on the Kings who might be even more hungry (a couple of former Philadelphia Flyers who were on the Cup-losing team two seasons ago, for example) to make their mark in the City of Angels.

Both the new stats model and the SOGD-only model favor Los Angeles here, however. Goaltending appears to be a wash, and L.A. shoots more. I also think they're used to playing in tighter games. The last couple of regular season contests that they let slip past them at the hands of the Sharks might also give them a bit of an intangible edge. That said, it actually looks like the Kings drew the weaker opponent than the Sharks.

Official Steeltown Sports pick (using SOGD and SV%): Kings in 7

Old model: LA in 5

(Note: Last year, the two models agreed on the winner six times. In those six series, the team chosen to advance was 5-1 - lone exception was the Lightning over Penguins)

#2 St. Louis vs. #7 San Jose

Raw vs. experience. Too bad that a lot of that "experience" has a certain lean toward failure.

Seriously, both teams are capable of outshooting the other, but the Blues have the best overall goaltending in the West...and this year, especially, that's saying something. In the Eastern Conference, only the Rangers have a team SV% at or above .920, and five teams in the East are at or below .910. Four Western teams are over the .920 mark and only two are at or below .910.

San Jose is close to that low-water mark, though, and that might be their undoing.

Official Steeltown Sports pick: St. Louis in 5.

SOGD-only says San Jose in 6.

#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago

How can the Coyotes follow up their first-ever division title? Maybe with their first-ever postseason series win?

Looking at a pretty disparate SOGD in favor of Chicago, you'd think not. But Phoenix has been getting lights-out goaltending and the Blackhawks are a bit beat up.

Original Six fans may not like the result of this one, unless they're from Detroit.

Official Steeltown Sports pick: Phoenix in 5.

SOGD only indicates Blackhawks in 5.

#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit

The #4 vs #5 series in both conferences are the only ones that feature divisional rivals for opponents. Both should be incredible series.

The Predators are looking to build off their first visit to the second round last year, but first, they have to go through perennial powerhouse Detroit.

Folks are touting that home ice means something here, but it really doesn't. These teams are as familiar with each other's houses that it will be negligible.

Detroit shoots the pants off its opponents more often than not, while Nashville relies on Pekka Rinne (who should once again be getting a Vezina nomination) to bail them out.

Detroit is good at beating goalies they can overwhelm.

We're going to find out, too, how good Alexander Radulov will make this team.

Official Steeltown Sports pick: Detroit in 7.

SOGD alone says the Wings sweep in 4.

Eastern Conference

#1 NY Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa

Sadly, it looks like this year's opening round of the playoffs won't reach the excitement of last season's. Six of the eight opening round series in 2011 went at least 6 games.

Granted, in this year's Western Conference predictions, I have two going the distance, but we'd need all four match-ups on this side to go at least 6 to have a chance to match it. I won't.

This series has some pretty good hype to it because the Senators can bring the firepower. However, King Henrik Lundqvist has been the steadiest goalie in the East this year.

On the flip side, Ottawa's firepower surrenders a lot of firepower on the other end. Give me New York's shooters.

Official Steeltown Sports pick: New York in 5.

SOGD alone has Rangers in 6.

#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington

The defending champions have seemed to sputter a bit down the stretch. The Washington Capitals with the return of a couple key players from injury, and their star, Alexander Ovechkin, seeming to return to something resembling form, a good many people are talking upset.

Those pundits need to remember that the Capitals are a bit thin at goalie, and the Bruins shoot the puck, on average, a little over 32 times per game. It does seem to be the case sometimes that a team will pick up a less-experienced goaltender, but these are the playoffs. Get ready for another relative stinker here.

Official Steeltown Sports pick: Boston in 5.

SOGD only - Boston in 5.

(Interesting...our first perfect match so far...)

#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey

This is the other series where folks are predicting an upset across the board (one sportsbook has the Devils as a 1-to-2 series favorite...that means bet $100 to win $50).

And why not? The Devils, while not the juggernaut they were earlier this millennium, certainly have the experience on their side, whereas Florida is making their first appearance in 12 years.

But this is why I look more at stats than any kind of pedigree. And this series is one of the more interesting to me. The new model actually favors Florida here in 6 games (in OT), because New Jersey's goaltending, despite giving up the fewest shots per game of any team in the playoff field, have a pretty lackluster save percentage.

If you're going to bet on any team to win the first round, plop a few bucks on Florida at +165.

Official Steeltown Sports pick: Florida in 6 (in overtime).

SOGD by itself: Devils in 6.

#4 Pittsburgh vs #5 Philadelphia


That's what everyone is both expecting and wanting to see when these two Keystone State rivals get it on.

They'll get it, too, but probably not too much in the way of fighting. I predict three fights, but no brawls in a series that is destined to go the distance.

Both teams have had issues this season with stability in net (both have ended the year with the same SV%), and these two squads have the best SOGDs in the East. So, there should be more than a couple high-scoring affairs. It will likely be the highest-scoring series in Round 1.

The Pens were rolling until recently, but they recovered enough to salt home ice advantage away in the first round, and rescue their home building from the Flyers in the regular season finale.

And this series will determine who had the superior offseason. Did the Penguins really miss out on a chance to sign old friend Jaromir Jagr? Were they correct in letting Stanley Cup hero Max Talbot go elsewhere (ultimately to Philly) while they picked up Steve Sullivan? Were the Flyers wise to cut ties with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to welcome Ilya Bryzgalov?

So many subplots make it easy to overlook that this is a game of numbers. It certainly makes it more fun, anyway.

Official Steeltown Sports pick: Penguins in 7. (that sounds familiar...)

SOGD-only predicts a 6-game Penguins victory.

(Last year, it was backwards - the SOGD-only had the Pens in 7, but the combined stats had Pens in 6 over the Lightning. And, as I mentioned before, it was the one time when the two systems agreed on a winner, but got the winner wrong...)

For those keeping score at home, the two systems have picked the same winner 5 out of 8 times (Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Boston, and Pittsburgh).


If all of the above would hold true, and the 2nd and 3rd rounds would play out according to the combined statistic, it actually looks like the Boston Bruins would repeat as champions in 6 games over the Blues. (The Bruins would beat the Rangers, and the Blues would beat Phoenix in their respective conference finals.)

That Phoenix-to-make-the-Conference-Finals thing, though makes me doubt.

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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