Sunday, May 13, 2012

#256: NHL Playoffs 2012 - Round 3

---Not According to Plan---

I'm taking a beating here at "Steeltown Sports."

That statistical "edge" that I thought I had discovered in picking series winners is either having an off year, or the game is evolving to where Shots on Goal Differential (SOGD) and Save Percentage (SV%) are no longer the key statistics.

Through two rounds, SOGD + SV% is dead even at 6-6 (old model is 5-7).

Now to the "what happened in Round Two" segment.

Western Conference

#2 St. Louis vs. #8 Los Angeles

Both systems picked Blues in 7.

Instead, it was the Kings sweeping my projected Western Conference champion out of the tournament.

The culprit would appear to be Jonathan Quick, the Kings' goaltender. Quick posted a series SV% of .939, which completely countermanded St. Louis' SOGD advantage for the series (an average of 3.2 shots better per game).

His counterpart, Brian Elliot, posted an anemic .850 SV%. Still Elliot would have had to have been almost as good as Quick to have kept the Blues around.

#3 Phoenix vs. #4 Nashville

Both Steeltown Sports picks took Phoenix in 6.

I personally enjoy those times when I go against what seems to be "the world" with a prediction and win. Granted, Phoenix only took 5 games to oust expert favorite Nashville, but maybe the Preds would have won another game in the series had the team not suspended forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov. Still, you have to admire a franchise that would take two of their top ticket-sellers out of the lineup for home playoff games.

This was the duel where both teams had a regular season SOGD in the negative, which is the mark of doom for whether a team can win the Stanley Cup. Again, only two teams since 1990 have won when their regular season SOGD was in the negative (the 1991 and 2009 Penguins) - and that was due to some drastic trade deadline/late season improvements.

The story of this series, though, was netminder Mike Smith, who posted an impressive .946 SV%, including surrendering only one goal over the final two games to put the Predators away.

Nashville outshot the Coyotes over the course of the series by a +4.6 margin, but Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne (who I believe should win the award this year) was not up to Smith's level, posting a rather pedestrian .909 SV%. And that number is only bolstered by excellent showings in Games 3 and 4.

Clearly Smith is the main reason that Phoenix has advanced to the Western Conference Final, but you have to wonder who would have to be left off to make Smith a Vezina candidate, as well.

Eastern Conference

#1 NY Rangers vs. #7 Washington

Once again, both systems were in alignment, picking New York in 6.

I barely got the winner right in this series, and, if not for a double minor in Game 5 by Washington's Joel Ward that ended up leading to a dramatic Rangers power play goal in the waning seconds...followed by the GW in OT on the second half of that PP...I'd be talking about Braden Holtby once again.

Well, I'll still talk about him. The young goalie proved to be up to the task. His only "shaky" game was Game 1 where he only faced 14 shots but allowed 3 goals, two in the third.

But he posted SV% of .900 or better the rest of the series, including an admirable .935 in the finale on hostile ice. It could certainly be argued that he, overall, outperformed the man on the other side of the rink, Henrik Lundqvist, who saw an average of 4.6 shots less for the series.

The "what ifs" for the Capitals will haunt them until at least October. What if Ward doesn't take that penalty? What if they could have gotten a break in their Game 3, 3OT contest and ended it before Marion Gaborik did?

Still, I would argue that a good what-if for Washington would be: What if Holtby didn't keep them in pretty much every game.

#5 Philadelphia vs. #6 New Jersey

The picks -

Official Steeltown Sports pick: Flyers in 7 (in overtime).

SOGD by itself: Flyers in 6.

This was the only series that differed at all (just the number of game), but they were both wrong.

This was a series that truly bucked the trend. Unlike the St. Louis/Los Angeles series, where the Blues were expected to (and did) outshoot the Kings, the Flyers were expected to have that advantage over the Devils.

It couldn't have been further from the truth, as New Jersey launched an average of 5.8 more shots on Ilya Bryzgalov of the Flyers than they saw fly at Martin Brodeur.

The first three games of the series seemed to lead me to believe that my prediction of a "dynamite series" was on. We enjoyed two overtime games and a road win and it looked like the rivalry was on. But Philadelphia couldn't stay out of the penalty box in the last two games, which, more than anything, hindered their own chances at scoring. The Devils were only able to capitalize on 2 of the 9 power plays they saw in Games 4 and 5, but that was nearly an entire period that the Flyers would have been shorthanded.

And unlike the Penguins, the Devils defense doesn't tend to cheat forward allowing for shorthanded breakaways.

In this, the Devils scheme was superior. Brodeur didn't have a superb series, but he came up big on the road in Games 2 and 5 in Philadelphia.

Now, let's review the regular season SOGD and SV% of the NHL's Frozen Four:

Eastern Conference
1. NY Rangers +0.7 (.920)
6. New Jersey +0.7 (.907)

Western Conference
3. Phoenix -2.0 (.925)
8. Los Angeles +3.2 (.924)

Washington and Nashville, two of the three conference semi-finalists remaining with a negative SOGD, were eliminated.

Western Conference

#3 Phoenix vs. #8 Los Angeles

No doubt, this is being billed as a "which goaltender will blink first?" kind of series.

Smith and Quick have no doubt been the stars of their respective clubs, but there's more experience on the L.A. side, and the statistics are on their side, too. The Kings' defensive capability should help out their netminder, whereas Smith is probably about out of gas.

Phoenix ousted a Chicago team without much of a goaltender, then beat a Nashville team who is inconsistent in keeping shots away from their net.

Los Angeles was able to beat two teams who could shoot the puck and make a save. And they didn't have home ice advantage for either series.

It's for series like this that the SOGD connection was made. The Kings will be the first #8 seed since the 2005-2006 Edmonton Oilers to make the Stanley Cup Final.

Official Steeltown Sports pick: LA in 6.

SOGD only indicates Kings in a sweep.

Eastern Conference

#1 NY Rangers vs. #6 New Jersey

New Jersey's defense and legendary goaltending vs. New York's balanced attack and Vezina candidate.

You know the drill by now. The Capitals, with a back-up back-up (typed twice on purpose) goaltender, were just a goal or two away from upsetting the East's top seed. New Jersey has also been pretty good about staying out of the penalty box, but the Rangers are pretty good at drawing penalties.

New York will need to have patience to win this series. And considering that each of their first two rounds went the distance, the Rangers will have plenty of that.

If New York wins, it will be a deliberate, low-scoring affair, as they beat the Devils at their own game. If you see scores that exceed 3-2, expect that the Devils will have the larger number. I don't anticipate the Rangers scoring more than 3 goals in a game (an empty-netter being the lone exception).

Official Steeltown Sports pick: New York in 6.

SOGD alone (where both teams are dead even) has Rangers in 7 (using home ice as a tie-breaker).

Both systems have had the same projected winner in 11 out of 14 series with only one more prognostication to make.


If the above comes to pass, and you can bet that the NHL wants a New York/Los Angeles Final for ratings purposes, the new system has the Kings winning it all in 6. The previous model has LA in 5.

The way things have gone, though, we'll be trying to determine if Brodeur will go out in style or if a city that never sees naturally occurring ice will be celebrating with Lord Stanley's chalice.


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