Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Winning the Division: High Risk, High Reward

Contenders for top seed: Philadelphia, Boston
Contenders for 3-6: Washington, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Montreal
Contenders for 7-8: New York Rangers, Buffalo, Carolina, Toronto, Atlanta, New Jersey*

*I included New Jersey since the Devils are legitimately much better than any team currently lower than 6th in the East, even though they're a-ways out from the 8th spot, and the Thrashers since they're still in front of the Devils.

So I think the standings may look like this:
1. Philadelphia/Boston
2. Boston/Philadelphia
3. Washington
4. Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh
5. Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay
6. Montreal
7. New York Rangers
8. Buffalo

That terrifies me.

Chances are you've come 'round these parts before, and, if so, you know I'm big on Corsi and related numbers. Well, by Fenwick percentage, score tied, even strength, on the road:

1. Montreal, 53.6%
2. Pittsburgh 51.5%
3. Buffalo 51.1%
4. Philadelphia 50.7%
5. Washington 50.6%
6. Tampa Bay 50.6%
7. New Jersey 50.6%
8. Boston 50.3%
9. Ottawa 46.8%
10. Florida 46.8%
11. New York Rangers 46.5%

The reason one might use road data is to eliminate the effects of home scoring bias. In one arena a certain play may be called a block, in others perhaps a missed shot, or nothing at all, even. Road data almost evens out these differences. Of course, though, cutting the sample size increases the uncertainty.

Similar rankings, but at home:

1. Philadelphia 57.1%
2. Pittsburgh 56.6%
3. Tampa Bay 56.1%
4. New Jersey 55.3%
5. Montreal 54.1%
6. New York Rangers 52.6%
7. Florida 52.0%
8. Boston 51.0%
9. Atlanta 50.9%
10. Washington 49.5%
11. Ottawa 49.2%
12. Buffalo 47.9%

  • You don't want the Caps to face Montreal. They're a strong possession team (and have been all year), Carey Price looks to have made the jump to solid starting goalie, and, at the time of this writing, both their special teams units are ranked 7th in the NHL. They've just had pretty poor shooting luck. They're not better than either Tampa or Pittsburgh, I think, so they should fall into face the 3rd seed, looking likely to be the SE division winner. I'd rather the Caps face Pittsburgh (or even Boston) than Montreal.
  • Pittsburgh is high risk, high reward, too. Even with Crosby and Malkin out, they still have an extremely strong top-4 on defense and both possess the puck and forecheck very well. Marc-Andre Fleury, like Price (and Cam Ward, for that matter), looks to have taken that "next step." While the Pens' PP isn't too good, their PK is #1. If they're banged up, they'll still put up a fight in the first round. If Crosby plays like he has in the past (not even this season), they'll likely take that first round to 7 games if they don't win. They'll probably be in the 4-5 spot, facing the SE runner-up.
  • Philadelphia and Boston look overrated. Both are still scary, but Philly looks beatable here and Boston looks underwhelming (for what it's worth, they allow the 2nd most shots per game in the league).
  • So do the Caps, frankly. I don't really understand why a team would have a higher Fenwick% on the road than at home (I don't think quality of opponents is that big a factor, though I may be wrong). 
  • Regardless, having plenty of home games seems to be the way to beat Philadelphia, and road games Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
  • Not counting the Caps, 4 of the top-8 are strong possession teams, and the three others have great goalies. Scary? Yes.
I'm certainly not advocating for the Capitals to "tank" a bit to fall out of the division lead. I still want them to take the home ice and see what happens afterwards. But if, say, in their final game, a win makes the 3rd seed, a loss the 4th or 5th, deciding who to face is worth thinking about.

I guess one thing is for sure: neither Montreal nor Pittsburgh nor Tampa Bay have, historically, given Caps fans a good time in the playoffs.


  1. Then get 1st or 2nd in the conference and play the Rangers. Then everyone's happy (except the Rangers).

  2. First, I'm not sure how you can say that the Caps aren't a contender for the top position in the East when they trail Philly by only two points (regardless of the two games in hand it's still extremely close).

    While I appreciate your article as I've mulled this same thing over myself, I think it falls a bit flat; here's why.

    I think the biggest issue to understand is that there really isn't a "good" match-up in the playoffs. Every team that is in the running is solid this season with more strengths than weaknesses. One thing they all have in common is very good goaltending. Buffalo would appear to be the only "weak" team in the current playoff standings but even they could be a very tough out if Ryan Miller starts to have ice running through his veins come playoff time.

    You could really make an argument for why the Caps would or wouldn't want to face every single team in the playoff hunt. Ultimately, the Caps shouldn't, and I believe won't, try to do anything other than win down the stretch and try to attain the highest seed possible. They need to concentrate on playing their best hockey and getting better right up until the end of the season and let the cards fall where they may.

    I enjoy the good discussion, keep up the nice work!

  3. Amen, Matthew Root. You read my mind.

  4. Matthew:

    This season, at least, what strikes me is that there isn't really any easy opponent, more so than in other years. Last year, for example, Ottawa and Montreal pretty good teams to play, since they *should* have been easy to beat (both poor in possession). Phoenix, LA, Nashville, and Colorado looked like easier outs in the West. The year before, Philly-NYR-MTL-STL-CBJ. But this year, every team seems to be very good at possession, have an elite goalie, or even both. Dallas and Phoenix are the only weak teams in playoff position, and an argument could be made that it's in fact the Caps that are the weakest playoff team in the East.

    I guess when you're down looking up, every team seems scary. Can't really say I'm used to this.