Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Playoff picks

My quick take on each series.
My picks for the NHL.com bracket challenge.

First of all, here are the teams in order of score-adjusted Fenwick--shots for and misses for minus shots against and misses against--according to Fear the Fin: Kings, Blackhawks, Bruins, Canadiens, Rangers, Senators, Red Wings, Sharks, Canucks, Blues, Islanders, Penguins, Wild, Ducks, Capitals, Maple Leafs.

So if we merely pick the higher-ranked team by SAF to win each series, we should see Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York Rangers, and Detroit advance, with San Jose-Vancouver, Montreal-Ottawa, and Pittsburgh-Ottawa too close to call.

Penguins vs Islanders

This could be a really interesting series. The Penguins, although they ran away with the East in the standings, were less impressive by Fenwick than in previous years--they didn't even break even with the score tied, while before they got to ~55% easily. That's surprising, but not as surprising as at first glance once you consider that a) Crosby, Letang, Martin, and Neal missed time, and b) Brandon Sutter << Jordan Staal.

Meanwhile, NYI got better as the year went along, to finish above 52% with the score tied. John Tavares isn't alone on that team--Matt Moulson is an established 30-goal scorer, Frans Nielsen annually receives Selke attention, Michael Grabner is a dangerous scoring threat if you don't pay attention, and Brad Boyes has had a resurgence on Tavares' wing. Mark Streit, Lubomir Visnovsky, Travis Hamonic, and Andrew MacDonald make a fine top four on D as well, and Nabokov is actually better than replacement-level (which is what the Islanders had for a few years prior to this one).

That being said, Crosby and Malkin are probably good enough to get past the possession difference (if there is any at all) with their tremendous playmaking abilities (i.e. raising shooting%), while Fleury/Vokoun, at worst, should be able to match Nabokov.

Penguins in 6.

Canadiens vs Senators

I was really surprised by Montreal this year. Last season, the Habs were a legitimately awful team, and only Carey Price's great season made their goal differential respectable (though they still finished second-to-last).

Fast forward to this year. Montreal added rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, Andrei Markov got healthy, and Michel Therrien stepped behind the bench. The Canadiens somehow become a top possession team, and made the playoffs in spite of Price.

Ottawa was also surprising. It seems like good possession teams can withstand midseason injuries--08-09 Washington, the Red Wings for years, and so on--and the Senators fit the mold. Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner, and Ben Bishop (since traded) provided excellent netminding, Ottawa made sure their job wasn't too difficult, and the Senators snuck into the playoffs. With Erik Karlsson back in the lineup, and with Montreal's limp to the playoffs after clinching a playoff spot, Ottawa could suddenly go streaking.

But I'll take the team with home ice and better possession here.

Canadiens in 6.

Capitals vs Rangers

The Capitals' run over the past six weeks has been driven mostly by great goaltending from Braden Holtby and Ovechkin scoring every five shots. I really don't think the Capitals are all that good a team--maybe if Ribeiro weren't so bad at 5v5, they'd be decent--while the Rangers I think are a really good team waiting for their offense to click, in the same vein as LA last year.

(We run into a lot of sample size issues with the short season, so I'm trusting bigger samples here, rather than, say, the last ~15 games, during which the Caps have basically broken even by shots with the score close.)

Sure, special teams have to come into consideration as well, but the Rangers are a disciplined team and stay out of the penalty box. They'll keep this game at even strength, where they're the far superior team (1.30 GF/GA ratio...the Caps were slightly over break-even).

I feel like I consistently give the Capitals a homer bump of one game, so my pick should give you a pretty good idea of how I think things "truly" stand. The more I read, the more I feel this series should go seven, but I can't shake this pessimistic feeling.

Here's hoping I'm dead wrong.

Rangers in 6.

Bruins vs Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs had a legitimately great PK. James Reimer is probably, at worst, an average starting netminder. Aside from that, well, the Leafs were heavily outshot and were buoyed by 09-10-Washington-level shooting at fives. They're not talented enough to do that consistently, and I expect that to plummet, and along with it, the Maple Leafs' offense.

The Bruins have been a great possession team this year and have elite netminding. If any series is a sweep, it's this one.

Bruins in 4.

Blackhawks vs Wild

The Blackhawks weren't as good as their record--do you actually think Corey Crawford and Ray Emery are great goalies?--but they posted really good shot differentials. Minnesota was better than it was last year, but still not good enough to really legitimately challenge Chicago (beyond the challenge inherent in hockey that comes from goalies).

Blackhawks in 4.

Ducks vs Red Wings

If you remember two years ago, the Ducks were a poor possession team, and looked done once Jonas Hiller got vertigo after the All-Star game. But they got great goaltending and Corey Perry went insane, lifting his team to the 4th seed in the playoffs. In the first round, good (not great) possession team Nashville bounced the Ducks in 6.

I'm thinking more of the same here, except these Red Wings are better than those Predators.

Red Wings in 5.

Canucks vs Sharks

Should be a great series. The Sedins weren't as good offensively but were better defensively than in years past. The Canucks also added Derek Roy at the deadline and have now gotten Ryan Kesler back as well. Scary.

The Sharks sported good possession numbers but went cold by scoring chances partway through the season. Since then, Todd McClellan shuffled his forwards to get three scoring lines, putting Burns with Thornton and Pavelski with Torres on the third line, and the Sharks have been pretty good as a result. Losing Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe, both of whom were past their "use-by" dates, helped as well.

I flipped a coin.

Sharks in 7.

Blues vs Kings

This looks like the best series of the playoffs, and it's too bad one of these teams has to go home early.

Unlike last year, both teams got shaky goaltending this year. For St. Louis, Jaroslav Halak battled a slow start and injuries, while Brian Elliott reverted back to the replacement-level goalie he was before last year, at least until the final couple of weeks. Rookie Jake Allen stepped in and did a decent job, but Halak is healthy and has a pretty solid track record of being, at worst, average.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Quick posted a .902 in 36 starts, which is a far cry from his .929 of last season. He did have offseason back surgery, and from what I've read has been improving as the year as gone along.

While their goaltending hasn't been great, both teams were just amazing in the possession game, and were able to make the playoffs easily as a result.

Ordinarily, I'd have picked LA in a heartbeat here. Even though St. Louis has been elite for a couple of years, LA was off the charts after adding Jeff Carter (and dumping Jack Johnson). And, when they met in the playoffs last year, the Kings matched up very well, gave the Blues all sorts of issues, and won in a sweep.

But St. Louis is better. It added Vladimir Tarasenko, who can provide depth scoring immediately. It added Jay Bouwmeester--a shutdown defenseman who can move the puck out of the defensive zone. On the other hand, you have LA adding Regehr--a shutdown D who cannot move the puck out of his own zone and who is now paired with Doughty, arguably dragging him down. LA wasn't quite as good as it was beforehand anyway--opponents had months to scout the Kings, who have had to ice a slightly greener blueline this year as well.

Is that enough to overcome the huge gap that existed before? I'm not sure it is.

Kings in 6.

Later rounds

If things go as I think they will, we'll be left with Pittsburgh-NY Rangers and Montreal-Boston in the second round in the East. That's fabulous, both from a hockey perspective and from a marketing perspective. (I'd expect/hope the Rangers to shock the Penguins and for Montreal to advance, but only because of home ice. I have the Habs in the Finals.)

In the West, we'd have Blackhawks-Red Wings and Kings-Sharks. Again, that Original Six matchup is compelling, and Kings-Sharks could be great as well. (I'd expect LA to top Chicago for the SCF berth, and ultimately top Montreal for a second title. Unlikely, but can you blame me for picking the best team in the league to win it all?)

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