NHL Playoffs, First Round Update: April 17, 2014

Four series kick off tonight, including the two “Series of Death” in the Western Conference. Let’s look at the win probabilities for those series, plus update three others based on last night’s action.

Last night

Pittsburgh Penguins lead Columbus Blue Jackets 1-0

Game 1 confirmed what many observers expected: these teams are a fairly even match from a possession perspective, meaning the Blue Jackets aren’t going to be the pushover that Penguins fans were probably hoping for. A power-play goal late in the first by former Pen Mark Letestu gave the visitors a 2-1 lead heading into the first intermission; coming back to the second on the penalty kill, the Jackets forced a turnover by Kris Letang, and Derek MacKenzie scored shorthanded to make it 3-1. Within about 90 seconds, though, goals from Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen would erase the deficit. The 3-3 tie held until midway through the third, when Brandon Sutter scored off a 2-on-1 with Bennett. Behind 31 saves from Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh would make the lead stand. Game 2 will be played Saturday.

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Montreal Canadiens lead Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0

Given how these teams played in the regular season, I expected the Lightning to carry a strong advantage in possession, peppering Carey Price with shots while hoping that backup goalie Anders Lindback could stand tall in Ben Bishop’s absence. Naturally, Tampa managed just 25 shots in almost four full periods and Lindback made 39 saves in Game 1. I could give a blow-by-blow recap, but you’re honestly better off watching the replay. The Lightning were massively outplayed by the Canadiens all night, trading goals with the Habs despite being outshot 35-16 through regulation. The stars for both teams were tremendous, but the OT winner came from an unlikely source: little-used forward Dale Weise. Montreal now has the home-ice advantage. Game 2 will be played Friday.

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Anaheim Ducks lead Dallas Stars 1-0

High-percentage shooting strikes again: after one period in Anaheim last night, the PDOiest team in the NHL had a 3-0 lead on just 10 shots; midway through the second, it was 4-0. The Stars would score two quick goals before the end of the period, and Tyler Seguin added a score in the third, but the Ducks held the shot advantage in the third and held on for the 4-3 win. Fredrik Andersen made 32 saves in his playoff debut. Game 2 will be played Friday.

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Tonight

New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers

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St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks

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Colorado Avalanche vs Minnesota Wild

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San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings

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Understanding Home-Ice Advantage in the NHL Playoffs

It’s just a few hours until the beginning of the 2014 NHL playoffs, and while most people are focused on previewing and trying to predict the first-round series, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some thoughts on home-ice advantage. In my research on prediction of single games, the one variable that predicted winning more consistently than any #fancystat is simply the building the game is played in: across over 10,000 NHL games between 2005 and 2013, the home team won about 55.3% of the time. There are lots of reasons why this is the case. Having the last change allows the home team’s coaches to set up more favorable on-ice match-ups, and the rules give the home team’s centers a small but real advantage in the faceoff circle. Other work indicates that home teams get fewer penalties called against them and spend less time on the penalty kill. Insofar as identifying other variables that consistently predict single-game victories in NHL hockey is next to impossible, any model for predicting the outcome of short series probably needs to lean significantly on home-ice effects. I’ve described my own playoff model before, but the gist of it is this: a measure of each team’s overall strength is combined with an analytic model of home-ice advantage to forecast the probabilities of winning the series for either team.

Photo credit: Flickr user Reg Natarajan. Use of this image does not imply endorsement

Here’s how the home-ice piece works. First, let’s assume that Team A and Team B are perfectly mediocre and perfectly evenly matched (mGF% 50% for each team), but Team A starts the series with home-ice advantage. Assuming the NHL’s 2-2-1-1-1 series format and a 55.8% win probability for home teams (i.e., the home-ice win % in the eight postseasons going back to 2006), Team A has a 51.8% probability of winning the series, while Team B has (1 – 51.8%) = 48.2% chance of winning. This is before any games have been played.

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The interesting thing here is how the conditional probabilities change once we start playing games. Let’s say Team B wins Game 1 on the road. Now the probabilities look like this:

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If you win Game 1 (again, assuming the teams are evenly matched), your probability of winning the series jumps to 65.75%; you need three more wins in three remaining home games and three remaining road games, while your opponent still needs four wins and only has three games left at home. Team A can no longer win in four (obviously), but their probability of winning in five is unchanged: they still need to win two home games and two road games, or (2*Pr(W|H))*(2*Pr(W|R)) = (2*0.558)*(2*0.442) = 0.0608. For B to sweep, they need to win one road game and two home games, or Pr(W|R)*(2*Pr(W|H)) = 0.442*(2*0.558) = 0.1377.

If Team A ties the series at 1-1, their win probability improves a bit, but they still need to win three games with only two more on home ice, while Team B needs three wins with three remaining home games. Because Game 6 is a home game for B, they’re more likely to win in six than in seven, which would require a road win in the deciding game.

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Keeping this going, let’s say Team B wins both games at home to take a 3-1 series lead. At this point, they need just one more win, meaning their overall probability of taking the series is very high (86.2%). If they can take one more road game (probability = 1 – 0.558 = 0.442), they win in five. If they lose Game 5 but win Game 6 at home, they clinch with a probability of (Pr(L|R)*Pr(W|H)) = (0.558*0.442) = 0.3117. However, if A wins Games 5 and 6, with the same probability of 0.3117, they get Game 7 at home, which puts Team B at a disadvantage.

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As you can see, home-ice advantage implies that the probability of winning a seven-game series fluctuates a lot as teams move through the games. (Yes, I will be tracking such fluctuations during the playoffs at Puck Prediction.) There are a few implications of this that are worth keeping in mind as you watch the 2014 postseason:

  • The first team to a two-game advantage in the series (i.e., 2-0, 3-1) has a very high probability of closing it out.
  • As such, if you’re starting a series on the road, getting at least a split in the first two games is vital for your chances of winning.
  • If you get to a two-game advantage, especially if you’re starting the series on the road, you need to clinch the series as quickly as possible. Your probability of winning drops sharply if you let the other team back into it.
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2013-14 NHL Playoffs: First Round Predictions

At long last, the NHL postseason is back, and Puck Prediction has you covered for the coming weeks. I’ve described my method for predicting the series winners before, but the gist is this: I’ve combined a measure of each team’s overall quality, a modified version of GF% that I call mGF%, with the effects of home-ice advantage to construct an analytic model that offers conditional probabilities of each team winning their series. Now that I’ve got 82 games of data on all 16 teams, let’s get started by previewing and picking the first-round match-ups.

Atlantic Division

Boston Bruins (mGF% 55.7%) vs. Detroit Red Wings (mGF% 51.1%)

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Both of these teams prevent shots very effectively, and insofar as I don’t think the Bruins’ scorching-hot shooting down the stretch is a sustainable phenomenon, my expectation is that this series will be a low-event slugfest, in which neither team decisively controls possession. The real game-breakers, for me, are home-ice advantage and Tuukka Rask. Jimmy Howard has struggled with injury at times this season, but has quietly had a strong campaign (0.925 Sv% at even strength). Yet Rask’s 0.942 is the NHL’s best among goalies who played at least 41 games this season. As 1-8 match-ups go, this is far from a cakewalk for Boston, but I expect that they’ll come out ahead.

Prediction: Boston in five games.

Extra Skater stats dashboards: Boston, Detroit

Tampa Bay Lightning (mGF% 53.2%) vs. Montreal Canadiens (mGF% 49.6%)

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Much depends on the status of Tampa starting goalie Ben Bishop, who had a magnificent season prior to an injury sustained in the season’s final week. If he’s unable to play (or play effectively), the fallback plan is Anders Lindback, who struggled to a 0.914 Sv% in 23 games this season. In contrast, Carey Price has been magnificent in the Montreal goal this season. Which is a good thing: only the Oilers, Sabres, and Maple Leafs allowed more unblocked shot attempts against per 60 5-on-5 minutes than the Canadiens’ 60.4. The Lightning, however, were a top-10 shot-prevention team this season. As such, I’d expect Tampa Bay to control puck possession consistently in the series. Both teams are loaded with offensive skill up front. As has been the case all season, Montreal’s hopes will rest on Price’s ability to weather the storm in front of him.

Prediction: Tampa Bay in five games.

Extra Skater stats dashboards: Tampa Bay, Montreal

Metropolitan Division

Pittsburgh Penguins (mGF% 52.1%) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (mGF% 50.5%)

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I suppose this series is the sort of thing the NHL had in mind with this season’s division realignment: despite their geographic proximity, the Penguins and Blue Jackets have never played a meaningful game against one another. This series, however, should help to create more of a rivalry. While Pittsburgh has become a regular playoff performer in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era, Columbus is making just its second postseason appearance ever; they’ve yet to win a playoff game as a franchise, having been swept by Detroit in their only appearance in 2009. Nevertheless, the match-up here is not as one-sided as you might think. Both Columbus and Pittsburgh are low-event teams with slightly positive possession numbers, so it’s far from obvious that the Penguins will drive the play in this series. In goal, reigning Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky has been very strong for the Jackets (0.933 Sv% at even strength). In contrast, Penguins fans will be on pins and needles as Marc-Andre Fleury attempts to exorcise the demons of his last two first-round series. Fleury had an unspectacular 0.919 Sv% this season, and Pittsburgh may not have the luxury of turning to Tomas Vokoun if he falters again. Still, one thing worth noting about the Penguins is that they’re entering the playoffs largely healthy. If Pittsburgh’s defense corps and Crosby and Malkin up front are ready to go, the challenge may be too much for Columbus.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in seven games.

Extra Skater stats dashboards: Pittsburgh, Columbus

New York Rangers (mGF% 54.2%) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (mGF% 48.6%)

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I know the Flyers defied my expectations this season, overcoming both their poor defending and 61 starts of Steve Mason to make the playoffs. But this is a very difficult match-up for them. New York is one of the best puck possession teams in the NHL, and Henrik Lundqvist’s shaky start to the season seems like a distant memory. Even if Mason can keep his solid season going, the Rangers still have a clear edge in goal, and should outshoot the Flyers by a healthy margin in the series.

Prediction: New York in five games.

Extra Skater stats dashboards: NY Rangers, Philadelphia

Central Division

Colorado Avalanche (mGF% 48.6%) vs. Minnesota Wild (mGF% 50.0%)

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I’m glad to have a model to make a call on this series, because it’s very difficult to see where this match-up is going. On one hand, my expectation is that Minnesota will control puck possession against Colorado: the Avs are one of the NHL’s most porous defensive teams, while Minnesota is one of the stingiest. While few have forgotten his disastrous tenure in Philadelphia, I’m not especially concerned about Ilya Bryzgalov’s ability to succeed behind such a stout defense. On the other hand, the Wild’s offense has been utterly anemic this season: only five NHL teams scored fewer goals this season, and only the hapless Sabres recorded fewer shots on net than Minnesota. As such, it’s debatable whether they can score enough to outlast the Avalanche in this series, especially with likely Vezina nominee Semyon Varlamov in the crease for Colorado.

Prediction: Minnesota in six games.

Extra Skater stats dashboards: Colorado, Minnesota

St. Louis Blues (mGF% 52.4%) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (mGF% 54.2%)

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The Blues may come to regret the six-game skid at the end of the season that pushed them out of first place in the Central: instead of facing a Wild squad that they’d likely have beaten, they get a brutal match-up with the defending champion Blackhawks. Chicago and St. Louis probably have the two deepest bluelines in the NHL, and both are exceptional shot-prevention squads. As such, this is likely to be a very low-event series. After a shaky start, Corey Crawford has rebounded to have a solid season (0.927 Sv% at even strength). Ryan Miller’s performance this season has been a bit harder to read: after playing well in front of an abysmal defense in Buffalo, Miller has been fairly average since his trade to St. Louis. This series is a bit of a coin flip, but I’d have to guess that Chicago’s superior possession game gets them through.

Prediction: Chicago in six games.

Extra Skater stats dashboards: St. Louis, Chicago

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks (mGF% 53.9%) vs. Dallas Stars (mGF% 51.7%)

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As a match-up between two high-event teams, each featuring a dynamic scoring duo (Seguin/Benn in Dallas, Getzlaf/Perry in Anaheim), this series should make for good television. Neither squad is particularly good defensively, so I don’t expect the Stars to have much (if any) possession advantage. Kari Lehtonen and Jonas Hiller are both capable goaltenders that could steal this series if they can find a run of hot play. It’s impossible to say whether Anaheim’s 9.8% shooting will show up in these games, though they’ve kept up a high Sh% for so long I’d be reluctant to bet against it.

Prediction: Anaheim in five games.

Extra Skater stats dashboards: Anaheim, Dallas

San Jose Sharks (mGF% 53.7%) vs. Los Angeles Kings (mGF% 52.9%)

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Sharks fans are feeling pretty pessimistic about this match-up because, frankly, pessimism is how we approach postseason hockey. If you recall, the Kings and Sharks played a tense seven-game series a year ago that ended with a 2-1 victory for the home team at Staples. Since then, LA has put together another season of dominating possession hockey, leading the NHL with a 56.7% Fenwick Close, and getting strong goaltending from Jonathan Quick (0.928 Sv% at 5-on-5). Unsurprisingly, the Kings were the toughest team in the league to score on this season. As such, the arguments for optimism in San Jose look something like this:

    • If any team has an offense dynamic enough to break down the Kings, it’s the Sharks, especially with a healthy Tomas Hertl on the ice.
    • There’s a reason the Kings fell to third in the Pacific after a long skid in December and January: no team in the playoffs this year scored fewer goals than LA, and only the Buffalo Sabres had a lower even-strength Sh% than the Kings’ 6.6%. If they can’t find the back of the net against Antti Niemi, the Kings’ presumed advantage in possession isn’t going to matter.
    • Quick is a career 0.915 goalie. At some point, the Statistical Regression Fairy is bound to point in his direction in a playoff series.

Prediction: San Jose in seven games.

Extra Skater stats dashboards: San Jose, Los Angeles

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NHL Game Predictions, April 13, 2014: This is the End (of the Regular Season)

Today’s 10 games are the last in the 2013-14 NHL regular season. It’s been a ride, but the picks and previews below are the last you’ll see until Puck Prediction switches into playoff mode next week.

Detroit at St. Louis

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: St. Louis
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick, via Odds Shark: St. Louis

Preview: The Red Wings might as well get used to playing difficult opponents; they’re locked into a first-round match-up against Boston. St. Louis, on the other hand, doesn’t know who they’ll be playing next week: if they win and Colorado loses tonight, it’ll be Minnesota; otherwise, they get Chicago. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Boston at New Jersey

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: Boston
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: Boston

Preview: Because of the sheer number of games involved, the risk of injuries to key players, and the way good and bad luck tend to even out in the long run, you can argue that the President’s Trophy is more difficult to win than the Stanley Cup. Of course, seven-game elimination series against good teams make for better television than matinee victories over the Sabres, so we tend to care more about the latter. But still: congratulations are in order to the Bruins for a tremendous season. At the other end of the ice, an era could be ending today in New Jersey, with free agency and possible retirement looming for Martin Brodeur. While Marty doubtless deserves all the cheers he’ll be hearing today, it has to be a bittersweet moment for the fans, since Brodeur’s play this season may have cost the Devils a playoff spot. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Carolina at Philadelphia

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: Philadelphia
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: Philadelphia

Preview: Mark Streit’s overtime goal in Pittsburgh yesterday put an end to Philadelphia’s worries about having to play Boston or the Penguins in the first round. Of course, having to play the Rangers without home-ice advantage is still going to be tough. The Canes are the last weak opponent the Flyers will play for a long time. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Tampa Bay at Washington

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: Tampa Bay
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: Tampa Bay

Preview: This game between former Southeast foes isn’t quite devoid of meaning: a victory for Tampa Bay would push them past Montreal in the Atlantic and give them home-ice advantage in their first round series with the Habs. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

NY Islanders at Buffalo

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: NY Islanders
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: NY Islanders

Preview: The only thing these teams are playing for is position in the draft lottery, and both will probably be a little relieved to see the end of this season. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Ottawa at Pittsburgh

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: Pittsburgh
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: Pittsburgh

Preview: They may have been nipped in overtime yesterday, but a dominating possession game from the Penguins has to be an encouraging sign as they head into the playoffs. Their first-round opponent, Columbus, is worlds better defensively than the Senators, so tonight’s game won’t serve as much of a tuneup for them. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Nashville at Minnesota

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: Minnesota
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: Minnesota

Preview: Forget about Colorado or Anaheim: in some ways, the Wild may be the luckiest team in the NHL these days. Despite a poor possession game (48.6% Fenwick Close) and the fifth-most anemic offense in the league, the inconsistency and struggles of the Stars and Coyotes meant that they largely coasted to a playoff berth. And if the Avalanche can hang onto the Central Division lead, they’ll get arguably the easiest first-round match-up of any team starting the West playoffs on the road. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Colorado at Anaheim

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: Anaheim
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: Anaheim

Preview: Quick: raise your hand if you thought, back in October, that this would be a meaningful game that could decide the Central Division title? Anaheim’s win at Staples last night clinched the best record in the Western Conference, and considering how brutal the West was this year, the Ducks deserve congratulations for that. The Avalanche, meanwhile, will be watching what happens in St. Louis this morning: if the Blues lose to Detroit in regulation, Colorado will clinch the Central before they arrive at the rink; otherwise, the Avs will need to at least match the Blues’ point total tonight to avoid Chicago in the first round. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Calgary at Vancouver

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: Vancouver
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: Vancouver

Preview: This game means nothing for either of these teams, so hopefully they can just play an exhibition free from game-opening line brawls or locker-room fights between coaches. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Dallas at Phoenix

  • Puck Prediction (717-503) pick: Phoenix
  • Gamblers’ (723-497) pick: Phoenix

Preview: A couple weeks ago, when the Stars and Coyotes were locked in a tight race for the last Western postseason berth, it looked like this could be a one-game playoff to decide whose season would continue. Unfortunately for Phoenix, they haven’t won since then, and the race is over. Dallas (in particular Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff) deserve a great deal of credit for getting this team back into the playoffs, and their first-round series against Anaheim could be tougher for the Ducks than some might expect. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

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Teams Fall Apart: Looking Back at the Washington Capitals

It’s the last weekend of the 2013-14 regular season, and the focus of the NHL is rapidly turning to the postseason. Still, I’ve been taking last looks back at the teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention. Links to these posts are down below, but today we’ll take a closer look at the Washington Capitals, who were dropped from postseason contention on Wednesday.

Photo credit: Flickr user Dan Perry. Use of this image does not imply endorsement.

Washington’s elimination was a noteworthy thing, insofar as you have to go back to the days of the George W. Bush presidency to find the last NHL postseason that didn’t involve the Caps. If you’re a fan or a neutral observer, there’s a kind of pathos to the decline of the Capitals. Back in 2008-09 and 2009-10, there was no team in hockey playing more exciting hockey. Over that period, they led the NHL in goals by a mile and won two division titles and a President’s Trophy, and it seemed like a matter of time before they would win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Yet all most people remember about those Capitals teams are their playoff failures: blowing a 2-0 series lead and collapsing at home in Game 7 against Pittsburgh in 2009, and blowing a 3-1 lead to Montreal in 2010 in one of the most memorable upsets ever. Washington’s defense and goaltending were mediocre in those seasons, and a common refrain was that the team’s style was unsuited to postseason hockey (I would argue that drawing strong conclusions from, effectively, two games is something to be done with care.) As recounted in this excellent piece from the Capitals blog Japers’ Rink, the beginning of the end came in December of the following season, when then-coach Bruce Boudreau decided to switch to a neutral-zone trapping style in answer to the team’s struggles at the time. Though the switch appeared to produce short-term results – the Caps won their division and a first-round series in 2011, and upset a heavily-favored Boston team in the first round in 2012 – the team’s possession game deteriorated ominously. More fundamentally, it was the beginning of a serious mismatch between the team’s style of play and the strengths of the roster that GM George McPhee had assembled. Last season, a rookie head coach in Adam Oates was brought in, and the team’s defensive play worsened. So, a team that believed it couldn’t win without improving its defense appears to have ruined its chances at winning a Stanley Cup. By trying to improve its defense.

Last season, Washington got off to a terrible start under Oates, but a late run of scorching-hot shooting and playing in the miserable Southeast Division was enough to punch their ticket back to the playoffs. With the visible flaws of the team and realignment pushing them into a division with Pittsburgh and the Rangers, it was fair to wonder whether they’d be so fortunate in 2013-14; for the record, I expected them to miss out. This season, the Capitals were once again a poor possession team (47.7% Fenwick Close), allowing more shots per 60 even-strength minutes than all but five teams, and having a poor rate of shot creation. They were a deadly squad on the power play all season, but after a strong start, they gradually fell to the back of the pack over the second half. The heaviest blame for this season’s disappointments, oddly enough, has fallen mostly on Alex Ovechkin, and (to some extent) on starting goaltender Braden Holtby. This sort of criticism seems to spectacularly miss the point: the Capitals wouldn’t have come within a mile of the playoffs without Ovechkin’s 50 goals this season, and any team expecting a top-six winger to be a difference-maker defensively has bigger problems. Holtby has a 0.928 save percentage at even strength this season, and it’s sort of stunning that the Caps are willing to risk alienating a young, low-cost goalie with a 0.930 career Sv%.

If you want to understand what’s happened to Washington this season, a better place to look is behind the bench and in the GM’s office. Since last season, Oates hasn’t really demonstrated the ability to deploy his defensemen effectively; the numbers on Washington’s shot prevention game simply don’t lie. Oates is typically given credit for rejuvenating Ovechkin’s offensive game, but I’m not sure that playing your best player a lot is enough to make you a good coach; it just makes you a better coach than Dale Hunter. Moreover, Oates appears to have a penchant for alienating players; this season, three Capitals (Martin Erat, Michal Neuvirth, and Dmitri Orlov) requested trades. This brings us to another significant problem: the apparent disconnect between Oates and McPhee. Erat came to Washington at the cost of prized prospect Filip Forsberg last season, but was buried on the fourth line before being shipped out of DC. He was replaced on grunt duty by Dustin Penner, brought in at the trade deadline after a solid half-season in Anaheim. Rebuilding the Caps roster isn’t going to be easy given Ovechkin’s monstrous cap hit, but it’s going to be impossible if the coaches won’t use players in ways appropriate to their skills.

Other Teams Fall Apart posts: Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and the NY Islanders, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and New Jersey.

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NHL Game Predictions: April 12, 2014

It’s the final weekend of the NHL regular season, and the playoff field is set as of last night. Picks and previews for the nine games on the schedule are below.

Buffalo at Boston

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: Boston
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick, via Odds Shark: Boston

Preview: Some said I was crazy in early March when I predicted the Bruins would win the President’s Trophy, but Boston will clinch the NHL’s best regular-season record with a win in this matinee. Oddly enough, they get a chance to do so against the team with the worst regular-season record. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Philadelphia at Pittsburgh

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: Pittsburgh
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick: Pittsburgh

Preview: Beyond taking pride in beating a long-time rival and sending a message to a team they might meet in the postseason, Pittsburgh has little to play for in this game. The Flyers, however, are still wondering whether they’ll meet these Penguins, the Rangers, or the Bruins in the first round. If you’re the Flyers and considering picking your poison, you might take your chances on slipping down to the seventh spot for a series against Pittsburgh. Then again, with the Penguins’ lineup finally getting healthy and Evgeni Malkin expected to return for the postseason, maybe that’s overthinking a bit. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

NY Rangers at Montreal

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: NY Rangers
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick: Montreal

Preview: Home-ice advantage isn’t to be taken lightly in the playoffs, and Tampa Bay’s win last night put the Canadiens in the position of starting the first round on the road. They need a win tonight and a Bolts loss in DC tomorrow to switch positions before the season ends. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Toronto at Ottawa

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: Ottawa
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick: Ottawa

Preview: Look at it this way, Leafs fans: at least you don’t have to worry about seeing former Leaf Clarke MacArthur put a dagger in Toronto’s playoff hopes on the season’s last day. This game wraps up a Toronto campaign that will be best remembered for terrible defense and a disastrous collapse down the stretch; heading into this game, the Leafs have lost 11 of their last 13. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Columbus at Florida

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: Columbus
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick: Columbus

Preview: The Jackets outplayed the Lightning last night, but were unable to take a point from the contest. Detroit’s loss pushed Columbus up into seventh (and out of a first-round date with Boston), but the Blue Jackets can still fall back to eighth, or vault up to a first-round match-up against New York, before the weekend is over. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Chicago at Nashville

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: Chicago
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick: Chicago

Preview: The Hawks lost a meaningless game in DC last night, and will wrap up their regular season in Nashville before waiting for tomorrow’s games to determine their first-round opponent. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

San Jose at Phoenix

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: San Jose
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick: San Jose

Preview: After surging back into the playoff picture with nine victories in March, the Coyotes have stumbled to six straight losses, and Dallas’s victory last night knocked them out of the postseason. Their streak was built on a magnificent run of play from goaltender Mike Smith, and their slide coincided with losing him to injury. With Phoenix’s elimination, this game is pretty much an exhibition contest. The Sharks have nothing to play for until the first round begins, but were thrilled to welcome rookie Tomas Hertl back into the lineup last night. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Vancouver at Edmonton

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: Vancouver
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick: Vancouver

Preview: This is the final game in one of the more disappointing Oilers seasons in recent memory. Things aren’t much better in Vancouver, but at least the Canucks have some recent successes to reflect on. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

Anaheim at Los Angeles

  • Puck Prediction (713-498) pick: Los Angeles
  • Gamblers’ (718-493) pick: Los Angeles

Preview: If each can survive the first round, these teams could meet in a first-ever Southern California playoff series. The Kings have nothing to play for in their regular-season finale, while the Ducks still have a faint chance at the President’s Trophy and a pretty strong chance at winning the Western Conference. The numbers from Extra Skater are available here.

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Teams Fall Apart: Looking Back at the New Jersey Devils

We’re in the last days of the 2013-14 regular season, and the focus of the NHL is turning rapidly to the postseason, but I’ve been taking last looks at the seasons of the eliminated teams. Links to these posts are down at the bottom, and today we’ll look at what went wrong for the New Jersey Devils, who were eliminated from playoff contention by Columbus’s victory Wednesday.

Photo credit: Flickr user Dan Perry. Use of this image does not imply endorsement.

Much like the poor season of the Ottawa Senators, New Jersey’s elimination from the 2013-14 playoffs was a disappointment for the hockey analytics community. In the shortened 2012-13 season, the Devils had the unfortunate distinction of missing the playoffs despite the best possession metrics in the Eastern Conference. As I wrote in the offseason, miserable goaltending and some of the worst even-strength shooting (6.3%) in the league had derailed an absolutely dominating possession team (55.1% Fenwick Close). With the acquisition of a superb young goalie in Cory Schneider, I expected New Jersey’s netminding to be vastly improved this season, and on the assumption that their team shooting would improve (if only by regression to the mean), I picked them as a playoff team in the East. Yet the Devils never really threatened to make that prediction come true: with losses in nine of their first 10 games and no real win streaks to speak of, New Jersey stayed in the bottom half of the conference standings all season long. Their playoff hopes remained mathematically alive until the season’s last week, but this was less a sign of their success and more an indication of how mediocre the bottom two-thirds of the East was. Unlike the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were able to paper over their flaws for nearly 70 games before being exposed down the stretch, the Devils never really found a rhythm that allowed them to win as consistently as their 53.8% Fenwick Close would lead you to expect.

Somewhat surprisingly, New Jersey’s overall even-strength save percentage barely budged from last season’s 0.912. Schneider’s 0.924 season has been the worst of his young career, but the aging Martin Brodeur has started roughly half of Jersey’s games. Brodeur is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but his iconic status in the Devils organization and his unwillingness to accept a back-up role may have cost the team a playoff spot; replacing his 0.900 performance with Schneider in a dozen or so games likely would have given New Jersey the extra standings points they needed. Schneider was indeed a vast improvement in net over 2012-13 back-up Johan Hedberg, but Brodeur was substantially worse this season compared to a year ago; as such, the net effect was that the Devils’ overall goaltending didn’t improve.

Still, laying the blame at Brodeur’s feet is a bit simplistic. Just as they did last season, the Devils have allowed the fewest shots on goal in the NHL, and only five teams have allowed fewer goals than New Jersey in 2013-14. Yet only Florida, Vancouver, and Buffalo have scored fewer goals this season. The Devils’ 7.2% shooting at even strength isn’t great, but the real problem here appears to be shot creation; only Calgary and Buffalo have put fewer shots on goal this season. Many analysts will note that the scorer in Newark is famously stingy in counting shots, but a quick glance at their road numbers reveals that New Jersey ranks 20th in shots-for on the road; considering their poor record in these games, one has to assume that this number is inflated by score effects. Strong possession teams playing a high-event game (think Dallas this season, or Ottawa last year) tend to rely heavily on their goaltending to win games, but the same may also be true of good puck-controlling teams that play an especially low-event game. The Devils were usually on the right side of the possession differential this season, but they scored so few goals that they still needed great work from Schneider and Brodeur to have a chance at winning. Some interesting work by Ryan Stimson at the Devils blog In Lou We Trust suggests that this may arise from New Jersey’s pass-heavy approach in the offensive zone. If the Devils are really holding out for higher-quality shot attempts, they may want to think about changing their approach: more than any other factor, the reason the Devils failed to make the playoffs this season is that they just didn’t shoot enough.

The Devils should have cap space to make marginal changes to their roster, though some big decisions might get in the way. Brodeur is an unrestricted free agent, and could retire; Lou Lamoriello may focus on a contract extension for Schneider and look elsewhere for a back-up. Defensemen Mark Fayne and Marek Zidlicky are UFAs, and next season is a contract year for Andy Greene; the Devils would be insane to let any of these three get away. Up front, the Devils will hope that leading scorer Jaromir Jagr returns. Even at 42, Jagr is a tremendous offensive performer; I suppose when your peak is “one of the greatest talents to ever play the sport”, you’ll still look good even after you lose a step. Otherwise, the Devils’ look at the forward positions should be largely unchanged. For an organization with such a strong reputation, New Jersey has more than a few not-so-great contracts on the books, even after Ilya Kovalchuk’s retirement spared them the declining years of his monster deal. Next season, the Devils will pay nearly $23M for the services of Ryane Clowe, Tuomo Ruutu, Michael Ryder, Dainius Zubrus, Anton Volchenkov, and Bryce Salvador, and most of these players will be back the year after that. One has to imagine that the Director of Hockey Analytics they’re reportedly hiring will have a tall task in adding young talent to this roster.

Other Teams Fall Apart posts: Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and the NY Islanders, Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa.

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