Hi everyone. I realize I haven’t been very active with this site lately, basically taking the 2014-2015 season off. Unfortunately, life sometimes gets in the way of having fun, and I haven’t really had the time to write every day the way I did last season. Nevertheless, I’m as excited as all of you that playoff hockey is almost back, and I figured this was as good a time as any to make a comeback.
Last season, I created a method for predicting postseason series, which is described here. Obviously, predicting outcomes in short series between evenly-matched opponents is not a simple task, and my method was largely an effort to avoid two common temptations: 1) reducing team comparisons to a single, simplistic metric, and 2) reading too much into late-season hot streaks. Basically, I leaned heavily on home-ice advantage as a predictive factor, and incorporated elements of puck possession, special teams, goaltending and finishing into a single measure of team quality I called modified goals-for % (mGF%). For the 2015 playoffs, I made one adjustment to this method, relating to teams’ expected even-strength Sv%. Instead of using the team’s 5v5 Sv% regressed to a team-specific 3-season average, I used the even-strength Sv% of each team’s expected starting goaltender. I made this change partly to avoid penalizing teams for the play of their backups (who are unlikely to see the ice much in the postseason), and partly because so many playoff teams this season have different starters relative to previous seasons (i.e., it doesn’t seem valid to use Evgeni Nabokov’s final two seasons when gauging how well Jaroslav Halak will play for the Islanders). In cases where a goalie had little to no NHL data in past seasons (e.g., Andrew Hammond), I assumed league-average goaltending that season.
New York Rangers (mGF% 52.5%) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (mGF% 52.7%)
Many things have changed in the eleven-odd months since these two teams played a thrilling seven-game series in the second round of last year’s playoffs. In the wake of blowing a 3-1 series lead, Pittsburgh fired their long-time coach and GM, while the Rangers came within three wins of their first championship in two decades. Since then, New York has won the President’s Trophy, and come into this postseason as a very popular Cup pick. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, fought through a series of devastating injuries to their blueline, and needed a win on the season’s last day to secure a playoff spot.
On the surface, this looks like an easy call to make. The Rangers have one of the best goaltenders in the business in Henrik Lundqvist, and enter the playoffs largely healthy and playing well. Pittsburgh, on the other hand,will have to make do without the services of key defensemen Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and (probably) Christian Ehrhoff; apart from Paul Martin, the Penguins’ defense is an unfortunate combination of abysmal (e.g., Rob Scuderi) and inexperienced. Add in the injury troubles of Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist down the stretch and it’s hard to see how Pittsburgh puts up much of a fight against the Rangers.
Still, there is a case for optimism if you’re a Pens fan. A glance at the underlying numbers reveals something curious: despite injuries and lack of depth, Pittsburgh’s fundamentals have actually been excellent. With a score-adjusted Fenwick % of 53.8%, they were the NHL’s third-best possession team this season, and only three teams were better at shot prevention. On the other hand, the Rangers’ possession numbers declined considerably this season, and Lundqvist’s brilliance disguised surprisingly poor defensive play; New York ranked 20th in the league in the rate of Corsi attempts against at even strength. In other words, these teams may be more closely matched than they look at a glance. Still, in any close series, it’s usually safe to pick based on home-ice advantage.
Prediction: It’s much more of a coin flip than people may realize, but New York Rangers in seven games.
Washington Capitals (mGF% 51.7%) vs. New York Islanders (mGF% 53.4%)
If nothing else, this series should be very entertaining. A series of shrewd offseason moves turned the Isles from a perennial laughingstock into the NHL’s best possession team (score-adjusted Fenwick % 54.5%), though a late-season skid cost them both the Atlantic division and home ice in the first round. The Capitals, meanwhile, had a very solid season under first-year coach Barry Trotz, and Alex Ovechkin continued his annual habit of effortless 50-goal seasons. Still, the Islanders are one of the most dynamic offensive teams in this year’s postseason, based on shot creation. And the Caps can’t be looking forward to facing Jaroslav Halak in another playoff series.
Prediction: Also a coin flip, but New York Islanders in six games.
Montreal Canadiens (mGF% 52.7%) vs. Ottawa Senators (mGF% 49.2%)
These teams met in the postseason a couple seasons ago, in an ugly five-game series that saw Ottawa advance despite barely touching the puck. Since then, much has been made of how porous Montreal’s defense is, and how heavily they rely on goaltender Carey Price, but the same could be said of the Senators. Except, of course, that instead of Price, they’re riding the hot hand with the unproven Andrew Hammond in net. Neither of these teams is particularly adept at puck control, though each is led by a defenseman who is extremely capable in that area. In the final analysis, Price has shown so much quality for such a long time that it’s very hard to pick against him or against the home-ice advantage. The Sens have been a great story these past few months, but I’d have to guess that that story will end in round one.
Prediction: Montreal in five games.
Tampa Bay Lightning (mGF% 55.8%) vs. Detroit Red Wings (mGF% 51.2%)
Between scorching team shooting and an incredibly effective shot-prevention game, the Lightning have quietly become a very, very good team. Goalie Ben Bishop has had an uneven season after his Vezina-nominated 2013-14, but underestimating the Lightning this year is not recommended. The Red Wings, on the other hand, limp into the postseason with just as many questions in goal. I’d expect a very low-event, low-scoring series, but the Bolts are clearly the better squad.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in five games.
Anaheim Ducks (mGF% 51.8%) vs. Winnipeg Jets (mGF% 50.1%)
Few teams confound hockey analytics like the Ducks, who cruised to their third straight Pacific division title despite mediocre possession numbers and below-average goaltending. It may look like smoke and mirrors, but at some point it’s silly to call a team’s success a lucky streak. Anaheim was once again one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL in 2014-15, but their underlying numbers suggest they’re a mediocre team in every other respect. Frederik Andersen will lead the Ducks in goal (despite an uninspiring season). At the other end, Winnipeg is in the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved from Atlanta. The Jets have outstanding defensive numbers, and vaulted into the top ten in puck possession this season. Yet it’s still hard for me to get excited about a team that’s depending on one of the worst starting goalies in the NHL to hold back a high-powered attack like Anaheim’s.
Prediction: Anaheim in five games.
Vancouver Canucks (mGF% 48.6%) vs. Calgary Flames (mGF% 50.8%)
Between the late start times for East-Coast viewers and the quality of the matchup, my guess is that this series will see limited viewership outside of Western Canada. I considered writing something snarky about the Flames overachieving their way out of high picks in a deep draft, but honestly, if my team had spent several seasons in the wilderness I’d be pretty thrilled to see them back in the postseason. And, honestly, this is probably the best first-round match-up Calgary could’ve gotten. Sure, they’re an awful possession team playing without captain Mark Giordano, but honestly, I can’t stress enough how little faith I have in the Canucks, an anemic shot-creation squad depending on Ryan Miller in net.
Prediction: Calgary in six games.
St. Louis Blues (mGF% 53.2%) vs. Minnesota Wild (mGF% 52.3%)
Once again, St. Louis will hope that this is the year their high-quality squad breaks out for a deep playoff run. The Blues are essentially the same team they’ve been since 2011-12: excellent in possession and defense, deep down the middle, and going with the good-but-not-great Brian Elliott in goal. Once again, however, they face a difficult first-round match-up. The Wild are a solid possession team that struggled badly until their season was (oddly enough) rescued by Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk, you may recall, started 2013-14 as Edmonton’s first-string goaltender, and played so poorly that he was traded twice and finished that season in the AHL. He’s been terrific since joining the Wild, but it’s hard to know what to expect against a tough opponent like the Blues.
Prediction: St. Louis in seven games.
Nashville Predators (mGF% 54.6%) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (mGF% 55.8%)
This, for me, is clearly the marquee series of the first round. It’s hard to overemphasize how dramatic a turnaround we’ve seen in Nashville. Pekka Rinne had an outstanding season after an injury-riddled 2013-14, but seemingly overnight, the Predators appear to be loaded with young talent (which is a very odd sentence to write). Unfortunately for them, their opponent is one of the NHL’s best teams. The Blackhawks continue to be what they’ve been throughout Joel Quenneville’s tenure: dominant in possession and incredibly productive offensively. In the end, this is sort of an intuition pick (though the numbers back it up): both of these teams are very good, but Chicago is the team with the track record.
Prediction: The margin is razor-thin in this series, but Chicago in six games.