NHL Playoffs, First Round Update: April 23, 2014

After last night’s action, the Tampa Bay Lightning are heading to the golf course, the Sharks have a stranglehold on their series against LA, and Boston and New York have reclaimed home-ice advantage. Tonight, the Blue Jackets, Stars, and Blackhawks will all try to even their series. Updated win probabilities are below.

Last night

Montreal Canadiens beat Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0

The Lightning showed a brief flicker of life in the third period last night, potting two fluky goals early in the frame to erase a 3-1 deficit, but this flash of good fortune didn’t last long: with overtime looming, Tampa rookie Cedric Paquette took a tripping penalty, and Max Pacioretty smacked home a rebound at 19:17 to send the Canadiens through to the second round. For a Tampa Bay team that overcame so much this season – the offseason departure of long-time captain Vincent Lecavalier, losing Steven Stamkos for four months, the trade of Martin St. Louis at the deadline – to finish with 101 points, it’s hard to fathom how badly things went wrong against Montreal. A 51.7% Fenwick Close team in the regular season, Tampa was just 43.6% in their four playoff games. In terms of Corsi events, their offensive production didn’t change much when the postseason started, but their shots against ballooned versus Montreal. Players like Tyler Johnson, Radko Gudas, Richard Panik, and Sami Salo saw much tougher zone starts in the playoffs, and were crushed in those minutes. The late-season injury to Ben Bishop didn’t help matters, as backup Anders Lindback served up 0.877 goaltending at even strength, and was pulled in his final two games. Still, a defensive effort like they displayed in the regular season would have likely kept the series closer. As for the Canadiens, they get a long rest before they meet the winner of the Boston-Detroit series in the second round.

Boston Bruins lead Detroit Red Wings 2-1

One odd thing about this series: in each game, the road team has had the better of the puck possession. After questionable efforts in a split of the first two games in Boston, the President’s Trophy winners came out last night looking like the team we’d expected to see. The Bruins outshot Detroit 11-4 in the first period and grabbed a 2-0 lead on goals by Dougie Hamilton and Jordan Caron seven minutes apart. Score effects didn’t really apply the rest of the way, as Boston drove the play despite holding the lead. For a Detroit squad hoping to use home-ice advantage to put Boston in a deeper hole, their effort last night has to be disappointing. Moreover, for a team that struggled to generate shots all season long, it’s concerning that they’ve only beaten Tuukka Rask twice in three games thus far. The series will go back to Boston this weekend, but the Wings need a win in Thursday’s Game 4 if they don’t want that to be an elimination game.

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New York Rangers lead Philadelphia Flyers 2-1

There’s a reason Henrik Lundqvist is called The King, and last night illustrated it. In the first 11 minutes of Game 3, the Rangers took a quick 2-0 lead. After that, the game was 49 minutes of score-effects-driven possession for the Flyers, and despite a huge shot advantage, considerable scoring talent, and the ability to get more favorable on-ice match-ups, Philadelphia only got one puck past Lundqvist. At the other end of the ice, Ray Emery failed to match his effort in Game 2, allowing four goals on just 20 shots before being lifted for Steve Mason. I’ll leave it to others to second-guess the goaltending moves in Philadelphia, but this win gives home-ice advantage back to New York. The Flyers will try to stay level in the series in Game 4 on Friday.

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San Jose Sharks lead Los Angeles Kings 3-0

Before last night, San Jose hadn’t won a game in regulation or overtime at Staples since clinching a first-round series there in the 2011 postseason. While last night’s game wasn’t nearly as one-sided as the first two games at the SAP Center, it was about as strong a road game as I’ve seen anyone play in LA this year. While even-strength shot attempts were largely even between the teams, the Sharks still put 40 shots on goal against an elite shot-prevention team, and twice overcame one-goal deficits against the squad that allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season. Once again, Todd McLellan’s willingness to run Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski on separate lines paid dividends, as the Kings’ attack was neutralized for much of the game. Before the playoffs started, it was unthinkable that this series could end in a sweep for either team, and while nothing is over until the handshake line (Sharks fans may recall how a 3-0 series lead turned into a one-goal victory in Game 7 against Detroit in 2011), San Jose has a chance to bring this series to a quick end. Game 4 is on Thursday.

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Tonight

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (PIT leads 2-1)

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Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars (ANA leads 2-1)

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St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks (STL leads 2-1)

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NHL Playoffs, First Round Update: April 22, 2014

After four games last night, we have four series at 2-1 in favor of the home-ice team. Tonight, the Canadiens go for the sweep against Tampa Bay, the Sharks try to put Los Angeles on the brink of elimination, and Philadelphia and Detroit attempt to take 2-1 leads at home in their series. Updated win probabilities are below.

Last night

Pittsburgh Penguins lead Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1

I can’t say I’ve ever seen a series quite like this: once again, a team took a 3-1 lead, and once again, that team conceded three straight goals to lose 4-3. In all honesty, though, the Jackets would’ve been incredibly lucky had they held on to win last night’s game, and they have no one to blame for the loss but themselves. Before a raucous home crowd, the Blue Jackets snatched a 2-0 lead before four minutes had gone by, and it looked like the favored Penguins were in serious trouble in the series. Then, Columbus simply stopped playing. Through the first two periods, Pittsburgh had a 26-15 advantage in shots (largely thanks to five power plays), and was starting to run away with the possession before Brooks Orpik (?!?) scored on a slick move in the slot just before the second intermission. Just a minute into the third, Cam Atkinson tipped a puck past Marc-Andre Fleury to restore the home team’s two-goal lead. The Penguins’ onslaught continued, and the dam burst a few minutes later: around the 6-minute mark of the period, Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak, and Jussi Jokinen all scored in a two-minute span. I’d say Fleury made the lead stand up, but Columbus managed just five shots on goal in the third, so he barely needed to. It was another anxious game for the Penguins, but they deserve credit for taking advantage of a Blue Jackets squad that sat on its lead far too early on. It seems unlikely that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will stay this quiet for the rest of the series; as I wrote after Game 1, the Jackets may really regret letting this one slip away. Game 4 is on Wednesday.

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Colorado Avalanche lead Minnesota Wild 2-1

When I picked Minnesota to pull the upset in this series, I envisioned the series playing out much the way Game 3 did. While Matt Cooke’s ugly knee-on-knee hit and Mikael Granlund’s overtime winner are all people are talking about this morning, the Wild finally took advantage of Colorado’s chronically weak defending to dominate the Avs in possession. At the end of the night, Minnesota outshot the Avalanche 46-22, and took an astounding 73% of Fenwick attempts at 5-on-5 in the game. Of course, there’s a reason Semyon Varlamov is likely to be nominated for the Vezina this season; the Colorado netminder made 45 saves to keep the game scoreless through regulation. Games like this are why few people expect the Avs to make it out of the Western Conference playoffs despite their gaudy record. A critical Game 4 in Minnesota is on Thursday.

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St. Louis Blues lead Chicago Blackhawks 2-1

An early goal from Jonathan Toews proved to be the winner in Game 3, as the Blackhawks reversed a trend from the first two games and actually made a one-goal lead stand up. Unlike the game in Columbus, the Hawks played St. Louis fairly evenly in this contest despite the Blues chasing the score for 56 minutes. Corey Crawford was excellent in Chicago’s net. More generally, this was exactly the sort of low-scoring game I expected from two teams with such deep defense corps. Game 4 will be on Wednesday.

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Anaheim Ducks lead Dallas Stars 2-1

Last night was a bad night all around for the Ducks. They missed a chance to all but put the Stars away in their series, they were shut out, and defenseman Stephane Robidas was lost for the rest of the season to a broken leg. Robidas’s injury was just one respect in which Anaheim was unlucky; the Ducks actually controlled possession effectively in the game, and held a dynamic Dallas offense to just 22 shots on goal. But their typical high-percentage shooting wasn’t there for them last night, as Kari Lehtonen turned aside 37 shots for his first career playoff win, and goals by Jamie Benn, Val Nichushkin, and Ryan Garbutt sealed the first playoff victory in Dallas since 2008. Robidas is a big loss, but Anaheim is still in the driver’s seat in this series. Game 4 is on Wednesday.

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Tonight

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads 3-0)

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New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers (Tied 1-1)

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Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings (Tied 1-1)

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San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings (SJS leads 2-0)

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NHL Playoffs, First Round Update: April 21, 2014

Following Sunday’s playoff action, Philadelphia and Boston are even in their first-round series, Tampa Bay is on the brink of elimination, and San Jose is firmly in control of their series versus LA. Tonight, Minnesota, Chicago and Dallas will all try to get back into their series, and playoff hockey will return to Columbus for the first time since 2009. Updated win probabilities for these first-round series are below.

Last night

New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers tied 1-1

The story of Game 2, for most observers, was Philadelphia backup goalie Ray Emery, who made 31 saves as the Flyers rallied from a 2-0 first-period deficit to snatch home-ice advantage away from the Rangers. For me, the story was Philly’s two-way effort; unlike Game 1, in which they were dominated territorially by New York, Game 2 was an evenly contested game until the Flyers took the lead in the second period. The Rangers enjoyed a score-effects-driven possession advantage after that, but Emery made the 3-2 lead hold up. If they hope to advance against a tough opponent, the Flyers will need a similar effort as the series shifts to their home building. Game 3 is on Tuesday.

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Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings tied 1-1

The Bruins looked like world-beaters coming down the stretch in the regular season; as such, this has been a strange series thus far. After dropping Game 1, Boston was frankly a little lucky to come away with a win in Game 2; in the second half of the contest, Detroit dominated even-strength possession, but Tuukka Rask stopped all but one shot against him, and Jimmy Howard had a weak 0.882 effort at even strength, where he saw just 17 shots. The series moves to Detroit now, and the Wings could set up an unlikely upset if they keep playing this well and Mike Babcock is able to exploit the match-up advantage. Game 3 is on Tuesday.

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Montreal Canadiens lead Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0

If they were hoping for a shift in the competitive dynamic with a change in venue, the Lightning have to be sorely disappointed. In Game 3 in Montreal, the Bolts were once again dominated in possession, and beaten 3-2 on the scoreboard. That they lost the possession battle despite chasing the score for most of the game only underscores how much better the Habs have been in this series. Given the way each of these teams played during the regular season, this has been stunning: this season’s Canadiens were a porous defensive club that needed brilliance from Carey Price to rescue them, while the Lightning rode a solid, low-event game to their first playoff spot in three seasons. One big reason for their flat start to this series has to be the injury to goalie Ben Bishop; in his stead, Anders Lindback has managed a dismal 0.886 Sv% at even strength. The only thing standing between them and an early exit from the postseason now is a near-miraculous comeback. Game 4 is on Tuesday.

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San Jose Sharks lead Los Angeles Kings 2-0

This series hasn’t gone at all the way I expected, which is a good thing if you’re a Sharks fan. Following a convincing win in Game 1, the home team crushed their rivals from Los Angeles in Game 2 to take a 2-0 series lead, outshooting the Kings 40-26 in the course of a 7-2 beating. Full credit to San Jose for playing two outstanding games, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Kings play this poorly (maybe never under Darryl Sutter). They’re a very tough team to beat at Staples, and I’d expect the match-ups to be more challenging in the next two games; but still, if they can’t muster up a better effort than they’ve shown so far, LA will not be playing much longer this season. I joked before the series began that statistical regression was bound to strike Jonathan Quick in a playoff series at some point; the Sharks have pumped 12 goals past the 2012 Conn Smythe winner in two games. Needless to say, it’ll be difficult for the Kings to get back into the series if that doesn’t change. Game 3 is on Tuesday.

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Tonight

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (Tied 1-1)

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Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild (COL leads 2-0)

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St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks (STL leads 2-0)

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Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars (ANA leads 2-0)

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NHL Playoffs, First Round Update: April 20, 2014

Two teams took command of their series last night, while the Columbus Blue Jackets won the first playoff game in franchise history to tie their first-round match-up with Pittsburgh. Today, the Flyers and Bruins will attempt to even their series; in the evening, Montreal will try to move to 3-0 over Tampa Bay, and San Jose will try to take a 2-0 lead over the Kings. Updated win probabilities for these series are below.

Last night

St. Louis Blues lead Chicago Blackhawks 2-0

The first two games in this series have followed a pattern that Blackhawks fans can’t be enjoying. After the Blues jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, Chicago began to chip away at it, and goals from defense partners Duncan Keith (late in the second) and Brent Seabrook (early in the third) tied the score. A couple minutes later, a slapshot from Michal Rozsival bounced off of defenders and found its way through Ryan Miller. Just as in Game 1, Chicago was tasked with defending a 3-2 third-period lead; and just as in Game 1, they conceded a late tying goal, this time on a long wrist shot from Vladimir Tarasenko during a 6-on-4 power play. It would not, however, take multiple overtimes to decide this game; less than six minutes into the first extra period, a long slap shot from Barret Jackman found its way through a heavy screen and the pads of Corey Crawford. The defending champions now have a difficult challenge as they try to get back into this series on home ice. Game 3 will be played Monday.

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Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets tied 1-1

Game 2 of this series flipped the script these teams followed in their series opener. Last night, it was Pittsburgh springing out to a 3-1 lead, this time before the first intermission, while heavily outshooting and outplaying the Jackets in the first 20 minutes. Seven minutes into the second, Matt Calvert led a 3-on-1 rush and buried a wrist shot to make it 3-2; the Jackets would outshoot Pittsburgh 15-8 in the second period. With six minutes left to go in regulation, a Jack Johnson shot on the power play tied things up. The first OT period passed scoreless, but seconds into double overtime, Calvert found himself with the puck in a goalmouth scramble. His winner gives the Jackets home-ice advantage, and a chance to put the Penguins on the brink if they can take care of business at home. Game 3 will be played Monday.

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Colorado Avalanche lead Minnesota Wild 2-0

Unlike the other two games last night, the Avalanche didn’t need overtime to take a 2-0 series lead on Minnesota. Once again, this match-up of weak possession teams yielded an evenly-contested game. Two goals from Gabriel Landeskog in the second period gave Colorado a 3-1 lead that ultimately stood up. The Wild will be on the brink of elimination if they can’t win both their games at home. Regardless, the story of this series is likely to be Minnesota’s inability to display the strong defensive game they exhibited for much of the regular season. Game 3 will be played Monday.

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Tonight

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers (NYR leads 1-0)

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Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings (DET leads 1-0)

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Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads 2-0)

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San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings (SJS leads 1-0)

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NHL Playoffs, First Round Update: April 19, 2014

Chicago, Columbus, and Minnesota will all try to even their series in Game 2′s today and tonight. Win probabilities, plus updates based on last night’s action, are below

Last Night

Montreal Canadiens lead Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0

The Bolts played a much more effective game last night than in Game 1, but given the 0-2 hole they’re staring at as the series heads to Montreal, that can’t be much comfort. Carey Price made 26 saves in a strong rebound from his shaky performance in the series opener, and the Canadiens defied score effects to carry the advantage in puck possession for much of the game. The Lightning trailed in Fenwick attempts until shortly before Brendan Gallagher scored to make the score 3-0. This goal chased Anders Lindback from the net and brought an appearance from third goalie Kristers Gudlevskis. While it’s tempting to fault Lindback – starting in place of the injured Ben Bishop – Tampa’s punchless offense was more to blame for this loss: if not for a late power-play goal by Teddy Purcell in the game’s last two minutes, this would’ve been a shutout for Price. The Lightning now have a mountain to climb, and they’ll have to do so on the road. Game 3 is Sunday night.

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Detroit Red Wings lead Boston Bruins 1-0

This, of course, is why we play the games. In the regular season, the Bruins were a top-five possession team with the NHL’s best goaltending; in a conference where their toughest competition is an injury-riddled Penguins squad with questionable depth and a Rangers team that can’t score, it seems straightforward to expect them to return to the Stanley Cup Finals this season. So, of course, they were shut out by Jimmy Howard and outplayed at even strength for most of Game 1 by a Red Wings team with minimal playoff experience. True to expectation, this was a low-event affair, tied at 0-0 until a late goal from Pavel Datsyuk snatched the win for Detroit. Game 2 is Sunday afternoon.

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Anaheim Ducks lead Dallas Stars 2-0

While the box score suggests a lucky win for Anaheim, Game2 between the Ducks and Stars was fairly evenly-contested when it mattered. An even first period ended in a 1-1 tie, as Alex Chiasson’s power-play score was equalized by Ryan Getzlaf on a strong individual effort following a Dallas turnover. In the second, the teams again traded chances until, with four minutes left, Corey Perry picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone, skated in and blasted a shot past Kari Lehtonen to break the tie. At this point, score effects took over and the Stars dominated possession; Dallas would surrender only two shots in the third period. Unfortunately, one of those shots found the back of the net, courtesy the stick of Andrew Cogliano. The Stars would score halfway through the period, but the Cogliano goal would hold up as the game-winner. Viewed by some as vulnerable in this series, Anaheim is now firmly in control as the games shift to Dallas. Game 3 is Monday night.

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Tonight

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks (STL leads 1-0)

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Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (PIT leads 1-0)

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Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild (COL leads 1-0)

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NHL Playoffs, First Round Update: April 18, 2014

After a wild night of action, including two overtime games, Friday brings us Game 2 from the Tampa Bay-Montreal and Anaheim-Dallas series, as well as the opening game of Boston-Detroit. Estimated series win probabilities are below.

Last night

New York Rangers lead Philadelphia Flyers 1-0

Of all the series-opening games last night, this was the one that stuck most closely to script. Based on regular-season Fenwick numbers, the Rangers were expected to dominate possession in the series, though they’ve struggled to score goals all year; in Game 1, New York had a 36-15 shot advantage and a 53-37 even-strength Corsi advantage, yet they were held in a 1-1 tie by Flyers backup Ray Emery through the first two periods. Then, with about 12 minutes left in the third, Flyers rookie Jason Akeson took an ill-timed double minor for high-sticking. The Rangers would score on both penalties, with slick cross-ice passing giving Brad Richards and Derek Stepan open nets to shoot at. About six minutes later, the New York would add another on nice work by Richards and Carl Hagelin. One sign of New York’s domination of the game: score effects or not, they outshot Philadelphia 13-1 in the final period. Game 2 will be played Sunday.

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St. Louis Blues lead Chicago Blackhawks 1-0

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the first round’s marquee series gave us our first multiple-OT game. Early on, it looked as though the Blackhawks would snatch away home-ice advantage. A wild first period saw them build a 3-2 lead on a breakaway goal from Patrick Kane; Chicago finished the period with just seven shots, and the crowd was uneasy with Blues goalie Ryan Miller. Both teams had a number of great chances in the second and third, but Miller and Corey Crawford stood tall, and the 3-2 score would hold until the final minutes of regulation, before Jaden Schwartz took a pass from the corner and scored a backhand shot that Crawford probably should’ve had. The pace of the game slowed a bit into overtime, and 40 more scoreless minutes would be played before the Blues forecheck took advantage of lazy Hawks defending, and Alex Steen poked home the winning goal just seconds into the third OT. With that goal, the Blues get a little further away from the first-round loss many have been predicting for them. Game 2 will be played Saturday.

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Colorado Avalanche lead Minnesota Wild 1-0

Mostly due to their dismal possession numbers this season, the Avalanche are a popular choice to be upset in the first round. Last night, the Wild looked to be on track to start making that happen: through two periods, Minnesota outshot the Avs and had a 4-2 lead. Seven minutes into the third, however, a defensive-zone turnover led to a Jamie McGinn goal making in 4-3. In the waning seconds of the game, with Semyon Varlamov on the bench, Paul Stastny banged home the tying goal, and about seven minutes later, in overtime, he would score an almost identical goal to win the game for Colorado. The Wild can be encouraged by their strong effort in this game, but they may regret not making a two-goal lead stand up, especially if Varlamov reverts to the form he’s displayed most of the season. Game 2 will be played Saturday.

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San Jose Sharks lead Los Angeles Kings 1-0

For anxious Sharks fans, this was about as strong a start to the series as they could’ve hoped for: the scoreline will suggest a relatively even game, but the story last night was largely one of San Jose dominating the first two periods and score effects taking over in the third. Through two periods, San Jose had a 28-15 Fenwick advantage at 5-on-5, a 28-18 advantage in total shots, and a 5-0 lead. Just three minutes into the game, the Thornton-Burns-Pavelski line opened the scoring, with Thornton tipping a rolling chance over the goal line. Two quick goals on broken plays in the last minute of the first, by Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau, would open up a 3-0 lead. In the second, Raffi Torres and Marc-Edouard Vlasic would score on soft wrist shots that Jonathan Quick would probably like to have back; Quick would be pulled in favor of Martin Jones at the start of the third. LA would score three times on broken, screened plays in the third, keeping things a little interesting, but an empty-netter from Burns would seal a big win. Game 2 will be played Sunday.

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Tonight

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads 1-0)

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Boston Bruins vs Detroit Red Wings

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Anaheim Ducks vs Dallas Stars (ANA leads 1-0)

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Teams Fall Apart: Looking Back at the Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, and Phoenix Coyotes

The playoffs are in full swing, but as part of my series of posts on the NHL teams no longer playing, I’m taking a small step back to look at the final three non-playoff teams: Carolina, Nashville and Phoenix.

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

Carolina: 2013-14 was another lost season for a Hurricanes club that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2009. Much like Washington, realignment hurt the Canes, who moved from the plush confines of the Southeast Division into the tougher Metropolitan this year. Explaining the lost season is fairly simple. Gifted puck-moving defenseman Joni Pitkanen was lost for the season to injury, and the Hurricanes’ offensive game suffered. In the shortened 2012-13 season, Carolina was a 51.3% Fenwick Close team playing very high-event hockey; with diminishing attacking production, they slipped to 48.2%. At even strength, only six teams allowed Corsi attempts against at a higher rate; only seven teams allowed more shots against at 5-on-5. Had they maintained a decent shooting percentage, of course, this may not have mattered. Carolina had the 11th-best even-strength goaltending in the league (0.926), with a particularly strong season from Anton Khudobin (0.936), and even without Pitkanen, they were still a top-10 team in shots on goal. Unfortunately, they shot a frosty 6.8% as a team at 5-on-5, one of the worst marks in the league. The end result: the Hurricanes were in the bottom half of the league in both goals scored and goals allowed.

The frustrating thing about this team is that most other squads in the NHL would love to have their key players: Carolina is not a team devoid of talent. Eric Staal had a down year with just 61 points, but 33 goals from Jeff Skinner more than made up for it. Alex Semin is still a valuable offensive talent, and Jordan Staal is one of the game’s best two-way centers. On the blueline, Andrej Sekera, Justin Faulk, and the vastly underrated Ron Hainsey all had excellent seasons. The problem, as you might have guessed, is one of depth. Apart from Faulk and players taken high in the first round, Carolina has struggled for years to turn draft picks into effective NHL players, and much of their core talent (e.g., Jordan Staal, Semin, Sekera) has arrived via trade or free agency. Over 82 games, the quality of their top players wasn’t able to obscure the struggles of the depth guys: Mike Komisarek and Jay Harrison struggled badly in sheltered roles, and players like Brett Bellemore, Manny Malhotra, Patrick Dwyer, and Drayson Bowman got hammered in more defensive deployment. Carolina’s cap picture isn’t great, and they have a new GM with a lot of holes to fill in the offseason. The Staals, Semin, Faulk and Skinner are under contract long-term, and will make almost $32M between them. On the blueline, the Hurricanes’ next highest-paid defenseman is John-Michael Liles, acquired in a swap of bad contracts with Toronto: Liles will make nearly $4M next season despite being a third-pairing player. Sekera is entering a contract year, and will almost certainly get a substantial raise . It’s not clear what Carolina will do about Pitkanen; he’s a UFA, and at just 30 years old it seems unlikely that he’ll retire. The team is most likely stuck with the remaining two years of Cam Ward’s awful contract, unless they look at a buyout. Otherwise, the Canes have a UFA in Hainsey that should get a raise, and a number of RFAs (e.g., Nathan Gerbe, Jiri Tlusty) that they’ll likely try to keep. But it’s not clear that they’ll be much better this season than they were this year.

Nashville: Don’t look now, but change is finally coming in Nashville: after a dismal 2013-14 and missing a second straight postseason, the Preds have fired their first and only head coach, Barry Trotz. While this is a pretty significant shakeup, it’s a little difficult to look at the Predators’ season and lay much of the blame at Trotz’s feet. Over the past decade, the Preds have made the playoffs more times than not, but their success has often been attributable to a handful of particularly brilliant players. In the first two seasons after the 2005 lockout, the Predators cracked the 100-point mark despite abysmal puck possession, largely because of the brilliance of Tomas Vokoun and catching the productive tail end of Paul Kariya’s career. After a couple of down seasons, the emergence of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber as elite defensemen, and of Pekka Rinne in goal, brought them back to the playoffs for three seasons between 2009-10 and 2011-12. Over that period, the Preds’ possession game declined badly and they became increasingly reliant on brilliant play from Rinne, but point totals of 100, 99, and 104 didn’t suggest much of a problem. Then came last season: with Suter gone, Nashville’s possession game deteriorated to an ugly 45.9% Fenwick Close, and no team scored fewer goals or took fewer shots. Thus, despite a 0.928 season from Rinne, the Preds were one of the worst teams in the NHL. This season, to Trotz’s credit, the Predators stabilized their possession numbers, playing a much tighter low-event game. With little scoring punch at the forward spots, Nashville struggled to score goals this season, but with a strong season from Rinne, they likely would’ve been in the playoff hunt. Unfortunately, the Preds goaltender had some terrible luck this season. In October, he began experiencing infection symptoms in his hip, arising from complications of an offseason surgery, and he underwent a second surgery; Rinne would not return to game action until early March. Nashville’s lack of a true backup goalie was exposed as Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec gave the team 0.915 play at even strength. For a team that couldn’t score, this wasn’t nearly good enough.

The economics of running an NHL team in a non-traditional market like Nashville are complicated, and though the Preds have decent payroll flexibility, it’s never clear how willing this team is to spend above the cap floor. Weber and Roman Josi performed well in a ton of tough minutes this season, and both are under contract long-term. Rinne is still owed $35M over five more seasons, so the Preds will pray for a strong bounceback from him next year. Patric Hornqvist led Nashville forwards in scoring and had an excellent two-way season, but Eric Nystrom and Viktor Stalberg made $5.5M this season while producing just 40 total points. Still, if key prospects Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones continue to develop at the NHL level, the team may be on its way to addressing its lack of depth from within. Of course, if Trotz’s job wasn’t safe, GM David Poile’s days may be numbered also; it says something about Poile’s job performance that he’s failed to build a deep team in over a decade in Nashville’s front office. If he’s let go, the Predators organization will truly head into uncharted territory.

Phoenix: A late losing streak cost the Coyotes a chance at the final Western Conference playoff spot, though they were the final team to be eliminated from playoff contention. After an unlikely run to the conference finals in 2012, this is the second straight season in which Phoenix has missed the postseason by a slim margin. In reality, however, this team was fortunate to stay in the race as long as they did. In March, they went on a tear of nine wins in 13 games, largely owing to spectacular play from goaltender Mike Smith, who had a strong 0.927 Sv% this season. At that point, however, Smith went down to injury, and the Coyotes didn’t win again until the last night of the season, after their fate had been sealed. Looking at the overall picture, making the playoffs while playing a divisional schedule against teams like Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles and Vancouver was never going to be easy, and as a 50% Fenwick Close team playing a high-event game, and shooting a mediocre 7.2% at 5-on-5, Phoenix wasn’t quite good enough to keep pace in their division.

The off-ice future of the Coyotes might always feel a little precarious: after bankruptcy and near-relocation, the ‘Yotes have an uneasy relationship with the city of Glendale, and will hope that the new TV money coming to the NHL helps with their long-term viability. On the ice, though, the past few seasons have given us a pretty clear idea of what to expect from this team under Dave Tippett. Since the 2010-11 season, Phoenix has been a high-event team with very average possession numbers. When they’ve had an 82-game PDO in excess of 1012 (meaning, in practice, 0.930 goaltending at even strength), they make the playoffs; without spectacular goaltending, and contrary to Tippett’s reputation as a defensive coach, they tend to miss out. The lack of forward depth on the roster is a serious concern. The Coyotes were led in scoring this season by a defenseman, Keith Yandle; winger Radim Vrbata was the highest-scoring forward with 51 points, and a strong power play masked the fact that this team struggled to score at even strength. Free-agent center Mike Ribiero scored just 30 even-strength points despite pillow-soft minutes and a $5.5M cap hit. On the blueline, the Coyotes are fairly well set up; Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Zbynek Michalek had strong seasons, and will be back next year. Apart from Ribiero’s deal, the team has few bad contracts on the books and a decent amount of cap flexibility. But it isn’t clear that this organization knows how to take the next step in putting together a team that can contend in the Pacific.

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

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