NHL Playoff Preview – Part 2

See Part 1 for the series that started yesterday. Continuing on…

Washington Capitals (M1) vs Philadelphia Flyers (M4)

I’m not here to talk about the past.

I’m referring to the Capitals’ long and storied history of playoff defeats. The Washington franchise has experienced more than its share of torment and heartbreak. It’s only natural to look at this year’s team–offensive juggernaut that ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy race–and see glimpses of the 2010 Capitals, who similarly ran roughshod over the league in the regular season, only to suffer a 1st round upset at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s even harder to ignore that history when you take into account the opponent. The Philadelphia Flyers didn’t secure a playoff spot until the next-to-last day of the regular season, completing a dramatic turnaround that saw them escape the league’s basement. The Flyers enter the playoffs having earned more points than all but Pittsburgh over the last quarter of the season. They also have an emotional factor: the passing of longtime owner Ed Snider. A long playoff run would be a fitting story.

Remember: what happened to past Capitals’ teams has no bearing whatsoever on this Capitals’ team. And there is real reason to believe that this Capitals’ team is not a mirage, but a true contender. There is a stigma attached to winning the Presidents’ Trophy, but historically it has been a pretty good indicator of playoff success. The 2013 Blackhawks and 2008 Red Wings won the Cup. The 2011 Canucks lost in the final. Last year’s Rangers reached the conference final.

Philadelphia has been on a great run, but the Capitals have been even better. Capitals in 7.

Florida Panthers (A1) vs New York Islanders (A4)

I can’t believe I slept on the Panthers. I feel a certain kinship to the team, having spent time working for their minor league affiliate in San Antonio. The roster is filled with guys I watched develop in front of my eyes–Vincent Trocheck, Alex Petrovic, Quinton Howden, Rocco Grimaldi, Garrett Wilson, Steven Kampfer… the list goes on, but you get the idea. Yet, coming into this season, I picked them to miss the playoffs. I thought their young core would need another season to gel (I also didn’t anticipate the total collapse of the Canadiens). Now they’ve got the top seed in the Atlantic Division and potentially an easy path to the conference final.

That path starts with the formerly of Long Island, now in Brooklyn, New York Islanders. Many people expected the Islanders to take a step forward this season, if not to join the league’s elite. Instead, they kind of sputtered, finishing 4th in the Metro and earning the crossover wildcard spot to the Atlantic (for an explanation of what that means, see this article). All the numbers look not particularly good for the Islanders, even moreso when you look at the last 20 games. On top of that, New York enters the playoffs with #1 goalie Jaroslav Halak sidelined due to injury. Which means our goalies are possible Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo for Florida against career backup Thomas Greiss for New York.

Here’s the thing: Greiss’s numbers are good. I mean, really good. Over the last 3 seasons, even better than Luongo’s. As a backup, Greiss hasn’t appeared in as many games, so there’s a chance this is just noise. But there is a non-zero possibility that Greiss might outplay Luongo in a 7 game series–it’s happened to Bobby Lu before.

I’m not sold on Florida, but I can’t quite bring myself to accept the Greiss theory. Panthers in 7.

Dallas Stars (C1) vs Minnesota Wild (C4)

First off, I love this matchup. After 23 years, the Stars return home. Only now they are the enemy. While I’m sure some fans are still bitter about the way the North Stars left all those years ago, the Wild have been in existence for 16 years at this point, and seem to have put down deeper roots than the North Stars ever did.

Dallas was the better team all season long by the metrics. The Stars won 4 of the 5 meetings between these teams on their way to finishing 1st in the loaded Central. The 2 teams haven’t met since John Torchetti took over the Wild coaching job from Mike Yeo. With Torchetti at the helm, the Wild… well, they’ve been basically the same team they were before, but with a better shooting percentage, something that was likely to even itself out anyway through regression to the mean. Both teams have injury concerns–Tyler Seguin for the Stars is recovering from a sliced Achilles, and Zach Parise for the Wild aggravated a herniated disk. So, pick Dallas, right? If only it were so simple.

There is a phrase that comes to mind with regards to the Stars: “firewagon hockey.” It means that Dallas is an offense-first team–they led the league in goals scored–willing to trade chances at both ends–they also allowed more goals than any other playoff team. The Stars largely hung their goaltenders, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, out to dry. Minnesota, meanwhile, has Devan Dubnyk in goal, who has righted whatever problems he had earlier in his career and is now comfortably among the league’s top goalies. If Seguin can’t play to his usual high standard, it’s easy to imagine Dubnyk single-handedly stealing this series for the Wild.

I just can’t shake that regular season record from my mind. Stars in 6.

Los Angeles Kings (P2) vs San Jose Sharks (P3)

After surprising absences last year, Los Angeles and San Jose return to the playoffs, and their rightful status among the league’s best teams. It’s a shame that one of them won’t escape the opening round.

Los Angeles, by now, has established their identity. They are a big, physical team that–to the surprise of some in the analytics community–combines a dump-and-chase game with the best puck possession in the NHL. It’s difficult to find any stretch in the season in which the Kings weren’t the league’s top team by score-adjusted Corsi. Based on history, that fact alone should make them the favorite in every series.

Thing is, San Jose is also a possession powerhouse. The Sharks opened the season by blasting the Kings in their own barn, and ended up winning the season series between the teams. San Jose also has a franchise reputation for choking in the playoffs, most recently coughing up a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in 2014 (the last time these 2 teams met in the playoffs, incidentally).

If this series comes down to goaltending, it’ll be Jonathan Quick, the Kings’ playoff stalwart, versus his former understudy Martin Jones (unless San Jose goes with James Reimer, which may not be a bad idea).

Could we as hockey fans be more spoiled? We get Blues/Hawks and Kings/Sharks in the first round. This is as good as it gets.

Picking against the best possession team is always a bad value proposition. Sometimes, though, you have to take risks. And so I’ll go with the Sharks in 7.

1 series to go, and since it starts on Friday, I’ll stop here for today.

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