The Greatest Tournament in Team Sports starts tonight. Yes, it is the Stanley Cup playoffs getting underway with three Western Conference tilts tonight. And that means it is time for the most astute panel of experts you will read whose names end in “less” to bring you more… more analysis, more insight, more prognosty-ish stuff! So, let’s get to it, starting with the Western Conference…
(1) Chicago Blackhawks: 36-7-5, 77 points
(8) Minnesota Wild: 26-19-3, 55 points
Fearless: Why are we bothering here? Chicago is first in wins, first in points, first in goals allowed per game, first in goal differential per game, first in five-on-five goal ratio, first in winning percentage when scoring first, first in takeaways, first in one-goal wins, and most folks think first in coolest hockey jersey. But if there is one number to take away from this when thinking about the Blackhawks, it is this: “1.” Only once – one time – did a team beat the Blackhawks this season by three or more goals. It happened to be the Colorado Avalanche (go figure), the night the Blackhawks run of 24 games to start the season without a loss in regulation time ended. You want to beat this team, bring a lunch. It will not be easy.
Cheerless: Minnesota played the Blackhawks pretty tough, cuz. A 3-2 Gimmick win (as Peerless likes to call it), a two-goal loss, and a one-goal loss. Aw heck, that’s all I got.
Peerless: The easy comparison here is to the 2010 first round matchup between the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals and the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens. Montreal was given almost no chance to win, much as Minnesota is given little chance this week. But there are some similarities between the Wild and the Canadiens.
- Montreal was 25th in scoring offense in 2010 with a 2.56 goals-per-game average; Minnesota finished the 2013 season 22nd (2.46).
- Montreal was 11th in scoring defense (2.66); Minnesota was 16th (2.60)
- Montreal struggled during the regular season at 5-on-5 (0.90, 22nd), so did Minnesota (0.88, 24th)
- Montreal stumbled at the finish (3-4-3 in their last ten games), so did Minnesota (4-5-1)
In other words, the Wild have the Blackhawks right where they want them. Yeah, right…
Blackhawks in five
(2) Anaheim Ducks: 30-12-6, 66 points
(7) Detroit Red Wings: 24-16-8, 56 points
Fearless: That these two teams are meeting in the first round is not necessarily a surprise, it is the seeding that looks out of place. Detroit has not finished with a lower points-won percentage (.583) since the 1998-1999 season when they went 43-32-7 (.567), and that was before the “Bettman Point” was introduced to break ties. Unlike most recent models of the Red Wings, the 2013 version struggles with offense (19th in scoring offense, 15th in power play conversion), despite finishing 10th in shots on goal and having the 10th best shots on goal differential. If there is a place – or more accurately, a time – in which the Wings have struggled, it is early on in games. They have been outscored, 36-33, in the first periods of games. They have goal differentials of plus-8 in each of the second and third periods of games, but slow starts can be magnified at this time of year.
Cheerless: Only San Jose and Buffalo had more wins than Anaheim in the Gimmick. The flip side of that is that no team lost fewer one-goal decisions in regulation time (two), and only four teams had better winning percentages in one-goal games overall. The Ducks can play tight games successfully. Part of that is being the fifth best team at 5-on-5 in the league. The wonder is whether if having split their goaltending responsibility in the regular season right down the middle – Jonas Hiller got 26 appearances with 1,498 minutes; Viktor Fasth got 25 appearances with 1,429 minutes – they can settle on one guy to lean on without breaking.
Peerless: This is one of the more intriguing series for its subplots… Detroit being the hunter rather than the hunted, Bruce Boudreau trying to shake off the label of being a playoff underachiever as an NHL head coach, the Ducks big three of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan against the Red Wings’ dynamic duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Both teams struggled before finishing on an upswing. Anaheim lost four in a row before finishing the season 3-1-0; Detroit lost six of eight contests before winning their last four to close the season. Both teams come into the post-season being stingy with goals allowed – Anaheim with seven goals allowed in their last four games, Detroit with three allowed in their last four. Both have shown signs of life on offense – Anaheim averaging 3.00 goals per game in their last four games, Detroit averaging 3.75 over their last four. Detroit looks a bit more like “Detroit” than Anaheim looks like “Anaheim,” and that will be the difference.
Detroit in seven
(3) Vancouver Canucks: 26-15-7, 59 points
(6) San Jose Sharks: 25-16-7, 57 points
Fearless: After 28 games Vancouver was 13-9-6 and was only two points ahead of the then ninth-place San Jose Sharks. They closed strong, though, going 13-6-1 in their last 20 contests, that record fueled by an 8-1-0 record at home, losing only in their final home game to the Anaheim Ducks. They did it with goaltending and defense. In none of their 13 wins over that span did they allow more than two goals in any game. The concern might be the flip side of that. In their last 20 games the Canucks averaged only 2.40 goals per game (excluding Gimmick goals). Their power play struggled early on in that stretch (1-for-18 over the first eight games of their final 20-game block) before picking up late (10-for-38 in their final 12 games). Still, this is a team that has had some mysterious stretches of low offensive output.
Cheerless: As bad as the Canucks were on March 18th after 28 games, the Sharks were worse off. They were 12-10-6 and only in ninth place in the West. They finished their season with a 13-6-1 record over their last 20 games, too. They did it in a way similar to Vancouver – defense and goaltending. Antti Niemi recorded three shutouts in his last 16 decisions has a 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage since March 18th. All that hasn’t been hurt by having only 27.6 shots per 60 minutes, not exactly a heavy shots-on-goal workload. Good thing, because the Sharks don’t score a lot – only 2.42 goals per game for the season, 24th in scoring offense.
Peerless: This is the story of two teams that stumbled early, then remembered who they were. This will be Vancouver’s tenth trip to the playoffs in their last 12 seasons, and it will be San Jose’s ninth straight trip and 16th in their last 19 seasons. But there are cracks, too. The Canucks went only 2-3-1 in their last six games and scored only ten goals doing it. The Sharks lost three of their last four contests and scored only nine goals over those four games. Neither edition of these teams represents a vintage version for their respective franchises. Both have been experiencing slides in terms of the progression of standings points per game earned over the past few years. This suggests that for both, windows might be closing. One of these teams has to advance, but you do not get the feeling that either has a long run in it. We’ll go with the more settled goaltending.
San Jose in seven
(4) St. Louis Blues: 29-17-2, 60 points
(5) Los Angeles Kings: 27-16-5, 59 points
Fearless: Oddly enough, St. Louis’ season might have turned around with a 6-4 loss in Los Angeles back on March 5th. It was a rather gruesome affair in which the Kings came back from a 3-1 deficit, including a four-goal assault in the third period. After that game, captain David Backes said, “we’re in a bit of turmoil.” Well, the Blues certainly addressed that problem, going 18-8-2 after that game in Los Angeles. What is more, the Blues allowed only 48 goals over those last 28 games (1.71 per game) and held ten of their last 13 opponents to less than two goals per contest. Strange that two of ones they did not would be Columbus and Colorado.
Cheerless: Repeatin’ is hard. That’s why no one has won two Stanley Cups in a row since Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998. Even with as long a layoff to get rested that the Kings had between winning the Cup last June and starting the season in January, they stubbed their toe coming out of the start of the season. They were 3-5-2 after their first ten games and didn’t get over .500 in points until Game 15. And it is not as if they have been a ball of fire late, either. Los Angeles is 7-4-2 in April and have not scored more than three goals in regulation time since April 6th. It’s probably a good thing, then, that Jonathan Quick seems to be coming around. His overall numbers aren’t great – 19th in goals against average (2.45) and 38th in save percentage (.902) – but in his last seven appearances he is 5-1-1, 1.94, .927.
Peerless: This is the heavyweight match of the first round in either conference. No one would want to play either of these teams, which makes it fitting that they get one another. St. Louis is the epitome of a “system” team, a creature of its head coach, Ken Hitchcock. They will strangle a team to death on defense. They just do not allow very many chances (second fewest shots on goal per game allowed – 24.2). Los Angeles is very similar in effect (third fewest shots on goal allowed per game), but they depend more on their goaltender’s skill to allow them to express more aggressive behavior in the offensive end of the ice. This series will be brutal to watch, unless demolition derby happens to be your thing. In this one, we see Los Angeles as being this year’s “Boston”…that’s not a good thing.
St. Louis in seven
And there you have it. When we get around to it...the Eastern Conference prognostos.