Monday, April 23, 2012

NHL Playoffs – Who says the regular season means nothing?

As we sit here after a riveting weekend of hockey action, one that saw four of the eight series end, and the other four series having gone at least five games to date, there has been one clear as day trend in the results thus far – the regular season meetings in most of these series was a Nostradamusesque prediction of what we would see in the playoffs.  Let’s take a closer look series by series, you will be amazed by the findings.

Here are the four series that have ended, and the regular season record for each series:
#5 Flyers over #4 Penguins 4-2: Philadelphia won four of six vs. Pittsburgh
#4 Predators over #5 Red Wings 4-1: team’s split six meetings, but Nashville did win the last two
#8 Kings over #1 Canucks 4-1: team’s split four meetings, but LA has showed over last two seasons to have a firm grasp on controlling the robust Canucks offense (see prior preview article), which occurred once again in this series
#2 Blues over #7 Sharks 4-1: St. Louis was 4-0 vs. San Jose, dominating play only allowing 3 combined goals over four games.

For the series that have ended, the winner in the playoffs at worst split the regular season series with their opponent, twice won it outright.  Even the series that were tied, the team that won the playoff matchup clearly showed they had the edge between the teams during the regular season.

Now, let’s look closer at the four series that are still going, and what those regular season matchups showed:
#8 Senators up 3-2 on #1 Rangers:  Ottawa won 3 of 4 during regular season
#2 Bruins tied 3-3 with #7 Capitals: Washington won 3 of 4 during regular season
#3 Panthers up 3-2 on #6 Devils: team’s split four meetings
#3 Coyotes up 3-2 on #6 Blackhawks: Phoenix won 3 of 4 during regular season 

For the four series that are still undecided the team that won the regular season series is up in two, tied in another; and the one series that was tied during regular season, Washington vs. Boston, is heading to a Game Seven – the ultimate tiebreaker!

What does it all mean?  Typically most analysts say you can throw out the regular season when the playoffs come around as it is a different time of year.  It’s hard to judge during the regular season a team’s motivation on a game by game basis because there could be injuries, days rest, winning and losing streaks that play a part in the outcomes of those games.  It can be hard to quantify those variables, and the impact they play on the games.  But in the playoffs, most of those variables mentioned are evened out, and everyone is playing on a level playing field.  This year it is very clear we have seen the team who won the regular season series fare quite well in the playoffs, and it will be interesting to see if the Rangers, Bruins or Blackhawks can become the only team in the first round to win their series after losing the regular season series.  Of those three you have to think Boston has the best chance as they are heading to a Game 7 on their home ice, while both NY and CHI need to win on their opponents ice one more time, and another game on their ice to advance.

What do I expect to see in the four remaining series?

Senators vs. Rangers: the heat is getting real hot in NYC after a critical Game Five loss on their home ice for the #1 seed NY Rangers.  It seems NY has carried most of the play during this series, yet finds itself in an unthinkable 3-2 hole, facing elimination tonight in Ottawa.  This series really shows why the NHL playoffs can be so exciting – or frustrating – depending on which team you are rooting for.  Setting aside Game One where the Rangers turned it on about midway through the second and breezed to a 4-2 win, the Blue Shirts have only managed to score 5 goals in the last four games.  A lot of concern about the Rangers and their chances at hoisting their first Cup since 1994 was based on their offense (or lack thereof), especially their power play unit – if both had enough firepower to score critical goals at critical points in the playoffs.  So far it has proved to be a legitimate concern as their offensive stars, namely Gaborik, Richards, and Dubinsky have yet to score more than 1 goal in this series.  If it wasn’t for Brian Boyle and his 3 goals, especially his winner in Game Two, this series would likely be over already.  NY hopes that getting first line winger Carl Hagelin back from a 3 game suspension will be the infusion they need to get back to scoring more goals, and tying and ultimately winning this series.  Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson has played extremely well, matching save for save with Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist – can he continue playing at this high a level?  That question could very well be the determining factor on who goes on to win this series.  I still think the Rangers will get it done – they have not played 60 minutes of good hockey yet in this series – tonight will be that night – and Game 7 will be on the horizon on Wednesday.  I also look for Henrik Lundqvist to be an absolute stone wall over the last two games; almost single handedly willing his team to victory.

Bruins vs. Capitals: what a series this has been, with 3 OT games, and all 6 games decided by 1 goal.  How huge has Washington rookie third string goalie Braden Holtby been?  Amazing.  Facing the defending Stanley Cup champs, and his opposite number being the Conn Smythe winner from last year’s playoffs, he has matched him save for save, including picking up critical road wins in Games 2&5.  How will he fair on Wednesday, in a do or die, winner take all, Game 7 on the road?  That is the biggest question.  From experience alone, and from an offensive firepower perspective, you have to like Boston to win this game.  But, at the same time, it’s very likely to be a close, low scoring game – and one bounce here or there could be the game winner.  I am really looking forward to this game, as any Game 7 in the NHL is the best sporting event we can watch as a fan.

Panthers vs. Devils: Florida has played both their goalies in this series, and after five games I feel Theodore is the right answer in net for the final two games (if necessary).  Theodore has yielded 5 goals in three games, while Clemmensen has allowed more goals (7) in fewer games (2).  The Panthers must stick with the more experienced Theodore in my opinion moving forward, at least in this series, barring a disaster of a Game Six.  For the Devils, goaltending is also the biggest factor so far – Brodeur has not played consistently well, which has kind of been his MO over the last five or so seasons in the playoffs – as I outlined in the preview article.  Aside from his Game 4 shutout, he has allowed 13 goals in the other four games, over 3 goals per game – if that number does not drop dramatically to around 2 over the last two games, Florida will win this series.  And judging on his recent playoff performances, it’s hard to see him making that kind of jump.  With Florida currently up 3-2 I think they will go on and win this series.

Coyotes vs. Blackhawks: it has been widely discussed how competitive this series has been, with the first give games going to OT.  Similar to the BOS/WAS series, all games thus far have obviously been decided by one goal, with Phoenix winning three of the five.  Phoenix has consistently put themselves in better position in these games often leading late, but they have allowed Chicago to score a number of late third period goals to force OT, and at times pull out the win.  What is odd about that is Chicago has dominated this series statistically, outshooting the Coyotes by 63 shots thru 5 games!  Typically that kind of number is a death blow to an opponent, and their chances at pulling out 4 wins in 7 games – but thus far, oddly enough, as mentioned above, Phoenix has consistently put themselves in better position late.  Heading into this series I pointed out I felt Phoenix goalie Mike Smith, and the Coyote defense would be the keys to winning this series – that has played out, as Mike Smith has played unbelievable, outplaying his fellow net-minder Corey Crawford easily, especially considering the amount of shots faced.  The biggest question is can he keep that up?  This series is very similar to NY/OTT in a lot of ways, with Chicago, like New York, seemingly carrying most of the play, yet Phoenix, like Ottawa, is often better positioned to win the game.  It’s hard to go against a goalie as hot as Mike Smith, so I feel Phoenix will win one of the last two and seal up their first playoff series win in their history.

Few thoughts on team’s that have already advanced:

#4 Philadelphia Flyers: in the end it took six games, which made this series look more competitive than it really was, but the Flyers took control of this series early and never relinquished hold.  I still have a lot of concerns about the goaltending for the Flyers, which is their question mark annually.  And feel when they face a team next round that is stronger defensively, more balanced, and has better goaltending, it will not work out as well as it did in the opening round for them.  But there is certainly something to be said about how impressive, and explosive they looked vs. Pitt.  A potentially bad matchup in the next round would be vs. the NY Rangers, whom they lost all 6 meetings to during the regular season, and the Blue Shirts pose a lot of the threats I mentioned that Philadelphia has to try and avoid – namely, strong blue line and great goaltending.  A potentially good matchup would be Florida or New Jersey, as neither of those teams has great goaltending, or the explosive front lines to go toe to toe with the Flyers.

# 8 Los Angeles Kings: LA surprisingly took early control of their series vs. President Cup champ Vancouver, and never allowed the Canucks to get back in the series, or to shift the game play towards a more up-tempo, open ice style they prefer.  LA picked up their first playoff series win in some 10 years, and they will be a force moving forward with a strong back line, and good goaltending.  LA will match up with STL next round for certain, as the Blues will be the highest remaining seed in the West, while LA is the lowest.  The season series was won by LA 3-1, in rather dominating fashion outscoring the Blues 9-3 in those games.  I definitely expect these games will be tight checking, grind-it-out type affairs – looking back on the last two games these teams played, the only times they met in calendar year 2012, St. Louis won 1-0 on Feb 3 on their home ice, while LA won 1-0 on Mar 22 on their home ice.  Expect more of the same, in what should be a very exciting series – one that will certainly advance a team we are not used to seeing to the Western Conference Finals – which is what makes hockey such a great sport – take notes Major League Baseball.

#2 St. Louis Blues: in what should not have been that big a surprise after dominating San Jose during the regular season, STL easily dispatched the Sharks 4-1 in a series that wasn’t all that close.  After San Jose won the opener of the series 3-2 in OT, the Blues ran off four straight wins, outscoring SJ 12-5 during that span.  St. Louis goaltending was stellar, holding San Jose to 2 goals or less in four of the five games.  In addition, the Blues special teams generated a huge edge as we expected going in, as their power play unit scored 6 goals, while their PK unit killed off 15 of 17 Shark PP’s.  Make no mistake about it, the Blues PP unit is absolutely critical to their ongoing potential success in the playoffs, as they are just not explosive enough 5 on 5 to win 8 more games in the Western Conference without continued success with that unit.  I am really looking forward to the next round matchup with LA, in what should be one of the better series we have in the Conference Semifinals.

#4 Nashville Predators: in surprising fashion, NAS took care of DET in 5 games – it wasn’t so much that Nashville won the series, it was the ease at which they accomplished the task, not allowing the potent Red Wing offense to score more than 2 goals in any game besides their Game Two 3-2 win.  The Western Conference is really shaping up to be a defensive battle, with the three teams that have advanced known for their defensive prowess – and when examining all 5 teams that could potentially reach the WC SF round, Nashville just might be the best all around club – especially considering experience, as outside a Chicago win they would also have that going for them after last season’s 2nd round run.  There is a lot of like about Nashville, as I fell in love with this team last year during the playoffs, and have really enjoyed watching them come together this year and build off that success, instead of going the other way in a tough Western Conference.  I feel either team that advances from the PHO/CHI series will be a good matchup for Nashville, but think they would even admit behind closed doors Phoenix would be their preferred opponent.  There is absolutely no reason to not call the Predators the favorite in the WC right now in my opinion, and the remainder of the playoffs with the three teams that we know have advanced should be a ton of fun out West.


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