Western Conference Playoff Race

The logjam in the West has been slightly broken down the past few weeks and the “contenders” and “pretenders” are becoming more clear. Still, we’ve got seven teams fighting for five playoff spots and it’s going to come down to the wire the way things are looking. I’ll examine all seven teams and see why they will and won’t get in.

Team                    Points    Games Left    SHOT%    FEN%    CORSI%    PDO    True Victories    OT Record
4. Phoenix              89                   9              48.2%    49.7%    50.7%    1.009             14-13                7-11
5. Los Angeles      86                  10             48.8%    51.7%    51.9%     1.005             16-13                 8-6
6. Dallas                  85                  10              46.5%    46.9%    47.1%    1.013              14-16               11-9
7. Chicago              84                   11              52.5%    53.3%    52.6%    1.004               20-9               7-8
8. Nashville            84                  10              49.0%    49.1%    50.1%    1.010              17-13             8-10
9. Anaheim            83                   11               46.8%    45.1%    46.6%    1.009              12-15             13-6
10. Calgary            83                     9                51.6%    52.5%    51.9%    .999                16-12           10-10

Phoenix Coyotes (CHI, STL, CBJ, SJS, DAL, COL, @LAK, SJS, @SJS)

They seem to be peaking at the right time with five straight wins and have been getting excellent goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov. He is playing on about the same level as he was last year despite a sluggish start (.928 save pct., 12 GAAA) and has kept the Coyotes in a lot of close games. They’re a team that gets outshot and has had trouble controlling the pace of games (and it shows with how many of their forwards have low offensive zone starts) so Bryzgalov needs to be at his best for this team to win. One thing that sticks out to me is that the Yotes are 10th in goals for despite giving up a ton of shots and having a low Fenwick%. They don’t have one forward with more than 20 goals but they have six players with more than 15 and ten with more than 10. It’s even more odd when two of those players in the first group are Lauri Korpikoski and Taylor Pyatt. Oh, they also traded Scottie Upshall and Wojtek Wolski, who were two of their top goal scorers last year. What gives? The shooting percentages make things a little more clear.

Player                            G         S%
Shane Doan                 18     9.3
Radim Vrbata            18     8.0
Lauri Korpikoski      17     17.9
Lee Stempniak          17     9.6
Taylor Pyatt              17     15.0

Take a look at Pyatt and Korpikoski’s shooting percentage…that’s pretty damn high. Phoenix’s team shooting percentage is about 9.3% which is slightly above the league average so it definitely isn’t the whole team that’s been lucky but these two in particular have. Pyatt and Korpikoski are third-liners who have really low zone start percentages, showing they spend a lot of time in the defensive zone. It’s a bit odd that they would be two of the team’s top scorers but when someone like Shane Doan goes down, others have to pick up the slack and these two, along with Radim Vrbata, have for the most part.

The fact that Phoenix’s defensive corps is very offensive-minded also speaks volumes about Bryzgalov’s impact but there are a couple gems in this group. Keith Yandle’s managed to be a great puck-mover on the blue-line without being a disaster in his own zone. Michal Rozsival’s actually been solid as a stay-at-home defenseman if you can believe it (although, he’s been sheltered with below-average competition). I have to think they plan to do the same with Rostislav Klesla until Ed Jovanovski comes back.

I think Phoenix will be in the playoffs seeing how they are three points ahead of the rest of the pack right now and have a chance to challenge San Jose for the Pacific title and the #3 spot with three games against the Sharks coming up. This team’s been riding hot goaltending and a bit of luck as of late but that could be enough to get them in.

Los Angeles Kings (CGY, SJS, COL, @EDM, @VAN, DAL, SJS, PHX, @ANA, ANA)

The Kings shot total (26th in the league), mediocre powerplay and low goal’s per game rate show they aren’t blowing teams away despite having strong seasons from Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown. However, the fact that they still have a positive shot differential (+1.2) and a strong Fenwick and Corsi percentage shows that they have been a good team this year and have to like their chances of making the playoffs. Los Angeles is 2nd in the NHL in shots allowed per game and 5th in goals allowed. Jonathan Quick’s had a good season but I think a lot of the credit should go to the Kings’ defense. It’s hard not to like this defensive corps since its weakest link might be Matt Greene, who hasn’t been bad.

I do think the Kings will make the playoffs but there’s a few things that lie in the way. One problem is that they’ve been kind of “on and off” when looking at their monthly records.
October: 8-3-0
November: 5-7-0
December: 9-4-1
January: 5-8-0
February: 8-2-3
March: 5-2-2

One good month followed by one not-so-good one and they’re coming off a strong February which could mean that the rest of March won’t be so kind to them. Barring a collapse, they should be able to do enough to get in but they have a pretty tough schedule up ahead. Aside from Edmonton, every team they’re facing is also battling for a playoff spot.

If the Kings want to make it out of this stretch alive, the defense and goaltending is going to have to keep doing what they’ve been doing all season. It would also help if some of their secondary scoring comes through. The big guns (Kopitar, Williams, Smyth, Brown) have been getting the job done but it would help if guys like Wayne Simmonds and Michal Handzus would have a big couple of weeks in these games. Oh, and there’s also Dustin Penner who has 2 goals in 9 games since being traded. LA’s would probably like to have him pick it up, too.

Dallas Stars (@NSH, @PHX, @SJS, @LAK, @ANA, CLB, COL, @COL, @MIN)

I’m honestly surprised that Dallas has managed to hang around for as long as they have. They’ve been getting destroyed at even strength as evidenced by their terrible Fenwick and Corsi Percentages but some good luck and great goaltending have kept them in the race so far. Their success is a bit similar to the Avalanche’s last year where they were riding high shooting percentages and hot goaltending to start off the season but eventually fell off. After a strong three-month stretch, the Stars have been 8-10-4 throughout February and March. Ouch.

Dallas’ decision to keep Brad Richards indicates to me that they are intending to make a playoff run (or re-sign him but we’ll see what happens there) so they better hope that the dice keep rolling in their favor for the rest of the year. Kari Lehtonen has played better than I think just about everyone expected him to and has been a key factor for Dallas’ success. However, he has noticeably cooled off (along with the rest of this team) as of late. Dallas’ 11-9 record in OT and 20-12 record in one-goal games can also be attributed to the luck this team has had.

If the brutal even strength numbers weren’t enough, their powerplay and penalty kill hasn’t been much better. They traded away a 20-goal scorer in James Neal for Alex Goligoski to help rejuvenate this powerplay and he’s been surprisingly good so far but can he help this penalty kill that’s only 79.9% effective? The NHL can be a sport where you live and die by special teams and the numbers aren’t exactly speaking in Dallas’ favor right now. It’s possible that they can snag the #8 seed like the Avs did last season but with five other teams around the same point total as the Stars, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for them.

Chicago Blackhawks (FLA, ANA, @DET, @BOS, @CBJ, TB, MTL, STL, @DET, DET)

The Blackhawks seem to be the best team of the bunch here but bad luck has caused them to drop down in the standings. They have the highest shot rate and Fenwick percentage of every team here but a terrible record in close games (13-17) is definitely hurting them. Whether you can attribute that to bad luck or below average goaltending is up to you.

The concern for Chicago coming into this season was that they lost a lot of depth and secondary scoring due to being in cap trouble but they have been one of the best offensive teams in the league this season. Patrick Sharp has been outstanding this season and there’s been MVP talk for Jonathan Toews with the year he’s having. As for secondary scoring, guys like Dave Bolland and Bryan Bickell have been playing tough minutes and putting up points while doing so. They’ve been complimenting the Hawks main scoring threads well this season and filling the void that Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien left when they were traded.

Despite that, a lot of people figured that many of the guys Chicago lost this off-season were replaceable and the biggest problem was having to make do with a goaltending tandem of Marty Turco and Corey Crawford. While Turco’s been bad, Crawford has played pretty well and will probably be starting for the rest of the season. The Hawks also are known to have one of the strongest defensive corps in the NHL and that hasn’t exactly been the case this season. They are 15th in shots allowed this season and have been forced to break up their shutdown pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to add more depth to their defense, which has been affected by injuries to players like Brian Campbelll this season. Niklas Hjalmarsson has had some growing pains since he’s facing tougher competition and Nick Leddy has struggled, as well. Regardless, this team will likely be in the playoffs and will probably be a team that one of the top seeds doesn’t want to face in the first round.

Nashville Predators (EDM, ANA, DAL, VAN, @COL, DET, ATL, CLB, @STL)

The Preds have a lot of things going in their favor and a lot of things going against them heading into the post-season. They have Pekka Rinne who has been a top 5 goalie in the league this season. He keeps them in almost every game because the Preds offense can’t score that many goals. They are 23rd in goals per game and their top forward, Martin Erat, has only 44 points. Though they have had some bad luck with injuries to Matthew Lombardi, Cal O’Riley and Steve Sullivan which has made them have to look for offense in unlikely sources this season. One guy that’s come through is Sergei Kostitsyn who is having a bit of a break-out season after not working out in Montreal. Still, even with him and the underwhelming acquisition of Mike Fisher (4 points in 18 games) haven’t been enough to bolster this offense.

NAME                      QUALCOMP   Corsi Rel QoC   G/60    A1/60    A2/60    P/60   CORSI REL    Ozone%    Fin Ozone%
SHEAWEBER               0.033                  0.968         0.40       0.48         0.22       1.10            8.0              46.0          48.4
RYANSUTER              0.027                  0.999          0.16       0.31        0.36        0.83             9.8              45.4          48.0
KEVINKLEIN            -0.020                 0.605          0.10      0.30        0.30        0.69         -12.4              44.4          48.7
JONATHONBLUM    -0.023                0.259          0.56       0.56        0.00        1.13         -12.8              50.8          47.6
FRANCISBOUILLON    -0.028           0.263         0.08       0.32         0.24        0.65         -11.2              42.6          48.2
SHANEO’BRIEN           -0.064             -0.184          0.06      0.18         0.18        0.43          -3.3               48.1           49.5
CODYFRANSON         -0.084              -0.642          0.40     0.60         0.27        1.27           4.9               51.3           46.9

The Preds have also seen some bad luck in one-goal games and games that went to OT as they have a losing record in both but they have a strong 17-13 record in clear victories. Their defense and penalty killing has been enough to get them this far and they’ve been getting a healthy amount of offense from the blue line from Shea Weber, Cody Franson and newcomer Jonathan Blum. Weber and Ryan Suter have been a consistently good defense pairing this season as they face tough competition and manage to beat it every night and the fact that Weber has a positive corsi rating and is producing points despite having a low zone start% is definitely impressive. The Preds defensive corps is giving up more shots and it’s evident when looking at the corsi ratings of their defensemen outside of Suter and Weber. Kevin Klein is getting absolutely hammered at even strength and so is Francis Bouilon

Nashville’s middling Fenwick, Corsi and Shot percentages don’t blow me away but it’s slightly better than the rest of the teams here and their strong record in clear victories do make me believe that we’ll see them in the playoffs in a few weeks.

Anaheim Ducks (@ DAL, @NSH, @CHI, COL, CGY, @SJS, DAL, SJS, LAK, @LAK)

The Ducks are in a similar boat to the Stars right now only they have been more fortunate as of late. The Ducks even have an even worse Fenwick and Corsi percentage than Dallas and their PDO is high due to some good shooting percentages and Jonas Hiller. The luck of the Ducks is also shown when comparing their clear victories to their record in OT and close games. They are only 12-15 with clear victories, 13-6 in OT and 23-14 in close games. Pretty big contrast there.

This isn’t to say that the Ducks are complete frauds. I mentioned earlier that you live and die by special teams in the NHL sometimes and the Ducks have the 4th best powerplay in the league but the 9th worst penalty kill. Still, the Ducks juggernaut of a first line has been very effective this season. Corey Perry is playing some of the best hockey of his career and Bobby Ryan keeps getting better every season. Lubomir Visnovsky has been getting some buzz for the Norris Trophy and rightfully so. Him and Toni Lydman see the toughest competition every night and manage to beat it. Visnovsky’s relative corsi rate blows away the rest of his teammates and he’s provided a considerable amount of offense from the blue-line, too. However, I still think the MVP of this team is Jonas Hiller and if the Ducks make it in the playoffs, they will need him back if they want to go anywhere.

Player                              Save Pct    GAAA    SA          SV
Hiller/McElhinney       0.925        9.28    1691    1565
Hiller/Ellis                       0.920       0.36    1942    1787
Ellis/Emery                     0.907    -10.88    814    738
Ellis/McElhinney          0.904    -20.6    1255    1134
Hiller/Emery                  0.935    19    1250    1169

Notice how much better their goaltending looks when Hiller is there (him and Emery haven’t played together this year but I included it just for the hell of it). Hiller’s been phenomenal this season and I would feel more confident about saying the Ducks will make the playoffs if he’s healthy. The Ducks give up A LOT of shots and their shot differential is pretty low (-4.2). Their defense corps outside of Lydman and Visnovsky is very suspect and their scoring depth really drops off after Jason Blake. The timetable for Hiller’s returned is still unknown to my knowledge so it will be very tough for the Ducks to sneak in but luck seems to be in their favor for the past few games. Let’s see if it keeps up.

Calgary Flames (@LAK, @SJS, @EDM, ANA, @STL, @COL, EDM, VAN)

Calgary being in the playoffs didn’t seem likely mid-way through the year when it looked like they were going to trade players like Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regher for draft picks. Ever since Darryl Sutter left the building, the Flames are 19-9-7 and have climbed back into playoff contention and it isn’t too far-fetched that they can sneak in. Decent powerplay, penalty kill isn’t too bad either and their Fenwick and Corsi percentages are very good, too. What’s the reason for this turnaround and will it be enough to get the Flames into the post-season?

Goaltending usually isn’t a problem when you think of the Flames since they have an “elite” goaltending in Miikka Kiprusoff. However, this hasn’t been the case this year. Kipper’s been slightly below average so far and the team’s .914 save percentage is the reason for the team’s PDO being so low. However, this means the Flames aren’t relying too much on luck to win games and they’ve been a good team at even strength so far. They are in the top 10 in goal scoring this year and have six forwards with 15 or more goals. Everyone laughed at the signings of Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay this summer but these two have been fairly solid acquisitions this season. Playing on Iginla’s line has probably helped with that. They’ve also been receiving plenty of production from David Moss, Curtis Glencross, Rene Bourque and Brendan Morrison. The defense has been doing its job of only allowing about 28 shots per game.

The Flames are good enough to get in but they have a really tough stretch coming up and haven’t been running into some bad luck for the past week or so. It should be noted that five of their last eight games are on the road and Calgary is 15-15-6 away from the Saddledome. That’s going to make it tough for the Flames to get in but I like their odds slightly more than Dallas’ and maybe Anaheim.

So, I’m going to say that the Coyotes, Hawks, Kings, Predators and Ducks make it in. I know the Ducks is a risky pick but with two games at hand over Calgary and luck being on their side lately, I think it’s enough to get in. After that, good luck to them.

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