Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

I know that these posts are becoming monotonous right now but I have to make my playoff playoff predictions at some point, right? First, I decided to do what Copper and Blue did with the Western Conference and look at how each team did against other playoff teams using the Pythagorean Expectation formula I experimented with in an earlier post.

It’s not exactly comforting to see the Rangers with a good record and goal differential against playoff teams but the good news is that the Caps have played well against playoff teams, too. It’s still concerning to see that the Rangers have outscored and have the 2nd best winning percentage against playoff teams. There’s a few interesting cases here, though. The Flyers sitting at the bottom being a huge one. Same with the Canadiens having the most wins but a terrible goal differential and the lowest amount of goals scored in these games. Tampa Bay’s position is understandable since they had a lot of games earlier in the season against Philly, Washington and Boston while Dan Ellis and Mike Smith were still their starting goalies. I just thought this was an interesting way to look at things. Now onto the actual previews!

Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers

The season series and New York’s performance against Washington this season is making things seem like the Caps will see a similar fate as they did last year. Something to keep in mind is that this Washington team is a lot different than the one from last season. They give up a lot less shots (29.0 per game) and still manage to outshoot their opponents (31 shots/game) and score enough to win games. Last season, they were a mediocre defensive team but offset it by blowing out their opponents, while this year they are a more defensively responsible team who can still score. The Rangers are a top 10 defensively but a below-average offensive team, so the Caps goaltending could be what determines this series. Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby have all been average to great this season depending on the night and they are going to have to be great every night now, especially with who is in the crease on the Rangers end.

The lingering question all season has been “what’s wrong with the Capitals offense?” and there’s a few answers I have for that question. First off, I think that bad luck has definitely caught up with the Caps this season as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have career low shooting percentages and their numbers show it.  One reason for it is that Backstrom is shooting the puck less but both have gotten more defensive zone starts this year. Albeit, against weaker competition. I don’t think either are a concern in the playoffs and the goals will come to them. The acquisition of Jason Arnott has also played dividends as he has shown chemistry with Alexander Semin (someone who always struggles in the playoffs) and given the Caps forward corps a lot more depth. You have to like seeing Arnott as the second line center compared to Eric Belanger or Tomas Fleischmann, in my opinion. As for defense, they’ve performed well so far and hopefully it translates into the playoffs. The biggest concern here is that Dennis Wideman and Tom Poti will likely be out for the first round but the blow was softened with the news of Mike Green coming back. I know Green is an enigma in the playoffs but he should be able to help the powerplay (he’s been on ice for more PPG’s than any other WSH defenseman per 60 mins) and it’s better to have him playing than Tyler Sloan or Sean Collins. Green likely wont have ridiculous minutes in this series anyway since I see things being evenly distributed between John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Scott Hannan.

For the Rangers, the loss of Ryan Callahan is pretty critical but I noted that in an earlier post. His minutes will probably be taken over by Wojtek Wolski and Marian Gaborik will have to really improve on his play from this season. He’s coming off his lowest goal total since 2003-04 (not counting 08-09 because he only played 17 games) and is the most dangerous winger they have. Brandon Dubinsky might be the player who gives Washington the most headaches this season given how well he’s played and against tough competition. Their defense is very young but they’ve been extremely impressive. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi keep getting more difficult assignments but their corsi rates aren’t as impressive as I remember. Still,  anyone who has seen the Caps play the Rangers knows how Ovechkin fares against Staal. After that, there’s Mike Sauer, Ryan McDonagh and Bryan McCabe who are all very good but get softer assignments than Staal and Girardi (who seem to get buried with a ton of defensive zone starts). Oh, and there’s that Swedish guy in the net who can steal any game, too.

This is going to be a very long series but I think Washington will be able to get past New York. I know Washington’s powerplay has been scrutinized a lot this year but any PP unit that generates over 50 shots per 60 minutes is going to get a few through eventually and it has been improving since the deadline. The Rangers powerplay only generates 39 shots per 60 minutes so considering that and NYR’s shot statistics, it will take Neuvirth or Varlamov to completely flop for the Caps to lose this series. That and Lundqvist having a Halak-like performance and he will probably steal a few games for the Rangers anyway. Capitals in 6

Philadelphia Flyers vs. Buffalo Sabres

These teams are going in different directions heading into the post-season. The Sabres are 8-1-1 in their last 10 while the Flyers are 3-4-3. However, there’s been many “hot” teams that have failed in the first round so I don’t put much thought into those stats. What I do know is that Philadelphia has better offense, defense and depth than Buffalo. Buffalo’s leading them in shots per game but I think a lot of it has to do with Lindy Ruff’s system. If I showed you each team’s top three forwards, I’m sure most would take the Flyers in a heartbeat. That’s not to say the Sabres don’t have some firepower up front because Drew Stafford, Tomas Vanek and Jason Pominville can light the lamp a bit and Philly not having Chris Pronger could hurt them but Coburn and Timonen usually get the tougher assignments anyway. I’m just having a tough time believing that an forward corps with so much talent can continue to underperform like they have the past month so I think the Flyers clearly have an edge over Buffalo in offense.

Where the Sabres have the edge over the Flyers is goaltending and special teams. Goaltending is pretty obvious since anyone with a brain would take Ryan Miller over Sergei Bobrovsky over Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton and while the Flyers D is good, they give up over 30 shots a game and all Buffalo does is shoot the puck so Bobrovsky will have to go back to how good he was in the first half of the season. Then again, the Sabres D is below average with Tyler Myers having a sophomore slump and no real standouts after him except for maybe Jordan Leopold. Hard to think that guys like Breire, Versteeg, Carter and Richards will stay quiet against this defense. Special teams are kind of a wash. Sabres have a strong powerplay while the Flyers have a great penalty kill and the Flyers have a weak powerplay going up against a poor Sabres penalty kill. Both team’s even strength stats are very similar in terms of shots and corsi but I’m going to be bold and pick the Sabres to win based on their better powerplay numbers and Miller. Sabres in 7

Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens

This one I thought would be easy to pick given how beaten up the Habs blue-line is and the way Boston wiped the floor with them the last time they played. After looking at the stats, I don’t think it will be as lopsided as I presumed. Boston actually surrenders the second most shots in the league but the absurd goaltending of Tim Thomas has gotten them to where they are. That and a huge step forward from Milan Lucic this season in terms of offensive production. Boston’s gotten plenty of production from their top 6 forwards this season but after that, there’s a noticeable drop-off but the lower-six guys have done their job at being solid two-way guys to make up for their lack of talent on the blue-line. Outside of Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk, I consider the Bruins defense corps to be pretty suspect.

Montreal and Boston’s corsi numbers are about equal but Montreal’s going to have a hard time scoring goals since their forward depth isn’t that impressive after Plekanec, Gionta and Cammalleri. The defense might be beaten up but their top 4 isn’t bad at all. Subban has problems in his own zone but you could do a lot worse than him, Spacek, Hamrlik and Gill. I think that the Habs will only go as far as Carey Price takes them, though. He’s had a wonderful season but he’s still very bi-polar with his performances, especially lately. One night he will give up one goal on 35+ shots and another he will give up 6 on 28 shots. The Habs better hope they get the former with how much offense the B’s can create.

Neither team has a particularly good powerplay and both penalty kills are solid so I won’t put much thought into those but I think this Habs team is too inconsistent to make it through the first round. Bruins in 5

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Toughest one to predict so far. In one corner, we have a Pens team without it’s two best players who are grinding it out Lemaire style to win games and in the other corner we have the Bolts who have one of the most lethal forward corps in the playoffs. Ultimately, I think this will come down to whether or not the Pens D can stop Stamkos/St. Louis or if Roloson can stop everything thrown at him. Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang have been phenomenal this season but they have a huge test ahead in halting this Lightning first line. While Stamkos is new to the playoffs, St. Louis and Lecavalier have won before and I think that will play a factor. However, the majority of this Pens team isn’t new to the playoffs either seeing how they won the Cup only two years ago. They are looking to get back there again only by playing a much more defensive game than they used to, which is what you have to do when your current best forward is Chris Kunitz.

Another reason this is a tough series to predict is because both teams have roughly the same amount of shots for and against per game, so special teams and goaltending could be what it comes down to and the Pens have a strong advantage in both of those categories. You’d think with the forward talent Tampa has, they would have a stronger PP but they don’t for some reason. Maybe it’s because Kubina and M-A Bergeron are their only offensive d-men. Pittsburgh missing the services of Matt Cooke could play a factor since he was one of their best penalty killers but the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury might be what gets them through this series. Their defense corps is good enough and Fleury has been known to play well in the post-season so it might be enough to get them past Tampa Bay even if their forward depth is lacking. Dwayne Roloson has played well for Tampa but I wouldn’t pick him over Fleury. Penguins in 7

 

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