Archive for the ‘Hockey’ Category

NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/12/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Two rounds into the NHL playoffs, we’re left with a question we have had to ask a lot recently: can anyone stop the Pittsburgh Penguins? I really believed that this would be the year that the Capitals would finally exorcize their black and yellow demons and advance to the third round (and eventually all the way to the Stanley Cup). But it wasn’t to be. The Capitals dropped three of the first four games, saw the pressure on them drop substantially, and then win two straight to set up Game 7. With the pressure back on, they came out all guns blazing in the first period but failed to score, and they eventually fell quietly, losing 2-0 and showing very little fight in the third period. I don’t usually subscribe to this type of theory, but it really felt like the moment was again too big for the Caps. Facing a team with a ton of playoff experience (they won the Cup last year, after all), the pressure got to them. This quote from Nick Backstrom speaks volumes: “We didn’t lose the series tonight, we lost it in the first three games, four games.” Sure, the Caps were down 3-1 in the series. But they fought back and had a Game 7 ON THEIR HOME ICE! The Backstrom quote fits in with the general theme of the Capitals lacking postseason confidence. I’d bet that Capitals fans are very torn about their team right now. They’ve won consecutive President’s Trophies, but they always flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs. Could we see the Caps blow it up this summer with a trade of Alex Ovechkin and others? After 13 years of consistent playoff disappointments, I wouldn’t doubt it.

The Penguins have now beaten the Columbus Blue Jackets (+54 GD, 108 points) and Capitals (+81, 118) in the first two rounds. Of the other three teams left in the playoffs, the Ducks were easily the best regular season team (+23, 105 points). The Penguins also have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, good secondary scoring, and a scorching hot Marc-Andre Fleury. The narrative should be about the Penguins. But this Penguins team isn’t that great! Fleury is going to cool off because he’s not that good, and the Penguins are missing Kris Letang, their top defenseman. The return of Matt Murray gives the Penguins insurance for Fleury, but the point is that this is a very beatable team that’s really thin at the blue line. Let’s get into the two matchups.

Penguins over Senators in 6:

The Senators have done very well to get this far. This feels like a long time ago, but the Senators lost 10 of their final 15 regular season games and entered the playoffs with a -2 goal differential, making them the only playoff team who allowed more goals than they scored. Thanks to the heroics of Erik Karlsson, an explosion from defensive-minded forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau (seven goals in the playoffs, including four in one game), and some timely goals (5-1 in overtime), the Sens have squeaked through to the third round. They’re just a +1 in the playoffs, but they have a 7-2 record in one goal games. That’s a fluke, but some things don’t have time to correct themselves in the playoffs. Hopefully for Ottawa, the Sens’ performance in one goal games is one of those things.

It’d better be, because the Penguins have a pretty clear talent advantage in this series. With Crosby fully recovered from the concussion he suffered against the Capitals, they have their full allotment of offensive firepower. Malkin has 18 points in 12 playoff games, making him a favorite for the Conn Smythe trophy (given to the best playoff performer). Crosby has 14 points in 11 games, and Jake Guentzel has nine goals. The fact that I haven’t even talked about the immensely talented Phil Kessel yet says it all. The Penguins have 41 goals in the playoffs, good for 3.42 per game. Now, the Senators are fairly stingy defensively, thanks in large part to Craig Anderson, who’s a solid goalie. I think they’ll get under Crosby’s skin a little bit and make things difficult for the Penguins. But Anderson is going to have to steal a couple of games for the Senators to win this series. Ottawa’s a gritty team, and Karlsson’s an outstanding player, but this is probably the right time for the Senators to be sent home.

Predators over Ducks in 6:

Aside from the Penguins, the Ducks have been the best offensive team in the playoffs. They also rank first of remaining teams in playoff Fenwick (shots+missed shots for over total shots, 54.68%). I can’t say I watched a lot of the Ducks in the regular season, so I don’t know if they’re playing a lot better than they did in the regular season, but their puck possession numbers suggest that they are. Going from below-average in the regular season to tops in the playoffs is a heck of a swing. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that neither Calgary nor Edmonton is a great defensive team. The Nashville Predators have been great defensively in the playoffs. They’ve given up 14 goals in 10 games. Pekka Rinne has a .951 save percentage and has looked unbeatable at times. As I wrote about before the second round, the Preds have four tremendous defensemen (great now, maybe problematic come the expansion draft). Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all averaging upwards of 23 minutes per game. Subban and Ekholm have been much more effective than Josi and Ellis so far in the playoffs, but all four are capable of slowing down the hot Anaheim attack. That’s the matchup to look out for in this game: can Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell, and Ryan Kesler keep up their barrage of shots at the net against Nashville’s defense? Can they get those shots past the red-hot Rinne?

Nashville’s offensive attack is much more balanced than Anaheim’s. While the Ducks rely on skilled forwards Getzlaf and Silfverberg (15 combined goals in 11 games), the Predators have been getting a lot of scoring from defensemen. Ellis leads the team with nine points, and Josi and Subban have eight and seven apiece. I wrote about Nashville’s great first line before the last round, and Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson have continued to drive play when on the ice (all three have FF% of 54%+). But the goals dried up for them against St. Louis, as the first line tallied just two goals in the second round. Forsberg and Arvidsson were both 30 goal scorers, and they’re going to have to light the lamp more often. Luckily, they’re now facing a goalie who gave up three goals on six shots in Anaheim’s 7-1 loss to Edmonton in Game 6. That game obviously inflates his save percentage, but even excluding it he had just a .909 save percentage against the Oilers. Gibson’s just 23-years-old, and this is his first playoffs as the full-time starter. It’s worth wondering whether fatigue is getting to him. If it is, and Gibson continues to give up three goals per game, the Ducks are going to have a tough time winning this series. He gave up 3+ goals in five of the seven games this series, and the Ducks went 3-2 in those games. But give the Predators three goals and they’re probably going to win. That’s why I’m taking Nashville in six games, setting up a pretty intriguing Stanley Cup Final (for neutral fans, probably the Final we should be rooting for if we want a good, long series).

NHL Round 2 Preview

Posted: 04/27/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

The first round of the NHL playoffs was.. bizarre. On the one hand, it was the closest first round in NHL history. A record-setting 18 games went into overtime, meaning that an incredible 43% of first round games went to at least one overtime (another record). And yet… not a single series went the distance, and only four of the eight first round matchups went to six games. That means that four first round matchups were over in a blink, including the two I thought may be the best first round series’ (Blackhawks-Predators and Blues-Wild). I’m hoping we get a Game Seven or two in Round Two. It feels like all four matchups are near-coin flips, and that’s not just because there’s a lot of parity in the NHL. In the Western Conference, we get perhaps the two most impressive first round teams (Nashville and St. Louis) against each other and Anaheim and Edmonton, who finished just two points apart in the Pacific Conference, on the other side of the bracket. In the Eastern Conference, the two best teams in the NHL are pitted against each other for the second consecutive year, meaning that neither the Capitals nor the Penguins will be large second round matchups and that both Ottawa and the Rangers have a legitimate shot at making the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, the Penguins beat the Capitals in six tough games and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Anything can happen in the latter rounds of the NHL playoffs, so I won’t guarantee that the winner of this series wins it all again this year, but I will say that the odds of that happening are pretty darn good. The Penguins were electric in the first round, while the Capitals have been the deepest, most talented team in hockey all season. Regardless of what happens, I can assure you that it’ll be entertaining. The NHL playoffs always are.

I know I’m posting this a day late (as far as the Western Conference in concerned), but I don’t think home ice advantage means much in hockey (both road teams won last night, for example) and a lot can change quickly in a best of seven series. Anyway, both losers arguably outplayed their opponents last night, so I think it’s fair to continue to call both matchups near tossups. Let’s start in middle America with Music City vs. the Gateway City.

Predators over Blues in six:

The Nashville Predators are coming off a dominant sweep of the Blackhawks (composite score: 13-3), and it’s safe to say that they’re the hottest team in hockey. If you haven’t watched the Predators yet this year, you may be surprised to find out that this isn’t the Nashville of old, the team that relied on Pekka Rinne to pull wins out of thin air. Actually, while you wouldn’t have guessed it from the first round (Rinne saved 123 of the 126 shots that came his way), the goaltender position is arguably one of the Predators’ few weak spots. Rinne had a .918 save percentage this year, still solid but middle-of-the-pack-solid and certainly not the world beater type numbers Rinne used to regularly post. The Predators have transitioned away from their reliance on Rinne and are now a much younger and more balanced team. Before last season, the Predators hadn’t had a 30-goal scorer since 2009-2010, despite generally having good-to-great teams in that span. Now, they’ve had two 30-goal scorers in two straight seasons. This year, those two were 22-year-old sniper Filip Forsberg and 24-year-old Viktor Arvidsson, who had a breakout season alongside Forsberg and 24-year-old Ryan Johansen on Nashville’s excellent top line. The top line accounts for a lot of the scoring, and it’s also a tremendous puck-possessing unit. Nashville’s philosophy is clear: play fast, move the puck, and make controlled entries into the offensive zone. That’s why trading Shea Weber for P.K. Subban last offseason was such a good move for the Predators to make. Weber’s a great player, but Subban has made a clear difference for the Predators in 5-on-5 situations (whereas Weber is a superior power play point man). Among the 197 defenseman who played at least 500 minutes this season, Subban ranked eighth in Corsi For % (that’s total shots for over total shots for and against, not just shots on goal) at 55.02%. CF% is generally regarded as the best way of measuring puck possession, so it’s telling that Subban ranked eighth (ninth if we’re talking about Corsi relative to team) while Weber ranked 55th (142nd relative to his team). The Predators have a big four of defensemen between 26 and 28 years old in whom they have supreme confidence. This may prove to be an issue come expansion draft time, when the Preds may be forced to deal one or leave one unprotected, but right now it’s a huge luxury to feel totally comfortable about giving four defensemen 24 minutes+ per game. Subban is Subban, Roman Josi has been really good for awhile, Ryan Ellis led the team in plus-minus, and Mattias Ekholm is developing into a shutdown defenseman. As I said, that’s a pretty good foursome to be relying on. Outside of the first line, the Predators have a proven goal scorer in James Neal and a bunch of other solid pieces (although the loss of Kevin Fiala, who broke his leg in the Game One win over the Blues, is big. Fiala had the best CF% outside of the first line). This is a good team, one whose title hopes hinge on Pekka Rinne. If Rinne is who he was in Round One, the Predators have a good shot to win it all. If he’s not, the Blues are more than capable of disposing of them, Game One loss aside.

The Blues were also very impressive in the first round, as they quickly beat a Minnesota Wild team that I actually really liked and thought had a chance to win it all. In fairness, the Wild dominated the series from a pace and shooting standpoint, but the Blues got outstanding performance after outstanding performance from young goalie Jake Allen. Unfortunately, Allen probably isn’t going to keep winning games by himself, so the rest of the Blues are going to have to improve a lot for St. Louis to have a chance against a rolling Nashville team. This is a familiar St. Louis team, with defensive stalwarts Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Colton Parayko putting up huge minutes (the one difference: Kevin Shattenkirk is gone) and a huge portion of the scoring punch coming from the dynamic Vladimir Tarasenko (116 goals in the last three seasons). I’m not going to spend much time writing about the Blues, because this feels very familiar: it’s a solid team that always posts good-but-not-great puck possession numbers and, for one reason or another, can’t get over the hump in the postseason. They came close last year, when they pushed the Sharks to six games in the Western Conference Finals. I don’t think they’ll get as close this year because, Tarasenko aside, they’re not nearly as talented as Nashville is.

Oilers over Ducks in seven:

Everyone who isn’t a Ducks fan should want the Oilers to win. They’re young and exciting. They have the best young player in the world in Connor McDavid. I can’t tell you just how good McDavid already is. He scored 100 points this year, and he hasn’t even scratched the surface. He turned 20 a few months ago. Also, the Ducks are kind of brutish and nasty. They ranked second in the league in hits, and they commit a lot of penalties (but are rarely punished for them because they have a great penalty kill). Corey Perry is the jerkiest good player in the NHL. But the biggest thing is that the Ducks have won their division for five straight seasons and aren’t going away. Yeah, I dislike the Ducks because they’re good. Sue me.

Anaheim finished with 105 points this year despite finishing 19th in Corsi For% (49.68%, a spot behind Edmonton). Something’s got to give, right? Well, against Calgary (10th in Corsi) in the first round, the Corsi gave and the Ducks romped to a sweep even though talented goalie John Gibson was inconsistent. Ryan Getzlaf is hitting on all cylinders (11 goals and 30 assists in his last 30 games), Corey Perry is annoyingly good, and Patrick Eaves, who scored 11 goals in 20 games after being acquired from Dallas, continued to play super well on the first line. But I wonder how this aging forward group would do in a longer, more competitive series. Getzlaf is 32, Eaves is 33, Kesler is 32, and Perry is 31. But Anaheim’s forward group makes up for what they may lack for in youthfulness and stamina with tremendous smarts and confidence. If I were an Anaheim fan, I’d be more worried about my goalie than Perry, Getzlaf, or Kesler, who’ve all been producing for the Ducks for so long.

You know a really good way to measure someone’s impact? Look at how much better the veterans around him are than they were before. The veteran on Connor McDavid’s line is Patrick Maroon, who’s in his sixth season and who never had more than 12 goals in a season before this year. Guess how many goals he scored this season? 27. That’s the Connor effect. The problem with the Oilers is that they only go two lines deep offensively. Nobody outside of the top six scored more than 35 points this season or provided much in the way of puck-possession help. But guess what? That’s also Anaheim’s problem! This is why I don’t think either of these teams is actually very good! This is why I think the winner of this series will be underdogs next round! Anyway, I digress.

It’s not quite as simple as experience vs. youth, because Anaheim’s defense is young and good. But in a fairly even series between two teams heading in different directions (I hope. It’s time, Anaheim), give me Connor McDavid.

Capitals over Penguins in six:

I’m pretty sure that the Capitals are better than the Penguins. But can they finally vanquish their playoff bugaboos? Nobody has a deeper group of 12 forwards and six defensemen. Nobody has a better goalie than Braden Holtby (and especially the playoff version of Braden Holtby). 13 guys put up 25+ points. The team had easily the best goal differential in hockey. This is the best team in the NHL, and there isn’t much else to say… except that they’ve never made the third round with Alex Ovechkin, who’s been on the Capitals since 2005-06. That’s pretty incredible, and if the streak is ever going to end, it’ll end this year. But Washington’s opponents are pretty good, too…

The Columbus Blue Jackets are a good hockey team. They were one of the best teams in the NHL this year, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. It just didn’t seem like it in the first round, when the Penguins scored 21 goals in five games against the Jackets. They just have so much offensive firepower. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both had great seasons, Phil Kessel scored 70 points and has continued to provide elite playoff production, and five others added 15+ goal seasons. The Penguins easily led the NHL in goals this season and are a tough matchup for any defense.

The Penguins will be able to score, but can they stop the Capitals? Matt Murray is injured, which didn’t matter much against Columbus but could against the Capitals. Marc-Andre Fleury is obviously a great backup to have, but the Penguins would obviously much rather have Murray and Fleury at their disposal than just Fleury. They also don’t have top defenseman Kris Letang. Again, they were able to survive their flaws against Columbus, but I don’t think they’ll be able to survive against the Capitals. Washington is so much deeper, and their defense is so much better. This is the year.

Rangers over Senators in seven:

Neither of these teams is very good. The winner will probably get blasted by the Capitals or Penguins. I’m not going to waste a lot of words on this series. It’s obviously a cop out to say it’ll come down to the goaltending, but both the Senators and the Rangers rely heavily upon their goalies. We all know what King Henrik can do, but Craig Anderson might be even better at this point. He had the second best save percentage in the NHL this season (behind only Bobrovsky), and he’ll be heavily leaned on again this round. The Senators have the least firepower of any remaining team, and it isn’t particularly close. They scored just 212 goals this year, 22nd in the NHL. Their best offensive threat is Erik Karlsson, who is awesome and all but just so happens to be a defenseman. I just finished talking about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, and names like Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris just don’t quite match those names. Of course, neither do names like Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, and Derek Stepan. Can the Senators slow the speedy Rangers down? Can they make the series as physical as they made their series with Boston? Can Karlsson pull them to the Eastern Conference Finals? It’s entirely possible, but that’s probably more because the Rangers aren’t very good than because the Senators deserve to be one of the final four teams standing. I’ll take the Rangers, because they’re better at scoring the puck.

I was going to write a bunch of words about the first round of the hockey playoffs and the first round of the basketball playoffs. But I decided not to, at first because the fact that they start within a few days of each other made the previews super daunting. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that going super deep into all of the first round matchups is not only time-consuming but also probably isn’t the right way to approach the first round. How often does a great team struggle early in the playoffs only to right things when they have to and go on a run? It happens to LeBron’s team almost every year (last year was an exception, as the Cavaliers destroyed playoff opponents from the get-go). I seem to remember a couple of bad games against the Grizzlies for the Warriors in their championship season after which many analysts (I’m talking to you, Charles Barkley) declared that this is why a jump-shooting will never win a championship.

To a lesser extent, the same is true in hockey. Two years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks had two of the top four goal differentials in the NHL and ended up making the Stanley Cup Final. In the first round, though, the Lightning went down 3-2 while the Blackhawks lost twice by at least three goals before closing out the Predators.

My point is that usually, when you think a great team’s fatal flaw has been exposed in the first round, you’re probably overthinking things. This is certainly the case in basketball, where elite regular season teams almost never get upset in the first round. Since 1984 (when the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams), a top seed has been upset by a #8 seed just five times. Once, that only happened because Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of a Bulls-Sixers series. Of course, not all elite teams are #1 seeds and not all elite teams are #1 seeds. This year, for example, I would call the Cleveland Cavaliers — defensive issues and all — an elite team, while top seeded Boston is probably the fourth best team in its conference. I would be stunned if the Cavaliers lose their first round series but I think the Bulls have a pretty good chance to knock off the Celtics, so take that #1 seed stat with a grain of salt.

I’m not saying that elite basketball teams are flawless and unbeatable. It’s just that they aren’t likely to be beaten or even pushed by the teams they play in the first round. This is one of the consequences of having more than half the league make the playoffs — a lot of mediocre teams are played up a lot more than they should be just because they won one more game than a lottery team.

This is all a lot less true in hockey, where there’s a lot more parity than in basketball. If the rule is that great teams never lose in the first round, there are a lot more exceptions to that rule in hockey than in basketball. And because the best teams aren’t as dominant, there are more real title contenders and thus more consequential first round series’. With that being said, people still overreact wayyy too much. Sorry, Leafs, but winning one game in Washington doesn’t convince me that you’re a serious threat to defeat the Capitals. The first round of the hockey playoffs is also super exciting, so on a scale from “What does this win by the Leafs mean??” to “Wow, the Leafs just won in double overtime! That was cool,” you know which end I would advise you to lean towards.

Again, I’m not advocating that you ignore the first round. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m saying that you should watch the first round and enjoy the close games. When the Pacers are trading blows with the Cavs or the Maple Leafs are going to consecutive overtimes against the mighty Capitals, watch the game and root for the underdog. Just don’t overreact.

So when is the time to start looking closely at every individual matchup in each hockey and basketball series in order to try to figure out who’s eventually going to win the championship? That’s easy: next round. There’s a big difference between 16 teams and eight teams. There are never 16 good teams in the NHL or the NBA. There are almost always eight good teams who are at least capable of making the best teams try their hardest.

Consider this a general guide to playoff viewing. Unfortunately, it won’t really work in basketball this year, because instead of the usual four or five teams that have a legitimate chance of winning it all, this season there’s only one. I’ll be totally stunned if the Warriors fail to win the title (assuming they stay healthy). Maybe I’ll be shocked, but I think most would agree that Golden State is at the very least a heavy favorite to win it all. That sucks, because it removes the intrigue from rounds two, three, and four, the ones I’ve told you to pay attention to when trying to predict a winner. If you want intrigue this year, you’ll have to settle for rooting for some minor first round upsets. Or you can just tune into the hockey playoffs, because I think there are seven or eight teams who could legitimately win it all (Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Montreal, New York, San Jose, Nashville, St. Louis).

To end this, here are a couple of lists regarding the thoughts I have about the first round (because I can’t resist):

In order, the most likely NBA upsets (seed-wise):

  • Jazz over Clippers
  • Bulls over Celtics
  • Hawks over Wizards
  • Bucks over Raptors

* For the record, I’d pick all of the favorites.

We’re too deep into the hockey playoffs for me to do this for NHL upsets. Duh, the Blues are likely to upset the Wild and the Predators are likely to upset the Blackhawks.

Best teams in basketball:

  • Warriors
  • Cavaliers
  • Raptors
  • Spurs
  • Wizards

Best teams in hockey:

  • Capitals
  • Penguins
  • Predators
  • Blackhawks
  • Canadiens

And finally, the second round matchups I’d be most excited for:

  • Raptors-Cavaliers
  • Penguins-Capitals
  • Ducks-Oilers (I love Edmonton!)
  • Senators-Canadiens (go Canada!)

Around this time last year, I compared the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and Washington Capitals, ultimately determining that the Capitals (who were 45-12-4 with 11 more points than the next best team and a +60 goal differential) were more dominant compared to the rest of their league than the Warriors (who were 53-5 with a +11.3 point differential). Of course, the rest of the season didn’t go the way either team wanted. The Warriors went 73-9 and took a 3-1 series lead against the Cavaliers, but we all know what happened next. Meanwhile, the Caps slumped down the stretch, finishing the regular season 11-6-4 after I published the post and losing in the second round. But both teams have predictably come back strong this year. The Caps brought back every single one of their important pieces (the goalie, the top six scorers, and all of the top six defensemen), while the Warriors added Kevin Durant to an already record-setting team. Washington is 39-11-6, good for a 1.5 point per game total that is slightly worse than last year’s 1.54 when I wrote my post but slightly better than the 1.46 they ended up with. Their goal differential is +71, 11 goals better than it was when I wrote last season. Meanwhile, the Warriors are “just” 46-9 and boast a +12.6 point differential. So even though neither team has as good of a record as they had last year, they’re arguably both performing better than they were when I wrote about them last season. This all begs the question (again): who’s more dominant?

I must admit that I was a bit surprised when I looked at the standings today and saw just how well the Capitals are doing. That’s because they started relatively slowly — 13-7-3. They’ve turned things around… and then some. Since December 31st, they’re 19-2-1 with a +53 goal differential. That’s +2.4 goals per game, which is unbelievable. Washington has scored at least five (5!) goals in 11 consecutive home games. They’re being led by all of the familiar faces. Alex Ovechkin is unlikely to get to the 50 goal mark, but he’s scoring nearly a point per game and is on pace to assist more goals than he has in six years. Nicklas Backstrom ranks third in the NHL with 60 points. Evgeni Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer last year, has 44 points. The most impressive thing is that, advanced-stats wise, the Caps’ third line (Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Andre Burakovsky) has been its strongest. It’s worth noting that the Capitals have been incredibly lucky to this point, at least in 5-on-5 situations. They’re blowing teams out, but that’s largely because of the puck luck they’ve gotten. The numbers are astounding: they’ve scored 65% of the goals in their games at even strength, but they’ve only taken 51.3% of the shots (that is, shots on goal + shot attempts that missed the net or were blocked). To put that in perspective, the Flyers and Flames have also taken 51.3% of 5-on-5 shots. So this is by no means a dominant full-strength team, which could mean that they will regress going forward. But I’m not asking which team will be more dominant going forward, because I think that’s pretty clearly the Warriors. Rather, I’m asking who’s been more dominant so far. And if we take the Capitals’ record and goal differential at face value, which I’m willing to do for this exercise, they have a real argument.

The one thing the Warriors haven’t had this year is a dominant stretch like the Capitals are currently in the midst of. Sure, they’re 46-9 with a +12.6 point differential, so you could argue that the whole season has been a dominant stretch. But their longest winning streak was “just” 12 games, and they were “just” +18 per game in that stretch, which is obviously amazing but isn’t quite “22 game stretch with +2.4 goals per game difference” level awesome. Their starting lineup (Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-Kevin Durant-Draymond Green-Zaza Pachulia) has played 508 minutes together this year and has a +23 net rating (120.2 points scored per 100 possessions, 97.2 allowed). They lead the league in points, assists, assist percentage, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, fast break points, field goal percentage on drives, catch and shoot points per game, and deflections per game. The only reason they don’t have the record they had last season is that they’ve gotten much less lucky in close games.

So both teams have been incredible. The Warriors seem more incredible, with a four game lead over everyone else and a tidy 46-9 record. But we thought that’s the way it would turn out last year, and yet the Capitals’ season (up to the day I wrote, at least) was actually more remarkable compared to the rest of the NHL than Golden State’s was compared to the rest of the NBA.

Just like last year, I calculated standard deviations (a mathematical way to compare a number to a mean and see just how exceptional that number is) for the NBA by winning percentage and point differential and for the NHL by points per game and goal differential per game, and here are the results:

Warriors Capitals
Winning % / PPG .836 1.50
Standard Deviations From Mean – Winning % / PPG 2.27 (last yr when I wrote: 2.39) 1.99 (last yr: 2.58)
Point/Goal Differential +12.6 +1.27
Standard Dev From mean – Point/Goal Differential 2.72 (last yr: 2.13) 2.29 (last yr: 2.55)

This year, the results are different: the Warriors are clearly the more dominant team, even though the Capitals have had the more dominant hottest stretch. Washington’s season doesn’t match up to where they were last year at this point. Heck, the Caps aren’t even the most remarkable team in the NHL. The Colorado Avalanche have 32 points through 54 games and own a -75 goal differential. Their two standard deviation numbers are 2.8 and 2.48 standard deviations below the mean. The Warriors’ point differential is something else. 2.72 standard deviations above the mean is the 99.67th percentile. The Avalanche’s 32 points, by the way, put them in the .0026th percentile.

For now, the Warriors are the more dominant team. But if the Capitals can keep up their torrid hot streak and continue to thumb their noses at the advanced stats, I’ll have to revisit this at the end of the year.

Stanley Cup Final Preview

Posted: 05/30/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

Tonight is game seven of the Thunder-Warriors series. I think everyone’s excited for that one. The Warriors entered as 7.5 point favorites, a number that seemed a bit high. The spread is now 6.5, which seems slightly more accurate but still (maybe) a little high. I really have no idea what’s going to happen in this game. I could see the Warriors building off the last five minutes in Oklahoma City and building a substantial — and lasting — lead over the Thunder. I could also see a huge bounce back performance from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook after a hideous end to game six and a Thunder win in Oakland. The Thunder are good enough to take another game in the Bay Area, while the Warriors are good enough to stymie the Thunder one more time. I hope it’s a close game and think it will be, which is why I’d take the 6.5 points and OKC if I had to choose. But that game isn’t the only thing going on tonight in the world of sports. It’s also game one of the Stanley Cup Final series between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins. I don’t really like the Penguins, but I must admit that I think these really are the two best teams in hockey and that the right teams made it to this point. I also think we’re headed for a competitive series.

One thing I know we’ll see in this series is speed. Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh was a pretty fast, end-to-end series, but this one is going to top it, because the Sharks have the talent to match the Penguins on both ends of the ice. In Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, and Joe Thornton, the Sharks have the top four scorers in the playoffs, each of whom are averaging at least a point per game in the 18 playoff games they have played. San Jose’s chances hinge partially on the effectiveness of their power play. In the seven playoff games in which the Sharks have failed to score a power play goal, they’re 3-4. In the other 11 games, they’re 9-2. With a first power play unit of Pavelski, Thornton, Couture, Burns, and Patrick Marleau, it’s no wonder that the Sharks led hockey with 62 power play goals in the regular season and lead the NHL with 17 in the playoffs. Is it possible that the Sharks will meet their match with Pittsburgh’s tough, skilled penalty kill? I think they can certainly slow San Jose down, much like another great penalty kill in St. Louis was able to do. The Blues held the Sharks to a 19% success rate on the power play and actually scored as many power play goals as the Sharks in their six game series loss. But here’s the thing: San Jose is far from a one-dimensional team. I actually think that their biggest strength is top defensive pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. Brent Burns is the defenseman who gets all the credit, but he’s far more of an offensive weapon than a defensive one. While Burns has been running the point of the potent power play, Vlasic and Braun have been shutting down talented opposition. Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings (31 regular season goals), Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators (33), and Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues (40), were the leading goal scorers on their respective teams in the regular season. But when they faced the Sharks in the playoffs? The trio combined for four points in 18 games, with two of the four being goals for Tarasenko after the Blues were down 4-0 in game six. So Braun and Vlasic have been magnificent, and they’ll have to be great again against a Penguins team with great individual players and one of the best individual lines (Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel) in the playoffs. The first pairing has help, of course, as Burns and Paul Martin also form a productive duo. The third pairing? That’s another story. Roman Polak (-2) and Brenden Dillon (-4) have both played more than 15 minutes per game in the postseason and are the only two players on the team who have been on the ice for more even strength goals allowed than scored. Along with the power play, a second key for the Sharks is limiting the Polak-Dillon duo to facing the fourth line as much as possible. I’d like to see their minutes slashed to 10 or so with the other four playing closer to 30 minutes per contest, because the Penguins have the depth to punish the third pairing in a way that previous opposition only began to do. Another key? The play of goaltender Martin Jones, who seemed pretty shaky in the final three games of the St. Louis series after playing tremendously through two-and-a-half rounds. Which Jones will we see throughout this series? If he’s at least adequate, the Sharks could have the advantage in the series.

The Penguins have been the hottest team in hockey for months, so I can’t say I’m all that surprised to see them in the Cup Final. Their power play, while not as good as San Jose’s, is pretty dangerous in its own right. Whenever you can put Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel together in the attacking zone, you’re going to score some goals. And the Penguins have scored 15 power play goals in the playoffs, just two fewer than the Sharks. Probably more important, though, is the penalty kill. The Penguins’ PK was tremendous against both the Rangers and the Lightning, but in between they allowed the Capitals to score five times on the man advantage at a 22% clip. That’s got to be concerning for the Pens, because the Capitals are the only team they’ve played in the playoffs who have the skill to be anywhere near as proficient on the power play as the Sharks. I think it’s fair to expect a few slips on the penalty kill, which makes it vital for the Penguins, a team that gets penalized a fair amount, to stay out of the box. When the teams are even, Crosby and Malkin need to take over. The Kessel line has been terrific, but while Crosby and Malkin have been fine in the playoffs, they aren’t quite playing at the point-per-game level they were at in the regular season. So when that dangerous third line gets stifled, as I think it will at some point in the series, it’ll be up to the superstars to match San Jose’s juggernaut first line. Much of the responsibility of keeping that line in check will fall upon defenseman Kris Letang, who doesn’t seem like a great person but is certainly a great defender. Letang, who has 22 penalty minutes in the playoffs and unpenalized plays like this one. The rest of it will fall upon a variety of defensemen and upon goalie Matt Murray. After being benched in game five of the Lightning series, a game that Tampa Bay won to go up 3-2 in the series, Murray was rightfully reinstated to the lineup in game six and ended the series with tremendous showings in games six and seven. For the Penguins to win the series, I think Murray’s going to have to outplay Jones. Luckily for Pittsburgh, there’s a very good chance of that happening, because Murray’s played better of late and because he’s probably the better goaltender in a vacuum.

This feels to me like it’s going to be a very close series, and I like the Sharks to win in seven for a number of reasons. I trust their power play, I trust their offensive depth, and I think they have better two-way defensemen. I also find it tough to believe that San Jose’s grizzled vets — Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, etc. — would get so close to hoisting the Cup before falling to a team that, while talented, has some evident holes. If I were a Penguins fan, the fact that the team was pushed to the brink of elimination by a Lightning team without its two most important players (goalie and Vezina trophy finalist Ben Bishop and top scorer Steven Stamkos) would certainly worry me. Of course, if I were a Sharks fan (which I basically am for this series), I’d be very worried about Pittsburgh’s speed (while both teams are fast, I think the Penguins are quicker and better suited to play in open games) and its talent on the top three lines. But, in the end, I just trust San Jose a little bit more, even in Pittsburgh in a potential game seven.

NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/13/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

It was a round with a lot of twists and turns, but for the most part, the second round ended about as I thought it would. The Lightning, after dropping game one at home against the Islanders, won the next four, showing again that they have the fortitude and ability to win without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. The Islanders saw some regression to the mean in terms of overtime success, dropping both of their overtime games against Tampa after winning all three in their first round series against the Panthers. In the end, career backup goalie Thomas Greiss couldn’t carry a struggling offense like he did in round one, and the Lightning won game five in style, 4-0. They’ll face the Penguins, who were responsible for my only incorrect series pick of the four. Guess what? The Washington Capitals choked AGAIN. All annoying hot takes aside, I don’t think you can really blame Washington for losing here. They might have been the best team in the league in the regular season, but they ran into a team that was simply on another level, were pegged back 3-0 in game six, and still fought back, nearly sending the series to a game seven in Washington (Pittsburgh’s 4-3 win in game six was the only competitive closeout game: Tampa won 4-0, St. Louis 6-1, and San Jose 5-0) . The fact that Alexander Ovechkin has (still) never made it past the second round is puzzling, but I think the people who are advocating a total rebuild are crazy. Make no mistake: the Capitals will be great again next year, and they’ll again have a chance to advance further into the postseason. Whether they can actually do it or not is the real question.

Meanwhile, out West I felt that the two teams that were clearly superior won their respective series’, although they were both pushed further than I thought they would be. The Blues outscored the Stars 25-14 in the series, and they were only pushed seven games because they lost an overtime game and a fluky game six in which they outshot the Stars 37-14 and still lost. For Dallas, the absence of star forward Tyler Seguin was too much to overcome, as the team’s goaltending woes, seemingly among the worst in recent playoff history, came back to haunt them. The starting goalie (Kari Lehtonen twice, Antti Niemi once) was pulled three times, and this was clearly a team with too many holes to advance deeper into the playoffs. A great season for the Stars came to a discouraging end, but this is a young team with really high potential. Finally, the Sharks finally vanquished the Predators with a dominant game seven showing, defeating Nashville 5-0 and outshooting them 23-8 in the first two periods. The veteran team outscored the Predators 25-17, overcoming two overtime losses (including a triple overtime loss) and winning all four games on their home ice. The Sharks were 8/21 on the power play and 6/11 in their wins while holding Nashville to three power play goals.

With all that said, we have a couple of fascinating matchups to look forward to, starting with game one of Penguins-Lightning tonight. Let’s start with that one, which I think has a clear favorite.

Penguins over Lightning in seven: On the surface, the fact that the Lightning have made it this far is insane, considering that they’re without their second best defender (Anton Stralman) and best player (Steven Stamkos). But is it really that surprising? This is a team that made the Stanley Cup Final last year, so the experience is there. They also have a capital-G Great playoff goalie in Ben Bishop, who has five shutouts in 35 career playoff games along with a .938 save percentage this postseason, tops among goalies still in the playoffs. The “Triplets” line that was so incredible in last year’s playoffs? Well, after a poor regular season, the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line is back, as the latter two lead the team in playoff points with 13 (four goals and nine assists for Johnson) and 12 (nine goals and three assists for Kucherov) in 10 games. How about Jonathan Drouin, the clearly-talented young forward seemingly always in coach Jon Cooper’s doghouse? In Stamkos’s absence, Drouin has nine points in the playoffs. And defensive stud Victor Hedman has added nine points in a ridiculous 27:30 minutes per playoff game. Finally, the Lightning have been able to go 8-2 because they’ve gotten two pretty easy matchups with wild card teams that slumped down the stretch. Even with Stralman and Stamkos out, the Lightning were more talented than the full-strength Detroit Red Wings and had the much better goalie than the Islanders. The Penguins are a different story.

After finishing the regular season 14-2-0, Pittsburgh hammered the Rangers in five games, outscoring them 21-10. Then they knocked off the NHL’s best regular season team, outscoring the Capitals if not necessarily outplaying them. With the Caps out, the Penguins are the favorites, with a 30-35% chance of winning it all per most betting markets. They have a hot goalie in Matt Murray and a Stanley Cup winner in Marc-Andre Fleury waiting on the bench if Murray gets cold. They’re the fastest team in the NHL, and they might be the most talented. When Evgeni Malkin is centering the third line, and when neither the Malkin nor the Sidney Crosby line is the team’s best offensive unit, you know you have a contender for the Cup. The best line right now is the Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel line, which has combined for 30 points in 11 games. The ironic thing? That second line, the one with the most chemistry on the team, is composed of three players who are all concluding their first seasons with the Penguins. Call them the “anti-Triplets.” And Pittsburgh also has terrific special teams, with a power play that is 11/40 and a PK that’s 35/42. They’re healthy, and at this point they feel like a juggernaut steamrolling to the Cup.

So why do I have the Lightning pushing it to seven games? For what it’s worth, the Lightning are 3-0 against the Pens this season. But more importantly, there’s the Stamkos/Stralman wildcard. Stralman could be back for game two or three, while Stamkos has a chance of returning later in the series. If those two guys come back full-strength, the Lightning suddenly transform into the better team. Finally, I just can’t see a scenario in which Ben Bishop doesn’t steal a couple of games. The Penguins are the rightful favorites in this series, but it could be a tougher one than the two that have preceded it because the Lightning play a speed-first game that’s very similar to Pittsburgh’s, while the Capitals and Rangers before them were more physical, a style that has proven to be a poor one against this Penguins team.

Sharks over Blues in six: These teams are both very good. But there’s a clear difference between the two: firepower. As in, the Sharks have much more of it than do the Blues. Now, you might be thinking that the Stars also had more scoring punch than St. Louis and that didn’t win them the series. But the difference between San Jose and Dallas is that the Sharks have a functional goalie. Let’s start with San Jose’s offensive prowess. The Sharks scored the second most goals in the Western Conference this season, behind only the aforementioned Stars. Their offense is powered by a ferocious power play that went 13/42 in the first two rounds, a number that probably doesn’t do the power play justice. Brent Burns might be the best power play point in the league, with a tremendous shot that netted him 75 regular season points and 15 so far in the playoffs. Logan Couture has been insane in the playoffs, with an NHL-leading 17 points, while steady, reliable Joe Thornton (36 years-old), Joe Pavelski (31), and Patrick Marleau (36) still have more than enough tricks in the bag to get the job done, especially on the man advantage. The Blues held the undermanned Stars to just two power play goals in seven games; I can’t see the Sharks scoring fewer than four or five in this series. Meanwhile, first-year starter Martin Jones has been very steady all year, with a .918 save percentage in the regular season and an identical one in the playoffs. The Stars wilted when under pressure against the Blues, something I can’t see the Sharks doing.

That’s not to say that the Blues have no chance. Any team this good and well rounded has an excellent chance at winning a series. In fact, the Blues are moderate (-130) favorites to win the series. Their calling card is a top-four defense that has to be the best one in the NHL. Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Colton Parayko, and Jay Bouwmeester have tough names to spell, but they’re forgiven because they are all amazing defenders. The Sharks are going to have to break them down every so often, which is no easy task. St. Louis probably also has the slight advantage between the pipes, with the much-maligned Brian Elliot playing excellently all season and especially in the playoffs. And they have a good group of forwards, led by sniper Vladimir Tarasenko and captain David Backes. This is a team that has been gritty and resilient for 14 games now, and winning back-to-back seven games series is no small feat. Can they do it a third time, though? It’s certainly possible, but the well-rounded Sharks are certainly a different animal than the comparatively-tame Stars.

NHL Round Two Preview — Western Conference

Posted: 04/29/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

Well, the first game of the wildly hyped Capitals-Penguins game was… interesting. It was definitely an exciting game, with the Capitals winning 4-3 in overtime on T.J. Oshie’s third goal. While it was an entertaining game, it wasn’t particularly well-played, which isn’t what I would have expected from these two teams. But guess what? Who cares! As long as the games are interesting, I’m happy. In fact, the most well-played games are often also the least fun. So let’s hope that these second round games are interesting and not necessarily mistake-free.

St. Louis Blues over Dallas Stars in six: I didn’t watch much of either of these teams this season. I see that the Stars picked up a West-best 109 points while the Blues were just two points behind, but that doesn’t really tell me anything. I did watch a lot of each team’s first round series, and from that there’s no conclusion I can make but that the Blues are the better hockey team. The Stars were playing a Minnesota Wild team that had lost its last five games in the regular season and was without top goal scorer Zach Parise. In game one, it looked as if they had folded already, as the Stars coasted to a 4-0 win. They went up 2-0 in the series and 2-0 in game three, and the series looked to be over. But then the Stars let the Wild back into the series, dropping game three and barely taking game four. Then, the Stars gave up a goal at home to Mikko Koivu with about three minutes left in game five, tying the game 4-4 and sending it to overtime, where Koivu sent the series back to Minnesota with another goal. The Stars went up 4-0 after two periods in Minnesota… and almost blew it, winning just 5-4. My point? If the Stars were barely able to put a shorthanded team like Minnesota (a team, by the way, which fired its coach in the middle of the season) away, how will they do?

There’s no question that Dallas has a prolific offense. They led the league in goals this year and put 21 goals past Minnesota in six games even though point-per-game scorer Tyler Seguin, the team’s second leading scorer, was out with an injuring. Jamie Benn was the NHL’s second leading scorer this year, and he backed up his play in round one with 10 points in six games. Although not the flashy star that Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane is, Benn is one of the best players in the NHL. Jason Spezza and ex-Blackhawk Patrick Sharp both have a ton of experience and skill, and they scored 13 combined points in the first round. Assuming Seguin comes back at some point this series, there isn’t a group of forwards I would fear more than Dallas’s… But then there’s the defense, which is clearly inferior to St. Louis’s, and, more to the point, the goalie, Kari Lehtonen. Lehtonen is nothing more than an average goalie, and he’s been downright awful in his limited playoff experience before this year. Already, he’s been benched once, after his first loss of the postseason. The problem is that backup Antti Niemi isn’t any better, as he was the Sharks’ goalie as San Jose shrunk in the spotlight year after year. Niemi has a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, but even then he wasn’t a great goalkeeper. The Stars clearly aren’t confident in either of their goalies, which is often a recipe for disaster in the playoffs.

One could argue that the Blues, too, made their first round matchup harder than it had to be. Indeed, St. Louis coughed up a two game series lead and a two goal lead in game seven before finally pulling it out. But the Blues weren’t playing the Wild; they were playing the Blackhawks. Given their postseason history, it showed a lot of mental toughness to win that game seven, and that toughness, along with St. Louis’s talent, should serve them well in what could be a high-scoring series. Goalie Brian Elliot isn’t Carey Price, but he’s far better than whomever the Stars will throw out in goal. His .930 regular season save percentage dwarfed both Lehtonen’s and Niemi’s, and Elliot came up clutch against the Blackhawks. He also has a much better defense in front of him than Lehtonen will. The Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester top-four is excellent, and all four of those guys has been playing 20+ minutes per game in the playoffs (Pietrangelo is at 30:33). The Blues allowed the fourth fewest goals in the league this season, and they should be up to the task, given that they allowed just six goals in four regular season matchups, three of which were Blues wins. If this team has a weakness, it’s a lack of firepower aside from sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored 40 goals this season and added four more in the first round. But they always seem to get contributions from lesser players when necessary, and I expect them to get a lot of offense from their defense, as they often did this season.

In the end, the question is simple: which team do I trust more in a close game? The Stars will have a few offensive outbursts, but I don’t think they’re tough enough to consistently close out games against the Blues, which is why I’ll take St. Louis in six games.

San Jose Sharks over Nashville Predators in five: Even though the games were late on the East Coast, I watched a lot of San Jose’s series against the Los Angeles Kings, and I was very impressed. Consider that the Sharks last made the playoffs two years ago, and consider that they took a 3-0 series lead against, you guessed it, the LA Kings. Now consider that they blew their lead in horrific fashion, dropping the final four games by at least three goals. With that in mind, I was skeptical of the Sharks’ chances when they were matched up with the Kings, a team that scored four more points than they did and more importantly a team with a lot more postseason success. But I watched the series, and I’m happy I did, because it was some fantastic hockey. The Sharks won the series in five games, but the first four games were all decided by a single goal. Coming out of the series, I still think the Kings were a good team this year… but the Sharks are clearly better. There’s something about this team that’s just different than previous Sharks teams. Goalie Martin Jones, who allowed just 2.18 goals per game in the first round against his ex-team, might be part of it. Has Jones learned something from his ex-mentor, Mr. Postseason Jonathan Quick? In past years, Anti Niemi (not to keep bringing him up) often let the Sharks down in the playoffs. I’m confident that Jones is readier for primetime than his predecessor was. Then there’s the offense, which looks pretty good too. Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Marleau are all battle-tested, and they’re all desperate for playoff success. Logan Couture had a disappointing season, but he always has had the ability to put the puck in the net. And then there’s defenseman Brent Burns, who has a ferocious beard and a ferocious shot, which might be why he scored 27 goals this season as a defender and two more in the first round. There’s something about this team, and especially the core of the team, that I just trust. They didn’t bat an eye against a powerful team like the Kings, and I don’t expect them to blink against a frankly overmatched Nashville team.

The Predators go as Pekka Rinne goes. Shea Weber and Roman Josi are both great defenders, but outside of those two, Rinne is about all the Preds have. The Predators are surely tired and bruised after a long, trying series against the Anaheim Ducks. Rinne won them the series with outstanding performances in games six and seven, and he’s going to need to do the same over the course of an entire series against an even better team than the one they just beat. Can Rinne win them the series? Of course he can. Although he slumped down the stretch, he has the talent to pull off a Michal Neuvirth-esque stretch against the Sharks. But the odds are certainly against Rinne and the Predators, and I like San Jose’s chances. I think they’ll win this series in an easier-than-expected five games.