Archive for the ‘Hockey’ Category

Stanley Cup Final Preview

Posted: 05/28/2018 by levcohen in Hockey

The Stanley Cup Final is set, and it’s a bizarre one: it’s the Vegas Golden Knights against the Washington Capitals. It would have been difficult to predict either of these teams making it this far before the playoffs started. First of all, there’s the fact that neither of these teams were among the best in hockey during the regular season. Sure, both teams won their respective divisions, although there were four teams that finished with higher point totals than either of them. But the advanced stats told a different story. The Capitals finished eighth-lowest in hockey in 5-on-5 Corsi For % (total shots for, including missed shots) and last in chances categorized as high-danger (just 45.08%). They relied heavily upon their power play, which is generally bad news heading into the playoffs given that penalties are called at a lower rate in the postseason. The Knights, meanwhile, were slightly above-average in 5-on-5 Corsi For % and middle of the road in high-danger chances for. They leaned on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. My thought was that, when facing stronger teams like Tampa Bay and Winnipeg (both of whom are at least as talented and had much better regular seasons), Washington and Vegas would not have enough firepower. I was wrong. They both won, but for different reasons. For the third straight series, the Capitals flat-out outplayed their opponents. They took more shots than the Lightning, they dominated play throughout, and they deserved to win. There’s reason to believe that the Capitals are simply a better team now than they were during the regular season, because this is the third straight time that they’ve vastly outperformed any regular season-based prediction. Columbus, Pittsburgh, and especially Tampa Bay were all stronger regular season teams from a chances perspective, but Washington out-chanced all three. As for Vegas, the Golden Knights won the same way they’ve been winning all year. After a four goal Winnipeg barrage in Game One, Fleury gave up just six goals on 135 shots. Winnipeg, a stronger all-around team, out-shot Vegas throughout the series, but the combination of Fleury and the outstanding Vegas first line proved to be too much for the Jets to overcome. In the end, the Knights closed out the series in just five games.

Anyway, the teams’ underlying metrics is the first reason that it’s a surprise that this is the Stanley Cup Final. The second is their histories — or, for Vegas, lack thereof. Everyone recognizes how incredible it is that this Vegas team, led by a bunch of castoffs, has made it this far in their inaugural year. It’s unprecedented. But how about the Capitals? The team that, despite stringing together dominant regular season after dominant regular season, had not gotten out of the second round during the Alex Ovechkin era? It’s pretty crazy that they’ve broken through this year, after their weakest regular season in years.

We know that there’s going to be a first-time winner of the Stanley Cup. But which team will it be?

It’s long past time to think of the Golden Knights as the plucky underdogs. Sure, the fact that Nate Schmidt, Vegas’s top defenseman, was Washington’s #7 d-man last year plays nicely into that storyline. But Schmidt is a talented player who clearly would fit on a top or second pairing on any team in the league right now. He caused countless Winnipeg turnovers and was a leading reason that Mark Scheifele, who still leads the playoffs in goals, was held pointless in the last two games of the series. With that being said, if there’s anywhere that the Capitals have a real edge, it’s at the blue line. That’s because the Capitals have three workhorse defensemen that have been terrific all season. Sometimes, it’s not just about how many good players you have but how you distribute time on ice. Just ask Tampa’s Jon Cooper, who felt a need to match his fourth line with Washington’s first and thus ended up playing the listless Paquette line about as much as he did the dynamic Johnson line. Washington knows who its top three defensemen are. John Carlson (the point man on the devastating first power play unit), Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov all have played between 24:30-26:00 minutes per game in the playoffs. Schmidt is probably as good as any of those three defensemen, but Vegas doesn’t quite have the same defensive depth. But while my gut says that the Capitals have a more dynamic group of defensemen, the Golden Knights have gotten eight goals from their defensemen in 15 playoff games, while Washington has gotten seven in 19. I still think the Caps have been better at protecting their goalkeeper and preventing shots, and the fact that they shut the Lightning out in the final two games of the series is super impressive.

All year, the conventional wisdom about the Knights has been that they have a lot of depth offensively and win by playing all four lines. I subscribed to that theory earlier on the in playoffs, and I still do think Vegas gets a lot from the Eakin and Bellemare lines. But for scoring the Knights rely heavily upon their first line — and what a first line it is. It’s been great all season: there’s a reason that William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault finished 1-2 in the league in +/- this season, with Reilly Smith not too far behind. And Marchessault especially has been tremendous in the playoffs. He’s the main non-Fleury reason that the Knights were able to turn around the Winnipeg series after the disheartening Game One loss. He bagged a pair of goals in Game Two and two more in Game Three, although one of those was an empty-netter. He also brought the type of unquantifiable energy and sense of urgency that the Knights needed to counter Winnipeg’s offensive flurries. He, Smith, and Karlsson have 18, 16, and 13 points in 15 playoff games, and most of them are at even-strength. Nobody’s found a way to bottle them up. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Caps counter Vegas’s first line with their own first line or with the Backstrom line, which they’ve used against top offensive units in the past. Based on the way they played the Penguins, when Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby saw a lot of each other, I think there’s a good chance we see a lot of Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith against Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson. That’s pretty exciting given how much offensive firepower each unit has. Kuznetsov (24 points) and Ovechkin (22) are the two leading scorers in the playoffs. It’s hard to imagine any line getting the best of the Karlsson line, but the Capitals probably have more forward depth than the Knights do. Outside of the top line, the forwards to watch for Vegas are Erik Haula and James Neal, who combine with Alex Tuch to form the second line. Haula and Neal scored 29 and 25 regular season goals respectively, serving as terrific secondary scorers. But they have just seven combined playoff goals as Tuch (six goals, 15 total in the regular season) has taken on more of the scoring load. In the Final, the Knights are surely going to need more from Haula and Neal, because Washington proved against Tampa Bay that they can get goals not only from their first two lines (among which their top four offensive players are spread evenly) but also from tertiary players like Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Devante Smith-Pelly.

don’t think either team is going to stifle the other’s top line, which means a lot is going to depend on goalkeeping (duh). There’s no question that the Knights hold the edge there, because Fleury has looked almost unbeatable all year long and especially in the playoffs. He’s seeking to become the second goalie ever (Jonathan Quick was the first) to post a save percentage north of .930 in every round of the playoffs. Overall, he’s been a .947 goalie in the playoffs after he was a .927 goalie in the regular season. Braden Holtby (.924) has been pretty darn good himself and is coming off of consecutive shutouts to end the Tampa Bay series. His reputation as a mediocre playoff goalie has come mainly from one really bad series against the Penguins and is fully undeserved. He’s playing well enough that it would take only a slight slip from Fleury to even up the goalie matchup. But the Knights obviously have to feel pretty good about any goalie matchup when they have this version of Marc-Andre Fleury in goal.

Here are some other things to keep an eye on:

  • Is fatigue a factor for the Capitals? Washington has played four more games than Vegas, which could be especially important given that they have three defensemen who play big minutes. They’ve gotten four days between the end of the Tampa series and Game One in Las Vegas, so they should be fine. But it’s definitely something to keep an eye on. It’s hard to say exactly how much Winnipeg’s fatigue (they were coming off of a draining seven game series against Nashville) played into their loss to Vegas, but I’d wager that the answer is at least a little.
  • This is always important, but especially so in this series: special teams. I said earlier that usually there are fewer power play opportunities in the playoffs because refs let some things go. That hasn’t been the case for either of these teams. Vegas has gotten 3.4 power play opportunities per game, up from 3.02 in the regular season. Washington is up from 2.98 to 3.1. The Golden Knights have been surprisingly ineffective — 17.6% — on their power plays this postseason. The impulse is to focus mainly on Washington’s power play, and for good reason. They have a star-studded first power play unit, with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstom, Oshie, and Carlson. And they’ve scored 17 power play goals in the playoffs, good for a 28.8% success rate. The matchup of that unit against Fleury is mouth-watering, and we’re likely to see a lot of it, because Vegas has been pretty undisciplined in the playoffs. But Washington’s penalty kill has actually been leaky (75.4% in the playoffs), which is why I think it’s likely that Vegas’s power play will get on track at some point. Washington likely needs to have the edge on the power play to win this series. They should, but maybe not by as much as people think.
  • Does home ice matter at all? Vegas has the advantage, and they’ve been great at home all season. They’re 6-1 at home in the playoffs (and 6-2 on the road). But Washington’s been tremendous on the road on the playoffs. They’re 8-2 away from DC and just 4-5 on their home ice. It seems like home ice should have some impact, but I’m operating under the assumption that it won’t just because it really hasn’t seemed to in the playoffs.
  • How effective is Vegas’s forechecking? In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the answer was very. But despite all their rest they looked to have worn down a little by the Winnipeg series, and the Jets were able to take advantage by doing some forechecking of their own. The Knights — especially their bottom two lines — try to take advantage of their size and speed, but if their forechecking is ineffective their bottom two lines could get exposed on the other end against the Capitals.
  • It’s really interesting to watch the differences in goalie styles. They’re both tremendous players who are great at tracking and saving pucks, but Fleury is fluid, aggressive, and smooth while Holtby is almost robotic in net. I think the simplest way to put is it that Fleury is more likely to make an outstanding, acrobatic save, but he’s also more likely to be out of position and let an easy one go in.

This is a really tough one to call. Vegas has been consistent all year long and is 12-3 in the playoffs. They likely have the goalie edge and also have an exceptional first line. But I’m reticent to put too much stock in the goalie advantage, because it can dissipate or even flip on a dime. And the Capitals are a slightly deeper team both offensively and defensively. They also have Alex Ovechkin, who’s shot is a true difference-maker. I’m picking the Caps in in what seems sure to be a tight series. Knowing how these things go, though, it’s probably going to be over in five games.


NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/11/2018 by levcohen in Hockey

Tampa Bay, Washington, Winnipeg, Las Vegas. Not exactly the first cities that come to mind when you think hockey, but the last four teams alive nonetheless. I went 4-for-4 on my picks last round and was two games away from perfection (I had Vegas in 7 and Winnipeg in 6, and it ended up being Vegas in 6 and Winnipeg in 7). I can’t promise that I’ll do as well with these picks, but I do think we’re in for two exciting series’, albeit with a clear (yet only moderate) favorite in each.

Tampa Bay Lightning over Washington Capitals in 7: The Capitals finally beat the Penguins and advanced to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in the Alexander Ovechkin era. And they deserved to win the series, as they thoroughly outplayed a tired, flawed, and banged-up Pittsburgh team. Their reward? A date with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that I have believed all year to be the strongest in the NHL. The Lightning have it all. They have a high scoring top line led by sniper Steven Stamkos and the highly skilled Nikita Kucherov, who scored 100 points during the season and has 12 in 10 playoff games. They have depth and skill and can roll four lines all game long, with playoff mainstays Chris Kunitz (the ex-Penguin) and Ryan Callahan (ex-Ranger) on the fourth line. They have three stud defensemen — Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman — and a skilled goalie getting hot at the right time after slumping near the end of the season.

The Capitals aren’t too shabby themselves. In fact, I think these teams have some clear similarities. It remains to be seen how they shuffle their lines with Nick Backstrom likely out in Game One, but Washington, too, probably has a top line with a pure sniper (Alex Ovechkin) and a second super skilled scorer (Evgeny Kuznetsov). They don’t have as much depth with Backstrom out, which I think is one big advantage for the Lightning. But they’re lethal on the power play, with John Carlson running the point on a unit with Ovechkin, goal-crasher/screener extraordinaire T.J. Oshie, Backstrom (if and when he returns), and Kuznetsov. They too have three horses defensively, all of whom are very experienced. Carlson is a nine year vet with 10 power play points in the playoffs. Dmitry Orlov is in his sixth season, while Matt Niskanen is in his 11th. This is an experienced team overall, with a lot of returnees from previous playoff teams. But Jakub Vrana, a speedy 22-year-old, is a new face who’s added a big boost to Washington’s offense. And the biggest difference between Washington’s previous playoff appearances and this one is that Braden Holtby is playing tremendously well this time. It appears that Holtby’s regular season struggles have actually helped him stay rested and focused in the playoffs, to the point that I think he can be expected to match Andrei Vasilevskiy save for save. The difference is that Tampa’s netminder has a deeper and better team in front of him. I was really impressed with the way the Lightning played defensively against the talented Boston Bruins in the second round. They gave up seven total goals in the last four games of the series, and only two of those were even strength goals (both in Game Two). So they haven’t given up an even strength goal in the last three games but have been vulnerable on the penalty kill, which sets up an interesting matchup with Washington’s dangerous power play. I think that if the Lightning play clean and stay clear of the penalty box for the most part, they should win this series. But these teams are too evenly matched for it not to go six or seven games.

Winnipeg Jets over Vegas Golden Knights in 6: The Winnipeg-Nashville showdown was the best series of the second round, the only one that went seven games. And that shouldn’t have been a surprise given that it was a matchup between the two best regular season teams in hockey. I hadn’t seen all that much of the Jets before the playoffs started, and I was so impressed by their Round One performance that it spurred me to pick them to beat the mighty Predators in Round Two. And boy were they impressive in that series. They won three games in Nashville and chased Pekka Rinne each time (including within a record 10:31 in Game Seven). They scored 27 goals in the series, led by Mark Scheifele’s seven. I love the way they play, with fierce, aggressive forechecking and the freedom that comes from full belief in their goalie. And boy has their goalie ever been impressive. Connor Hellebuyck has a cool name, and he’s also been a .927 goalie in the playoffs. That makes him the second best goalie in the series, though, as the Jets will have to solve the puzzle that is Conn Smythe favorite Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury’s given up 17 total goals in 10 playoff games and has a .951 save percentage. He’s been Vegas’s best player, and the most dominant player in the playoffs period. If the Golden Knights end this magical inaugural season with a Stanley Cup, you can be sure that Fleury will be the biggest reason why. But Winnipeg destroyed Pekka Rinne, a pretty darn good goalie himself, and I think they’ll score some goals against Vegas. They’ve been so good already and can still expect more from guys like Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Nicholaj Ehlers, who combined for 104 regular season goals but have just five total in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The onus, then, will be on Vegas’s forwards (and I say their forwards because they don’t get much scoring from their defensemen. They have no Dustin Byfuglien). Just like in the regular season, Vegas’s top line has shined in the playoffs. Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith have combined for 32 points and are the only three Vegas players with more than seven points in their 10 playoff games. The second line (featuring ex-Penguin James Neal, David Perron, and Eric Haula) has also been fairly productive, but Vegas is unlikely to get much scoring from their bottom two lines. The Eakin and Bellemare lines are both strong in their own ways — the third line is quick and has great forecheckers while the fourth line is very good defensively — but doesn’t have the scoring punch of, say, a Bryan Little or Matthieu Perreault (two-thirds of Winnipeg’s third line). Vegas is strong all-around defensively, and they’re used to grinding out low-scoring victories in front of Fleury. And they did manage 3+ goals in five of the six games against the Sharks, who are pretty strong defensively themselves. Vegas scored five fewer goals than Winnipeg all season, so I’m not going to pretend that there’s a big gap between the two. And it could well be that Fleury’s run will continue this round. As we all know, there’s no bigger differentiator in the playoffs than a hot goalie. That’s why I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Vegas moves on to the Stanley Cup final. But I’m going to pick the team that I think is stronger all-around, and that’s the Winnipeg Jets.

NHL Round Two Picks

Posted: 04/26/2018 by levcohen in Hockey

The first round of the NHL playoffs underwhelmed a little bit. There were a historic number of blowouts and just one series that went the full seven games. The NHL is supposed to be the league with the craziest, tensest, most upset-happy playoffs. So far, that hasn’t been the case this year. The only worse-seeded team to win a series was the San Jose Sharks, who finished with exactly one fewer point than the Anaheim Ducks and were favored by advanced stats sites coming in. But while the first round disappointed, the end result going forward may be more excitement. The better teams advanced, and we have some close Round Two matchups (no team is more than a -145 favorite or a +125 underdog) and juicy storylines: can Washington finally knock off Pittsburgh?; Can Vegas keep winning?; Who wins Nashville-Winnipeg, a series between the two best regular season teams in Hockey?; Will Tuukka Rask bounce back after a poor first round showing?

After not watching much of most of these teams all season, I saw enough of them in Round One to feel fine about previewing the second round. With that being said, I’ll start with the series whose participants I saw least of.

Vegas Golden Knights over San Jose Sharks in 7: There are two big reasons that I didn’t see much of either team’s Round One series win. The first is that they play on the West Coast and therefore start very late. The second is that they both played just four games in the first round, sweeping away their opponents. The name of the game in Round One for both teams was goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury gave up three goals on 130 shots in four games for a .977 save percentage. Martin Jones conceded four goals on 132 shots, good for a .970 save percentage. These two defenses were the stingiest of the first round in terms of goals allowed, but that wasn’t the case when it came to shot prevention: San Jose and Vegas allowed the third and seventh most total shots per 60 minutes. Of course, not all shots are created equal, and 46 of the shots on goal against Jones came in a game that was out of reach throughout (and ended 8-1 in San Jose’s favor). Vegas, on the other hand, got outshot in three out of four games and won each game by a single goal. But the main point is that the first round defensive performances by each team were unsustainable and that we should expect some more goals in this one.

Vegas has relied heavily upon its top line for scoring all year, and that remains the case now. William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault are the team’s two most skilled offensive players and are both prolific scorers. They’ll likely be seeing a lot of Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose’s excellent top defensive pair. According to Corsica’s advanced player ratings, a compilation of advanced stats, Burns is the best defenseman in the NHL. He was also the team’s leading scorer in the regular season with 67 points and is one of the best point men on the power play in the league. San Jose disappointed on the power play in the regular season but scored six times on 20 power play opportunities against Anaheim, a sign that they may be coming together. They’re also a very different team with Evander Kane, who they got from Buffalo late in the season. Kane scored nine goals in 17 games with the Sharks and netted three in the first round. He slots in as the left winger on a first line that also has Joe Pavelski and do-it-all right winger Joonas Donskoi. They then have Logan Couture centering the second line, so this team definitely has firepower. Couture had his struggles this year, but still led the team with 34 goals. He seemed to be rounding into form heading into the playoffs — seven goals and five assists in his last 13 games — and added five points in the first round.

There’s no doubt that Vegas was the better team in the regular season. They’re also stronger where it matters most, as Marc-Andre Fleury has dominated all year and would be the Vezina Trophy winner had he played enough games. They roll four lines and are a quick, skilled team. Based on their first round performance, though, I still don’t think they’re quite as good as the point total or the first round sweep would indicate. They now get a tough second round matchup against a team that matches up well with their first line and tightened the screws in the first round. I think these are two evenly matched teams and that this series will come down to the wire. Both of these teams struggled a little bit down the stretch, more evidence that performance at the end of the regular season has very little correlation with performance in the playoffs. I’m going to take Vegas in 7 because I have slightly more confidence in their goalie and their top-end talent has been more productive all year. I do think the Pavelski and Couture lines can punish their defense, though.

Winnipeg Jets over Nashville Predators in 6: I know that Nashville’s been the best team in hockey this year. I know that they and the Lightning are co-favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Anyone who tuned in to the playoffs last year, when Nashville announced its arrival, knows how good this team is. They have two dominant defensive pairings — Josi-Ellis and Subban-Ekholm — and three rock solid lines. It was their third line, actually, that led the way in the first round, with Sissons-Bonino-Watson providing nine goals (all of which were even strength). It took them six games to knock off the undermanned Colorado Avalanche, but they were clearly in control throughout. Nashville was one of the most impressive teams I saw in the first round.

The problem is that Winnipeg, a team I barely saw during the regular season, was hands-down the most impressive. Next to Vegas, this team has been the biggest surprise in hockey. I think that the reputation of Winnipeg over the last few years — physical, undisciplined, unskilled — is outdated. Sure, they still have physical (and sometimes dirty) players. Dustin Byfuglien and 6’8″ menace Tyler Myers count there. But Winnipeg was way down at tied for eighth in most minor penalties taken and took just eight majors for fighting, tied for fewest in the league. Nashville, meanwhile, took the most minor penalties and 20 major penalties. Physical? Yes. Undisciplined? Not so much. But it’s the skill level that’s really changed in Winnipeg. Patrik Laine, the #2 pick in what will forever be known as the Auston Matthews draft, may have the scariest slap-shot of anyone not named Alex Ovechkin. He scored 44 goals this year after scoring 36 last season. And Laine is the right winger on the second line. The first line right winger? That’s Blake Wheeler, who’s been Winnipeg’s best offensive player for years and who broke out to the tune of 91 points (including 40 on the power play) this season. I think the Jets can really take advantage on the power play. They were the fifth best power play team in the league this year, and they roll out Wheeler, Laine, Byfuglien, Paul Stastny, and Mark Scheifele on their first unit. That’s a lot of firepower, and Winnipeg figures to get a lot of time on the power play.

These two teams played five times during the regular season and scored a combined 41 goals. So it’d probably be easy to forget that two of the three Vezina Trophy candidates will be playing in this series. Everyone knows who Pekka Rinne is, and the 35-year-old had one of his best statistical seasons this year. But the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck, who’s all of 24 and had flashed last season, was the league’s breakout star goaltender. His .924 save percentage was just a few points off of Rinne’s, and he won 44 games, tied for most in hockey. Now, he gave up 19 goals against Nashville (.882 saver percentage) in four-and-change games, so he still has a lot to prove. But he’s coming off back-to-back shutouts to close off the Minnesota Wild, so it doesn’t seem like he’s losing steam.

In terms of overall roster talent, I think Nashville’s better. But I promised myself after seeing Winnipeg’s utter domination of Minnesota (they really controlled the shots and pace of play) that I would pick them to win in the second round. Rinne struggled a bit in the first round, and I think people are penciling the Predators into the Stanley Cup Final a little too quickly. Winnipeg will hold serve at home, where they led the league with a 32-7-2 record, and steal one in Nashville.

Washington Capitals over Pittsburgh Penguins in 6: This is such a familiar series that I don’t even know what to say. This is the third straight time that these two teams have played in the second round. It’s Sid vs. Ovi. For the third straight year, the Capitals enter the series with home ice advantage over the Penguins. And yet, the Penguins are small favorites. Why? Because the Caps just haven’t been able to knock off Pittsburgh. Amazingly, in all five of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup years (1991, 1992, 2009, 2016, 2017), the Penguins have gone through Washington. The Penguins are 9-1 in playoff series’ against the Capitals.

Washington is not as good this year as they were the past two years, when they had really dominant hockey teams. Their 105 points were 13 fewer than last year and 15 fewer than the season before, and they dropped two games to Columbus in the first round before storming back to win the next four. The Capitals have been contenders for most of Alex Ovechkin’s career, but they’ve never even made the Conference Finals. I think that’ll change this year. The Capitals lost Marcus Johansson last year, but besides that the core is basically the same. A big reason they regressed this year was a shockingly bad season from goalie Braden Holtby, who actually got benched down the stretch. The good news: Holtby stormed back against Columbus, posting a .932 save percentage in four starts and a relief appearance. The bad news: he’s been good before leading into a Pittsburgh series and it hasn’t really carried over. But I think it’s safe to assume that Holtby is pretty much back to normal after an anomalous year, which means that Washington looks well-suited to advance deep into the playoffs. Of course, that means they’re in the exact same position as they have been over the last few years (albeit with less public pressure, I think). We know that this is a good hockey team. The problem is that the Penguins have always been able to reach a higher level in the playoffs than Ovi’s Caps have. This year, I’m not convinced that’s true.

On paper, Pittsburgh beat the Flyers pretty convincingly in the first round. And they did in fact score at least five goals in all four wins. But they showed serious defensive issues even against an inferior opponent — heck, they got torn up by Sean Couturier, who was playing on a torn MCL. That continues a trend we saw during the regular season, when the Penguins gave up 250 goals, most of any playoff team. I think that Pittsburgh’s defense is the weakest unit in the playoffs. They rely heavily upon Kris Letang, who’s good but injury prone. They clearly have no confidence in their third defensive pair. And much like Holtby, Matt Murray has taken a big step back this year, except that he hasn’t been as good in the playoffs as Holtby. Another big red flag for Pittsburgh: injuries. While the Capitals come into this series close to full strength, the Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, a star player and a third line winger, at least early on in the series. The loss of Malkin is really big, obviously. It may not matter if Sidney Crosby keeps playing the way he did in the first round, but the law of averages suggest that he probably won’t keep putting up 2+ points per game (even though he’s Sidney Crosby). I think Washington’s deeper, better defensively, and at least as good at goalie. And Pittsburgh’s injuries and defensive issues may keep them from reaching the gear that’s lifted them over the Capitals twice in a row.

Tampa Bay Lightning over Boston Bruins in 5: Boston is not a team that should be taken lightly. It took them seven games to see off the Maple Leafs, but they did. They beat Tampa Bay three out of four times and went 35-10-7 in their last 52 games. They showed all kinds of offensive explosiveness against the Maple Leafs in what was an open, fast-paced series. Had they figured out how to stop Toronto’s stretch passes from their own zone, they would have won the series with more breathing room, because they really did outplay the Maple Leafs. Sure, Tuukka Rask had some tough games, but he’s Tuukka Rask. He’ll bounce back. The problem is that Boston is now running into a Tampa Bay team that I think is the best in hockey. They certainly were over the course of the first half of the season. They ran out of steam a little bit down the stretch, going 25-15-3 in their final 43 games. That was most true of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who admitted that he was tired down the stretch. I saw everything I needed to see in the first round. Vasilevskiy had a .941 save percentage in the first round, and Tampa scored 18 goals in five games. Boston’s obviously a tougher matchup than New Jersey was, but I don’t see how they’re going to stop the Stamkos line. If Boston wins, it’ll probably be because of its special teams. The Lightning were the third best power play team this year while Boston was the third best penalty kill team. Boston was fourth on the power play, but Tampa was just 27th on the penalty kill. And the Bruins’ power play looked mighty en route to seven goals in the first round. Still, Tampa Bay is much deeper, is rested and comfortable, and has home ice, so I’m pretty confident that they’ll win this series.

Common sense says that if you put together a team full of players that their last teams didn’t want, then add a bunch of young draft picks, the results won’t be good. Usually, winning teams have a combination of talent and low roster turnover. The LeBron-led Heat and the Spurs are good examples of the extremes within that continuum, but the Heat couldn’t win before their stars became familiar with each other, while the Spurs couldn’t have won without having Hall-of-Fame talent. Expansion teams have none of that. As I alluded to before, they’re a mishmash of the best unwanted players from each existing team. Each league does its expansion drafts differently, but in the NHL, each team was allowed to protect approximately seven forwards, four defensemen, and a goalie for the 2017 expansion draft. That means that the new team, the Vegas Golden Knights, ended up with mainly third and fourth line players, third pair defensemen, and talented but overpriced players who were left unprotected for cap reasons. They did get an above average goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury, because the Penguins had two good goalies under team contract and decided to protect Matt Murray, the younger one (and also the established #1 goalie. It was a no-brainer). During and after the draft, the Knights made it clear that their immediate goal was to get as much draft capital as possible. They got a couple of first round picks and future third and fourth rounders in exchange for not selecting players that other teams wanted to keep. After the expansion draft, they traded five of their 30 selections for two second rounders, a third rounder, a fifth rounder, and a sixth rounder, most in future drafts. The result was that they made three picks in the top-15 of the 2017 NHL draft and 12 total, making it clear to everyone that they were trying to build a team that could contend three or four years down the road.

That was reflected in the preseason odds. Their over/under win total was set at 26.5, lowest in the league by three games. Their point total was set at 68.5, lowest by four points. They were +900 to make the playoffs and -1600 to miss the playoffs. And they were +3300 to win the Pacific Division. I’ve waited a long time to write this post, waiting and waiting and waiting some more for what I thought was the inevitable collapse. But 58 games into the season, the collapse hasn’t come, and it’s become clear that it isn’t coming. The Knights have 82 points, most in the NHL. They lead their division by 10 points and have been nearly unbeatable (22-4-2) on their home ice. At the beginning of the year, they were underdogs at home. Now, it’s a steal to get them at odds below -200 in Las Vegas. Most shockingly of all, they’re +600 to win the Stanley Cup, making them joint-favorites with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Do I think they’re going to win the Cup? No, I don’t, and there are a handful of other teams I think are more likely to do it. But the fact is that, two-thirds of the way through the season, the Knights have been the best team in hockey. And they’re a near shoo-in to win their division, which they supposedly had a 2.9% chance of doing (that’s the implied probability of the +3300). This is the biggest shock in a regular season in American sports in years. But to get a clearer grasp on just how improbable it is, let’s go through the history of previous expansion teams.

Since 1980, the NHL has added 10 teams, the NBA eight, the NFL three, and MLB four. That’s 24 teams who have had an expansion draft and then a full first year. It’s clear from this sample that it’s been easiest for NHL teams to achieve immediate success. Before Vegas, the 1993-94 Florida Panthers were the expansion team that played best in its first year. They went 33-34 with 17 ties, good for 83 points. In a league with 26 teams, they had the 16th-most points. Two years later, they made the Stanley Cup Finals, but they were swept by the Avalanche and have had very little success since. Those Panthers were the only expansion team that didn’t have a bottom-10 record in their initial season. The same year, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks went 33-46-5, good for 71 points (tied for 20th in the league). In 2000-01, the Columbus Blue Jackets went 28-39-9 (ties)-6 (overtime losses), good for 71 points (tied for 22nd in a 30 team league). And in the 1995 NFL season, the Carolina Panthers, riding a surprisingly good defense and suffering through some horrible performances by rookie QB Kerry Collins (sub-50% completion, 14 TDs, 19 INTs), went 7-9. These are the success stories of professional teams in their first years after expansion. These four somehow managed to lift themselves above the bottom tier of teams in their leagues. The other 20 teams ended their initial year in the bottom-five. In total, the 24 teams won 28.5% of their games. And there were some truly horrendous seasons. The Senators went 10-70-4, the Sharks went 17-58-5, the Thrashers went 14-57-7-4, all eight basketball teams won between 15 and 22 games, the two NFL expansion teams not named the Panthers went 4-12, and all four baseball teams lost between 95 and 99 games. It goes without saying that not a single one of those 24 teams was close to making the playoffs.

It was with this history in mind that I kept expecting the bottom to fall out of Vegas’s inaugural season. I thought their 15-9-1 start was a mirage. It turns out that it was, just not in the way I thought — they’re 24-6-3 since. This team started the year as just a cute feel-good story, with a powerful home opener that came a little more than a week after the Vegas shooting. It’s become far more, a force off the ice that has pulled the Las Vegas community together and on it that has dominated its own division to a tune of a 14-1-1 record. Fleury has become the team’s leader, and he’s putting up stats to match his stature. His .932 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average are easily the best marks of his career, and he’s 19-6-2. But the fact that the team barely lost a beat when Fleury got hurt early in the year (and the fact that they are where they are despite playing five goalies on the season) shows how resilient this team is. And some of the individual stories are incredible. The Blue Jackets gave the Knights a first round pick and a second round pick just to make them take William Karlsson, a forward coming off 20 and 25 point seasons, in the expansion draft. Karlsson has responded by scoring 30 goals in 58 games, catapulting him into a tie for fourth in the NHL. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith to the Knights in exchange for Vegas selecting Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft. Marchessault and Smith are Karlsson’s wingers on the first line and are first and third on the team in points with 58 and 51 respectively. Oh, and that unheralded line has been the most dominant in hockey by a longshot. Karlsson leads the NHL in plus-minus at +34, Smith is second at +29, and Marchessault is third at +27. Their line has 40 goals together (most in the NHL by four, with Toronto’s Auston Matthews line in second). And this is all without any help from Vegas’s many draft picks.

I’m still skeptical about how good this early success is for the franchise in the long-term. The Panthers showed that initial success doesn’t guarantee long-term health for an expansion team. The Vegas fans are learning how it feels to win at a time when most fans start learning how it feels to lose. And it would be a mistake for the Knights to sacrifice the assets they’ve built up to try to win the Cup this year. But they’ve shown no evidence that they’re going to do that, and for now I think it’s best to let this remain what it has been all year: the biggest and best story in the NHL and the best Cinderella story in professional sports in a long time.

I’m going to be away for the next month, so I thought it would be fun to predict the headlines that I’ll be unable to write about. Hopefully sports aren’t as hard to predict as everybody thinks…

After All That, Fultz-Ball-Jackson go 1-2-3: It’s NBA Draft rumor season, which means that all kinds of rumors are being leaked by teams and bandied about by the media. Are the Celtics going to take Josh Jackson #1? Have the Lakers cooled on Lonzo Ball? Will the Kings trade up to draft De’Aaron Fox? Do the Sixers love Malik Monk’s fit enough to draft him #3? In the end, I think the top of the draft will go just as most thought it would a month ago. Fultz should be the slam dunk #1 pick, Ball should go #2, and Jackson should go #3.

Mike Trout Returns Ahead of Schedule: Trout underwent surgery on May 31st to repair a torn UCL in his left thumb and was given a 6-8 week timetable that all but guaranteed that he’d be out through the All-Star break. But because he’s Mike Trout, he’ll return before the break and reinsert himself into the AL MVP conversation (sorry, Aaron Judge). Maybe I’m just trying to will this into existence, because baseball without Mike Trout is nowhere near as fun as baseball with Mike Trout. The guy was hitting .337/.461/.742 with 16 homers and 10 steals in 206 plate appearances before he went down.

Aaron Judge Slumps: Speaking of AL MVP candidates, this has to happen at some point, doesn’t it? Judge has been nothing short of spectacular in his first full season. He’s hitting .335/.441/.692 with 22 homers and currently is lapping the field (excluding Trout, of course) with a 196 wRC+ (96% better than the average hitter). But he strikes out a ton, and his BABIP is an absurd .425 right now. That number’s going to come way down, and I think Judge will hit around .270 going forward, although he’ll still provide great value through his walks and homers. But I think a slump sometime over the next month is inevitable.

Devils take Nolan Patrick, Flyers take Nico Hischier: There have been reports that the Devils might look past the clear top two prospects in the draft and draft a defenseman instead, but those reports are clearly bogus (sorry in advance if they turn out to be true). It’s between Patrick and Hischier for the Devils, with the Flyers picking the leftover center. I happen to think that the Devils are going to take Patrick first, because he’s the bigger player with more two-way upside. But they can’t go wrong (as long as they take one of those two!).

Vegas takes Marc-Andre Fleury in Expansion Draft, Then Trades Him: The first part is a slam dunk. Since the Pittsburgh Penguins have to protect stud young netminder Matt Murray in the expansion draft, they’ll leave Fleury unprotected. Fleury dropped the no-movement clause that would have prevented the Penguins from protecting him, and since he’ll be the best goalie on the market at a good price, he’ll be going to Vegas. But then I think the Vegas Golden Knights (terrible name, by the way) will trade Fleury to a goalie-needy for picks. In fact, I think we’re going to see a lot of picks flowing to Vegas as they look to build for the future.

Gordon Hayward Returns to the Jazz: Hayward, probably the best player on the market right now, has been linked to Boston for years. It makes sense. The Celtics’ coach is Brad Stevens, who recruited and coached Hayward at Butler. And Boston has the advantage of being in the Eastern Conference, which would give Hayward a better shot at the NBA Finals (no facing the Warriors until the Finals). There’s no doubt that he would fit exceptionally well in Boston. Now there are reports coming out that the Heat will join the Celtics in the pursuit of Hayward, and Miami should always be taken seriously in free agency. But in the end, the Jazz can offer more money to Hayward than anything else, and they also offer continuity and a pretty good young team. Generally, I like to bet on guys re-signing unless there’s clearly a superior alternative.

Red Sox Take AL East Lead: I guess this kind of goes hand-in-hand with my Judge prediction, but I think that the Red Sox will make up their two game deficit and have a better record than the Yankees heading into the All-Star break. With the exceptions of Chris Sale, Mitch Moreland, and Craig Kimbrel, their team has been underperforming. Their studs haven’t been horrible (Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez are all putting up solid stats), but none of them has exploded yet. That should change over the next month as the Red Sox capitalize on a soft schedule (after their three game series in Houston, of course) and enter the break on a hot streak despite closing the first half of the season on a 10-game road trip.

Rafa Knocked Out of Wimbledon Early, While Murray Retains Title: Rafael Nadal will be heading into Wimbledon on a high, having just won his record 10th French Open. And he shouldn’t be counted out at Wimbledon, as he has won it twice. But he hasn’t made it out of the fourth round since 2011, and while he’s playing better tennis now than he has at any point in the last three years, I expect him to be knocked out in the first few rounds. Meanwhile, Andy Murray always excels on the grass, making at least the quarterfinals nine times in a row. I think he’s the clear favorite to win his second consecutive Wimbledon title, although Roger Federer is of course worthy competition on the grass. I’m hoping that we get a Murray-Federer championship. It happened in 2012, when Federer won in four sets.

Raimel Tapia Earns Everyday Role, Helps Rockies Stay Hot: The Colorado Rockies shockingly have the best record in the National League at 43-26. They’ve gotten tremendous performances from Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, but their hitting hasn’t actually been as good as in recent years. The reason they’ve been so good is that they’ve gotten tremendous performances from young pitchers. Jeff Hoffman has a 2.25 ERA through five starts, Antonio Senzatela has a 3.84 ERA in his rookie year (super impressive at Coors Field), and rookie Kyle Freeland has a 3.57 ERA. Given that they’re about to get Jon Gray back from injury, they have to be more bullish about their rotation now than they have been in recent memory. With that being said, they need more production out of their offense. They’re being very careful with top prospect Brendan Rodgers, holding him in high-A ball even though he’s hitting .404 and is clearly ready for AA or even AAA. More likely to get more playing time is Raimel Tapia, who has already gotten the call-up and who has played 15 games for the Rockies and generally impressed. Tapia hit .359 in AAA, and he’s starting to take playing time from Carlos Gonzalez, who’s been one of the worst players in baseball this year. I expect Tapia to continue to earn playing time and to help offset any potential drop-off from the starting pitching.

Chris Paul Courts Other Suitors, Then Stays With LA: Basically the same thing as Hayward. Paul would be leaving a LOT of money on the table if he were to leave LA, and I don’t see that happening, especially since he helped negotiate the CBA that allowed him to receive so much money to stay. I think he’ll court the Spurs and the Rockets but eventually return to the Clippers for a max contract.

Stanley Cup Final Preview

Posted: 05/29/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Can the Nashville Predators stop the Pittsburgh Penguins in their quest to repeat? In a Cup Final that’s been largely flying under the radar, that’s probably the top storyline. But it’s not my favorite storyline. As someone who’s gotten rather sick of Pittsburgh’s sustained success over the last decade, I’d rather focus on their opponents. How about those Predators fans?? They have sooo many great, famous fans (read: bandwagon celebrity fans)! There’s Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Marcus Mariota and the Titans’ offensive line… The Predators are getting their highest ratings ever and are playing in an arena that’s the loudest in the NHL, at least according to a Ducks player. They’re 7-1 at home in the playoffs. And they play in Nashville! This is quite the success story for commissioner Gary Bettman, which means I’m not really a fan of this storyline, either. Let’s get on to the actual hockey.

The Predators are 12-4 in the playoffs, and they’re 9-1 when they score at least three goals. That’s because they’ve been getting outstanding performance after outstanding performance from Pekka Rinne, who was a mediocre goaltender during the regular season. Rinne leads postseason goalies with a 1.70 goals against average and a .941 save percentage. He has to be the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. And yet, I keep expecting him to regress to his regular season numbers. If that happens in this series, the Predators are toast. They need their goalie to keep standing on his head for them, because they have a lot less room for error than the Penguins. That’s especially true given that they’re going to be without their top center, Ryan Johansen, for the entire series. Johansen may have been Nashville’s most crucial player through the first three rounds outside of Rinne. His loss would hurt against anyone, but it could prove especially costly against a team with two good centers (Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen) and two otherworldly ones (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). Nobody can replace Johansen, but at least Nashville’s second line center, captain Mike Fisher, is a capable, stout player. With that being said, he’s far from the chance producer that Johansen is. Fisher has been held pointless through 14 playoff games despite logging 17 minutes of ice time per game. Nashville’s likely going to have to find its scoring from other sources. It’ll be interesting to see how Johansen’s former line mates, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, play without their center. Nashville’s top line was one of the best and most productive in the NHL all season (and especially in the playoffs. Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Johansen are +17, +13, and +12 respectively), which is why it’s such a heartbreaker that Johansen’s going to be out. Forsberg and Arvidsson are good enough to produce even without Johansen, and they’re certainly going to have to be firing on all cylinders against the Penguins and their multitude of scoring options.

The Predators could also seek more scoring from their talented defensemen. I expect Nashville’s blueliners to be aggressive early and often, with Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm looking for shooting lanes and springing odd man rushes. You get the feeling that it’s going to be pretty tough for the Predators to create much in settled situations, so look for them to try to fling shots on net and get in the head of goalie Matt Murray. One thing’s for sure: this Nashville team isn’t likely to rally from two or three goals down. They’re best suited to play low scoring games.

The problem is that I’m not sure Pittsburgh’s forwards are going to let the games be low scoring. The Penguins lead the NHL with 3.05 goals per postseason game, and they led the NHL with 3.44 goals per game in the regular season. Whereas last year they got huge performances out of a lot of complimentary players, this year they’ve largely been powered by their star players. Malkin leads the NHL with 24 playoff points; Crosby is second with 20. Nashville’s as capable of slowing those guys down as anyone, as the four defensemen I mentioned earlier are great puck possessors and are also solid in their own zone. The challenge is that — and this is especially true now that Patric Hornqvist is back — there are still so many other weapons to be worried about. Phil Kessel is producing a point per game (seven goals and 12 assists in the playoffs). After being elevated to the top line, Chris Kunitz scored two goals and assisted on a third in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 Game 7 win over Ottawa. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are very capable of scoring in bunches. On the surface, it seems like this is a mismatch. But it’s worth noting that, with the exception of Game 5 (a 7-0 Pittsburgh win), the Senators did a pretty good job against Pittsburgh’s talent. They gave up just 10 goals in the other six games, with goalie Craig Anderson often standing on his head to keep the puck out of the net (those 10 goals came on 206 shots, an average of more than 34 per game). Pekka Rinne is perfectly capable of keeping the Preds in the series, just as Anderson kept the Senators in the series. A double-overtime Game 7 loss is about as close to a win as I can imagine. But anyone watching that game knows what I mean when I say that it always seemed like the Penguins were going to be the team that broke the deadlock. I think this series could be very similar. The Predators are a tough team, and they’re a very good defensive team. They’ll keep things close. But the Penguins will be the aggressors late in close games, and it’ll seem like a matter of time until they put games away. Sometimes, the team that’s driving the play late ends up losing. More often, though, what seems inevitable does in fact come to fruition. We’ll never know what this series would have looked like with Johansen, but I’m pretty sure I would have picked Nashville to win. Unfortunately, I now don’t think the Predators will produce enough against a hot goalie (Murray was tremendous after replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in the middle of the last round) to win four games. Pekka Rinne will have some huge moments, and it’ll be a tight series, but I like the Penguins to win it in 6.

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).