Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Your First Round Prognostos...Ducks vs. Stars

And, finally…

Anaheim Ducks (4) vs. Dallas Stars (5)

Season series:

Oct. 20: at Stars 3, Ducks 1
Nov. 5: Stars 5 at Ducks 0
Nov. 21: at Stars 2, Ducks 1
Jan. 15: at Ducks 4, Stars 2
Jan. 20: at Stars 5, Ducks 2
Feb. 15: Stars 4 at Ducks 2
Mar. 19: Ducks 2 at Stars 1
Mar. 30: at Ducks 3, Stars 2 (SO)

The Peerless pronounced last summer that it was a mortal lock that the Ducks would not repeat as Stanley Cup winner. Last July, we said…

“…the short off-season is really an underrated factor in a club's likelihood for success in the following season. Anaheim will have a 115-day break between the Cup-clinching game on June 6th and opening night of the 2007-2008 season on September 29th. Compare that with baseball (St. Louis had 155 days from their World Series-clincher in 2006 to opening day 2007), football (the Colts will have 214 days from their Super Bowl win in February to opening night in September), and basketball (the Miami Heat had 133 days from winning the NBA title in June 2006 to opening night in October). A team's ability (or inability) to refresh after a grueling playoff grind that requires 16 wins over four series from mid-April to early-June might be the factor to pay attention to in figuring out who should or should not be a favorite in the Cup sweepstakes the following year.”

Well, wily Brian Burke figured out a way around that problem. Don’t have your best two-way defenseman play his first game until December 16th,, and don’t have your top goal scorer from the previous year play his first game until February 5th. Call it the “Roger Clemens” strategy. Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne come into these playoffs with the rust scraped away, but perhaps fresher than a lot of their counterparts. Here is the lowdown on the Ducks’ performance before and after the arrivals…

As far as the series against the Stars was concerned, the Stars were 3-0-0 before both reported, 1-1-0 after Niedermayer reported (but before Selanne did), and 1-1-1 after both had rejoined the Ducks. This does not bode well for the Stars…or anyone else for that matter. Overall, though, here is how the numbers played out for Anaheim:

Goals for/against: 14/24
Power play goals for/against: 8/9
Even-strength goals for/against: 6/14
Power play: 8/45 (17.8%)
Penalty killing: 29/38 (76.3%)
Record, one-goal games: 2-1-0
Record, 3+ goal games: 0-2-0

Regarding Anaheim, their leading scorers had somewhat mixed results against the Stars:

Ryan Getzlaf: 2-8-10, -2
Corey Perry: 1-4-5, -3 (six games)
Chris Kunitz: 2-1-3, -3
Chris Pronger: 1-2-3, -6 (six games)
Todd Bertuzzi: 2-1-3, -3 (six games)

As for Selanne and Niedermayer, Selanne was 0-3-3, -2 in three games against the Stars, while Niedermayer was 2-3-5, -1 in five games. But here is the stunning statistic…Anaheim allowed 96 goals in its first 34 games – a 2.82/game average. Over the last 48 games, the Ducks allowed 88 goals – 1.83/game. The Achilles heel for the Ducks is scoring. They have, by far, the worst per-game scoring average (2.24) among Western Conference playoff teams (San Jose is next: 2.63/game). The addition of Selanne in early February was coincidental with some difference, but not as dramatic as on the defensive side of the ledger. Before Selanne arrived, the Ducks averaged 2.36 goals/game. After his arrival, they averaged 2.50 goals/game.

In goal, J-S Giguere did not have a particularly good year against the Stars: 3-5-0, 2.92, .877. However, he gave up only 24 goals in his last 18 regular season games, with two shutouts and a total of 16 games in which he allowed two or fewer goals.

If there is a team that might derail the Ducks, it is the Stars. They have a similar look about them, and they are statistically a superior team in several respects – better offense (2.89 goals/game to 2.40), power play (18.1% to 16.6%), penalty killing (85.5% to 83.1%). What Anaheim does better will be important, though – better 5-on-5 play (ratio for/against of 1.17 to 1.11 for Dallas), better winning percentage when scoring first (.788 to .625), and better at holding a late lead (winning percentage when leading after two of .909 to .775 for the Stars).

The Stars’ top scorers:

Mike Ribiero: 3-7-10, +6
Brenden Morrow: 5-2-7, +8
Mike Modano: 2-3-5, +1
Niklas Hagman: 5-1-6, +2
Jere Lehtinen: 2-6-8, +5 (six games)

There are two other players to note here. The first is Brad Richards. He came to the Stars from Tampa Bay at the trading deadline, bringing his 51 points – but a -25 – with him. In 12 games with Dallas, he was 2-9-11, -2. Not bad, but he had five assists and was +2 in his first game upon arriving. After that…2-4-6, -4 in 11 games. If the Stars are going to win this series, Richards has to step up.

The other is Sergei Zubov. He is not available for at least Round 1, having had surgery for a sports hernia last week. What this means for the Stars is that the six defensemen likely to dress have precisely the number of games of playoff experience as Chris Pronger will bring to this series (128), and Pronger does not lead the Ducks in playoff experience. That would be Niedermayer, who has 183 games of experience, and only twice in the last seven years has a team on which Niedermayer played not advanced past the first round. Dallas will have its work cut out for them on the back line.

Which brings us to Marty Turco. His heroic effort against Vancouver in last year’s first round (1.29 GAA, .952 save percentage in a seven-game loss to the Canucks) should have retired the idea that he was not a playoff kind of goaltender. But he is still only 11-18 in his playoff career. He was 4-2-1, 1.85, .922 against Anaheim this year, but given his playoff history, those numbers are likely to be discounted quite a bit.

Why Anaheim will win…

Selanne and Niedermayer are veterans who are comparatively rested. They were important, if not the most important cogs among the skaters in last year’s Cup run. And if this is going to be a low-scoring, closely fought series (we expect it will be), there will be an important stat to keep in mind -- Giguere is 12-1 in overtime games in the playoffs.

Why Dallas will win…

Anaheim won’t intimidate them. Dallas played them often and played them successfully this year. Turco has played well against the Ducks, and he is the sort of feisty character that can rise to the occasion and hold his own against the rough-and-tumble Ducks.

Dallas’ chance in this one probably hinge on Turco being able to steal games. He won’t be able to steal enough of them.

Anaheim in six.

Your First Round Prognostos...Wild vs. Avalanche

Next on our tour of the Western Conference first round matchups…

Minnesota Wild (3) vs. Colorado Avalanche (6)

Season series:

Oct. 21: at Wild 3, Avalanche 2
Oct. 28: at Avalanche 3, Wild 1
Nov. 11: at Avalanche 4, Wild 2
Nov. 18: at Wild 4, Avalanche 1
Jan. 24: Wild 3 at Avalanche 2
Mar. 17: at Wild 3, Avalanche 1
Mar. 30: at Wild 3, Avalanche 2 (OT)
Apr. 6: at Avalanche 4, Wild 3 (SO)

Here is a series that might fly under the radar in its entirety. A pity…although the Wild have a 5-2-1 record in this series, it has been generally hard and evenly fought, with half of the contests of the one-goal variety, and two of those going to extra time. And, both teams come into this series on mini-runs…Minnesota was 4-0-1 in the last five games of the regular season; Colorado was 5-0-1. They did it in rather different ways. Colorado averaged 3.5 goals of offense in their 5-0-1 finish, while Minnesota averaged allowing only 1.4 goals a game in their five-game season-ending streak. Minnesota had the advantage in the season series between the two teams:

Goals for/against: 22/18
Power play goals for/against: 9/7
Even-strength goals for/against: 13/11
Power play: 9/28 (32.1%)
Penalty killing: 26/33 (78.8%)
Record, one-goal games: 4-0-0
Record, 3+ goal games: 1-0-0

Minnesota made the most of an average number (3.5/game) of power plays in this series. In fact, it is the one part of their otherwise average offense (18th in goals/game) that shines. They finished seventh in the league in power play conversion rate (18.9%). It just isn’t a club that draws a lot of penalties (21st in total power play opportunities).

Looking at the Wild top scorers and their performances in this series:

Marian Gaborik: 2-2-4, even (six games)
Pierre Marc-Bouchard: 1-3-4, even
Brian Rolston: 4-4-8, +2
Pavol Demitra: 1-6-7, +1 (five games)
Brent Burns: 2-3-5, +1
Mikko Koivu: 1-3-4, +3 (seven games)

The Wild is not a team that scores a lot, but if they are going to get something from somewhere else, it might be Stephane Veilleux. He had only 11 goals in 77 games this year, but did go 2-1-3, +2 in seven games against Colorado.

In goal, Niklas Backstrom had a fine year – 33-13-8, 2.30, .920. He had a better one against Colorado – 4-1-0, 1.98, .930. Given the difficulty the Wild have on offense from time to time, one would think he’d have to continue at this level of performance.

Colorado might create the impression of being a much better offense than that of Minnesota, but that is somewhat deceptive. The Avalanche averaged only 0.05 goals/game more than did the Wild this year. Where they are substantially superior is in five-on-five play. Colorado finished third in the league this year in five-on-five goals for/against ratio (Minnesota was 19th). If Colorado can stay out of the box (and they did only allow 3.5 power plays/game this year against the Wild), this could be a long series.

Looking at the top scorers for the Avalanche this year and their success against the Wild:

Paul Stastny: 3-4-7, even (seven games)
Andrew Brunette: 2-1-3, even
Milan Hejduk: 2-2-4, even (six games)
Wojtek Wolski: 3-4-7, +4 (seven games)
Joe Sakic: 2-6-8, +2 (seven games)

The key, though, for the Avalanche might be three other players – two who will start the series and one who won’t. First, the one who won’t – Marek Svatos is out with a knee injury. His 26 goals in 62 games is quite a bit of offense to be missing. As for the two who will be there, both – Ryan Smyth and Peter Forsberg – have missed a lot of time this year. Smyth missed 27 games to injury this year and is only 3-6-9, +1, in 19 games since returning on Valentine’s Day from a prolonged absence. Forsberg joined the team in March and is 1-13-14, +7 in nine games. But, can he stay healthy?

In goal, Jose Theodore has had something of a renaissance this year. Although his 28-21-3, 2.44, .910, three shutout performance doesn’t put him among the league leaders, he finished the season 5-0-1, 2.42, .912, with one shutout. He had a shootout win and overtime loss to the Wild in that stretch.

Why Minnesota will win…

Defense and goaltending wins at this time of year. It is a style with which the Wild is comfortable. Both special team squads are superior to those of ColoradoMinnesota ranks in the top ten in both power play and penalty killing; Colorado is in the bottom ten in both.

Why Colorado will win…

Having Smyth and Forsberg in the lineup helps. And there is this – the Avalanche had 325 man-games lost to injury this year. No playoff team in the west had more (only Boston among all playoff teams had more). It is a team that is probably as healthy as it is going to get, and still they managed a sixth place finish and a season-series winning record over the Wild. They are a pretty resilient bunch.

We like Colorado’s chances to advance from this round, provided Forsberg doesn’t get hurt…

Colorado in seven.

Your first round prognostos...Sharks vs. Flames

Next up…

San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Calgary Flames (7)

Season series:

Oct. 22: Sharks 4 at Flames 1
Jan. 3: Flames 3 at Sharks 2 (OT)
Jan. 30: at Flames 5, Sharks 4
Feb. 12: Flames 4 at Sharks 3 (OT)

Are the Sharks the Red Wings-lite? 43-44-51 wins the last three seasons, and only one conference final to show for it. This time, they come into the playoffs with a 49-win season and as the hottest team in the league…sort of.

From February 21st through April 1st, the Sharks did not lose a game in regulation – 18-0-2 over a 20 game stretch. Then, they lost to the Los Angeles Kings and again to the Dallas Stars in the regular season finale. So…are the Sharks the 18-0-2 team that was closing the season, or are they the good, but unremarkably so (31-21-8 before that 20-game run) squad that played through February 20th? And, does losing in the last two take some lustre off of the long streak?

Certainly the Flames will provide a suitable test for that question, for the Sharks could only manage a 1-1-2 record against the Flames before that 20-game streak. For the Sharks in those four games:

Goals for/against: 13/12
Power play goals for/against: 5/2
Even-strength goals for/against: 7/9
Power play: 5/20 (25.0%)
Penalty killing: 10/12 (83.3%)
Record, one-goal games: 0-1-2
Record, 3+ goal games: 1-0-0

The Red Wing analogy extends to the special teams. Getting 20 chances in four games, especially compared with only 12 for Calgary, is quite an advantage for the Sharks. San Jose scored at least one power play goal in each game of this series, and had two in its 4-1 win in October. It has been an important ingredient to scratching out four of a possible eight points out of this series.

Looking at the Sharks’ top scorers and their performances in this series:

Joe Thornton: 0-1-1, -4
Milan Mihalek: 3-1-4, even
Patrick Marleau: 1-0-1, -1
Joe Pavelski: 0-0-0, +2
Jonathan Cheechoo: 1-2-3, -2

It isn’t a particularly dominating performance from the top guns. If there is someone else to watch, it would be Patrick Rismiller, who has goals in each of the last two games against the Flames, although he has only one goal in 26 games since scoring against Calgary on February 12th.

The “X” factor for the Sharks might be defenseman Brian Campbell. Since coming to the Sharks in a trade With Buffalo, he is 3-16-19, +9 in 20 games. He provides some spark from the blue line that wasn’t there for the Sharks over the first 60 games or so.

In goal, Evgeni Nabokov is a leading Vezina Trophy candidate, and deservedly so. He appeared in 77 games, going 46-21-8, 2.14, .910. Calgary, however, appeared to solve him as well as anyone could this year. Nabokov is only 1-1-2, 3.16, .849 against the Flames.

It’s been quite a while since Calgary faced the Sharks. In the 25 games since they last met, the Flames are 13-10-2, 6-7-0 in their last 13. It is not a team coming in on a high. But they have had success against the Sharks, with some solid performance from their top guns:

Jarome Iginla: 3-1-4, +2
Kristian Huselius: 0-3-3, -1
Daymond Langkow: 2-2-4, +1
Dion Phaneuf: 2-3-5, +1
Alex Tanguay: 1-2-3, +2

The Sharks also have three goals and an assist from Owen Nolan. If the Flames can get that kind of support from guys like Matthew Lombardi (one assist in four games) or Craig Conway (two assists in four games), it would be that much more pressure on the Sharks. Conroy has been injured, but is expected to return for Game 1.

Miikka Kiprusoff had a solid year in goal. Sometimes, he gets somewhat lost in the shuffle of any discussion of top goalies – Brodeur, Luongo, and this year Nabokov seem to dominate that discussion – but he has been a rock for the Flames. He appeared in 76 games and finished fourth in the league in total minutes played. However, his numbers this year show some slippage from last year’s, which were down from the previous year. From a 42-20-11, 2.07, .923 season two years ago, he was 39-26-10, 2.69, .906 this year. It’s not a lot of slippage, but some. He’s going to need the Flames to score some in front of him.

Why San Jose will win…

Discounting the last two games, this club was on fire to close the year, outscoring their opponents 59-35 in their 18-0-2 run. The Sharks have the size to counter the hard-working style Calgary will bring. The addition of Brian Campbell at the trading deadline gave the Sharks more scoring balance. If it comes down to special teams, the Sharks have the best penalty killers in the league, and on both sides of special teams they outrank the Flames by a wide margin.

Why Calgary will win…

They, like the Predators playing the Red Wings, are the sort of team that can give this opponent fits. In Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf, the Flames have high-end skill players who are not afraid of – and in fact relish – mixing it up physically. Statistically, they are unimpressive, especially on special teams (being second overall in total times shorthanded is one statistic that comes jumping off the page, especially since San Jose has the third fewest such situations faced and, more important, is sixth in total power plays awarded), but they are greater than the sum of their parts and have had success against this team this year.

We’re going with the upset in this one, the Sharks frustration at not being able to advance to a final to continue…

Calgary in seven.

Your first round prognostos...Red Wings vs. Predators

Turning our attention to the Western Conference…

Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Nashville Predators (8)

Season series:

Nov. 7: at Red Wings 3, Predators 2 (SO)
Nov. 22: at Predators 3, Red Wings 2
Dec. 10: Red Wings 2 at Predators 1
Feb. 12: at Predators 4, Red Wings 2
Mar. 9: at Red Wings 4, Predators 3
Mar. 15: Predators 3 at Red Wings 1
Mar. 20: Red Wings 6 at Predators 3
Mar. 30: at Red Wings 1, Predators 0 (OT)

The Red Wings have averaged 51 wins a year over the past four seasons leading to this one. They averaged scoring 251 goals, allowing 200. They also have no championships and made it to the Western Conference final only once. This year, they won 54 games, scored 257 goals, allowed 184.

Part of a pattern?

The Red Wings are a very good team. Over an 82-game season, their superior depth and skill at both ends of the ice is the sort that can post 50-plus wins on a consistent basis. But what about over seven games? Well, they played eight against the Predators this year – a team that was given little chance of success this year. They finished 5-3-0, two of those wins coming in extra time. And it is not as if the Red Wings have been statistically dominant, with a notable exception:

Goals for/against: 20/19
Power play goals for/against: 10/4
Even-strength goals for/against: 10/14
Power play: 10/53 (18.9%)
Penalty killing: 41/45 (91.1%)
Record, one-goal games: 4-1-0
Record, 3+ goal games: 1-0

The Red Wings have averaged 6.6 power play opportunities a game in this series (they averaged 4.6/game against the rest of the league for the season). That is a lot of time, on the Predators’ part, to be expending effort against what is already a prolific offense.

Looking at the Red Wing top scorers, and their success against the Predators:

Pavel Datsyuk: 3-3-6, even
Henrik Zetterberg: 1-4-5, -5
Nicklas Lidstrom: 0-4-4, -4
Brian Rafalski: 1-1-2, even
Daniel Cleary: 1-1-2, -2 (4 games)

It is somewhat deceptive to speak in terms of “leading scorers” with respect to the Red Wings. They have 18 players with points in double-digits. But there is one other Red Wing who bears watching. Johan Franzen was 6-2-8, -1, in his eight games against Nashville this year, and he has 15 goals in 16 games since March 1st. He’s been especially lethal on the power play (14 of his 27 goals), and in a series that might turn on such chances, he could be an important player.

Dominik Hasek has fine numbers in goal in the regular season series: 3-1-0, 2.23, .913, with one shutout. But one wonders a bit concerning his end-of-year performance. True, he is 8-2-0 in his last ten appearances, and he has a 2.30 GAA. However, his save percentage of .897 is not an excitement-inducing number, and in both losses he was pulled – once after giving up four goals on ten shots over 32 minutes, the other after giving up three goals on six shots in eight minutes.

Chris Osgood has numbers that, had he achieved them over 60 games, would be worth of Vezina consideration. In 43 games, he was 27-9-4, 2.09, .914. In this series he was 2-2-0, 2.49, .912.

Nashville, on the other hand, is pretty much playing with house money at this point. Few expected them to be here, testimony to the fine job Barry Trotz did behind the bench (why does he remind us of the preacher at the end of the movie in “Beetlejuice?”).

Nashville is, as one might expect from an eighth-place club, pretty much in the middle third of most statistical categories, but there is an exception. The Predators had the third best penalty killing mark in the league. But even this works against them in this series. They were 21st in total times shorthanded. Given the Red Wings’ success on the power play in this series (half of their total goals scored), Nashville has to make this a “five guys” series…they have to keep five skaters on the ice as much as possible to have any chance of winning.

Looking at their leading scorers, here is how they fared in this series:

J-P Dumont: 2-5-7, +1
Jason Arnott: 1-5-6, +5
Alexander Radulov: 4-3-7, -7
Martin Erat: 4-4-8, +4
David Legwand: 0-2-2, +3 (4 games)

These are pretty good numbers, but what is noteworthy here is the appearance of so many “plus” numbers (Radulov being the exception). Compare that with the “minuses” among Detroit’s leading scorers. If the Predators can keep this a five-on-five matchup, they can compete.

Regardless, the Predators’ defense will be tested. And that means Dan Ellis – an unlikely candidate to be manning the Predators’ playoff net – will be the man in the spotlight. The rookie has never appeared in an NHL playoff game, and he has to make his debut against one of the flagship franchises in the league playing at the top of its game. But it’s not as if Ellis has been a stiff against the Red Wings this year, either. 1-1-1, 1.75, .950 are pretty good numbers on which to build a reservoir of confidence. In a lot of ways, Ellis is emblematic of this team and their season, as David Climer’s article in this morning’s Nashville Tennessean shows.

Why Detroit will win…

The Red Wings are a top-three team in most statistical categories; they are, of course, the President’s Cup winner for this season as top point getter. They enter the playoffs on a 7-1-1 tear. They have two capable goaltenders, and that sort of depth and balance extends to the rest of their roster. They are – on paper – the dominant team of this tournament.

Why Nashville will win…

They don’t play the games on paper. Nashville is not likely to be intimidated by the Red Wings. It seemed no one in the Central was (Detroit had a comparatively pedestrian 17-12-3 record against their division counterparts – the third best record in the Central). Nashville is precisely the kind of team that can give the Red Wings fits – a lunch-pail, grind-it-out sort of team that just keeps plugging away. They might not win, but they are going to make things very difficult for the Red Wings.

Detroit in six.