Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Your Conference Finals Prognostos -- Western Conference Final: Red Wings vs. Stars

And now, the other half of the conference finals...

Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Dallas Stars (5)

Season series:

Jan. 2: at Detroit 4 – Dallas 1
Jan. 5: Detroit 3 – at Dallas 0
Feb. 17: at Dallas 1 – Detroit 0
Mar. 13: at Detroit 5 – Dallas 3

These teams have met three times in the playoffs, including the Stars incarnation in Minnesota, the Red Wings winning each time (the last time in 1998, the last year in which both teams competed in the same division). Since then, these two teams have been among the most consistently productive regular season teams – Dallas has averaged 46 wins and 104 points a year (including that just ended), the Red Wings 50 wins and 111 points. But for all those wins, each has but a single Stanley Cup. Each, on the other hand, has been knocked out three times in the first round of the playoffs. Seems “D” also stands for disappointment for these clubs, given their regular season success and disappointment being a relative thing.

In this year’s four-game series, here is how the top-seeded Red Wings came out:

Goals for/against: 12/5
Power play goals for/against: 1/1
Even-strength goals for/against: 11/4
Power play: 1/15 (6.7%)
Penalty killing: 10/11 (90.9%)
Record: one-goal games: 0-1-0
Record, 3+ goal games: 2-0

With the exception of a rather anemic power play, these numbers reflect efficiency rather than domination. Detroit has been just good enough, consistently enough, to earn six of eight points from the Stars. There isn’t a lot to take from this set of numbers, but there is from the individual numbers for the Red Wings’ leading scorers for the season:

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

See it? OK, it was a bit of a trick question. It is who isn’t on that list that might matter most...four games, 3-1-4, +4, and a game winner in the season series. You’d think he might be a factor here. Well, add to this the fact that the same player has 11 goals in ten playoff games, four game-winners, two shorthanded goals, and is a +9, and you’d think someone had better be paying attention to Johan Franzen just about as much as Datsyuk, Zetterberg, or Lidstrom.

The Wings also will bring balance and consistency to this series. The balance – 12 players have goals, 19 have points. The consistency – only twice in two games have the Wings scored fewer than three goals, only twice have they scored more than four, while on defense they have surrendered more than three only once.

In goal, Chris Osgood had the sort of record against the Stars – 2-0-0, 2.00, .907 – that speaks to efficiency rather than artistry. That is part of a larger matter. Osgood faced only 43 shots in two games against the Stars. It is something the Red Wings are very good at, both in the regular season and the playoffs – limiting the opposing teams’ shots. Thus far, the Red Wings have outshot their opponents by an average of 14.4 shots a game (39.3 to 24.9). They’ve been outshot only once in ten games (they lost, 5-3, to Nashville). Four times they have outshot their opponent by at least two-to-one. That causes teams to expend a lot of effort in defense that leaves them short on the other end. Goalies don’t have to be spectacular as much as alert. They will not see a lot of chances.

As far as the Stars and their leading scorers are concerned (all in four games, unless noted):

Mike Ribiero: 0-1-1, -5
Brenden Morrow: 1-0-1, -6
Mike Modano: 0-0-0, -5
Niklas Hagman: 1-0-1, -2
Jere Lehtinen: 1-1-2, even

And here is the other side of the coin. The Stars’ leading scorers have been victimized at even strength and have not been able to make it up by getting their own share of points. As a group these five players have a total of 36 shots in four games – fewer than two per game, per man. Modano and Ribiero have two apiece. If they can’t improve on that total, this will not be a long series.

The difficulties Dallas had scoring goals against Detroit this season has crept into their playof performance. After scoring nine goals in games one and two in the opening round series against Anaheim, Dallas has 26 goals in their last ten games. That is a bit deceptive, though. They scored five against San Jose in game two of the second round, but have scored more than three goals only once, otherwise. It isn’t the drought they suffered at the hands of the Red Wings in the regular season, but considering the Red Wings are third in goals allowed-per-game in the post-season (Dallas is second), there will be a lot of pressure on Marty Turco in goal.

Turco was 1-2-0, 2.69, .905 – respectable numbers as far as GAA and save percentage go for the season series against the Wings, but not good enough to crack the win column, save a shutout he pitched for the Stars’ only win in the series. But at the moment, Turco seems to have finally cast off the reputation as a playoff non-performer. His performance in the series-clinching win against San Jose in a fourth overtime might have cemented that. For much of the overtime, it looked as if it was merely a matter of time before the Sharks solved Turco, since the game was played largely in Dallas’ end. But he saved 61 of 62 shots in what was one of the most memorable goaltending performances in recent playoff memory. He’s going to need to approach that level of performance for the Stars to have a realistic chance of upsetting the Red Wings.

But it isn’t just Turco who needs to maintain a high level of performance. Again, it could be a matter of shots. If you compare the goals per game scored by these two teams in the playoffs, Detroit leads all NHL teams with 3.80/game. Dallas sits fifth, but at 2.92 goals a game they are almost a full goal per game short of the Wings. But here is the unusual part – the two teams have virtually identical shooting percentages: Detroit at 9.67 percent (38 goals on 393 shots), Dallas at 9.72 percent (35 goals on 360 shots). For every 60 minutes of play, the Wings have averaged 39.2 shots, the Stars 27.0. How much better does Turco have to play to keep things even? Well, if Osgood maintains his .937 save percentage pace in the playoffs facing 27 Stars shots a game, his GAA would be 1.70. For Turco to match that, facing 39.2 shots every 60 minutes, he’d have to have a save percentage of .957. If Osgood is only as good as his season series against the Stars (.907 save percentage), Turco has have a save percentage of .936. Please, note that the leading save percentage in the playoffs so far is .938. We keep coming back to this – shots matter. Dallas, as a team, cannot allow that 12 shot gap per game to persist.

Why Detroit will win…, that’s not from the example used above, it is the average margin of victory in goals for the Red Wings so far in these playoffs. And for all the numbers, the ones that matter most, of course, are the number of goals you score versus the number you allow, and this goal differential leads the league. They also lead in scoring, five-on-five play, shots per game, fewest shots allowed per game, winning percentage when trailing first. They are top-five in just about everything else. They are balanced – in ten games they have ten players with at least five points. On paper, this is the best team in this tournament.

Why Dallas will win…

In the first three games of the season series, the Stars and Wings each registered 77 shots. If shots matter, then the Stars – if they can repeat this performance – have more than a shot, because they have who might be the best goalie in the west in these playoffs in Marty Turco. And Turco is returning to the vicinity of some of his biggest victories, having played for the University of Michigan down the road (national championships in 1996 and 1998). They have the sort of team, with guys like Brenden Morrow, Jere Lehtinen, and Mattias Norstrom that can cause some problems for the Wings with their defensive play. They have smart veterans in Brad Richards and Sergei Zubov who will not be intimidated by the Red Wings. This team is probably set up better to deal with the Red Wings than any they could have faced in the playoffs (with the possible exception of Anaheim).

In the end…

Detroit has been coldly efficient in the playoffs so far, but there is something about Dallas that says, “they’re the one.” Detroit has players who can mix it up – Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty – but it is not what defines them. Dallas has been a lunch pail bunch this playoff season, sticking around and plugging away. They are going to steal one of the first two games in Detroit, and they will plug away enough to earn the upset, with Turco – the “Michigan Man” – being the difference.

Dallas in six.