Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Western Conference Round One Prognostos

We’ve done the prognostos for the Caps/Rangers series, and we’ve done them for the rest of the East. What about the rest? Well, here is the West …

Vancouver (1st seed, 54-19-9) vs. Chicago (8th seed, 44-29-9)

Theme: So, there I was on my way to the coronation…

Why Vancouver will win: The object of the game is still outscore your opponent (or conversely, prevent your opponent from outscoring you). Vancouver can score (1st in the league in goals-per-game), and they can prevent teams from scoring (1st in fewest goals allowed per game). They can beat you 5-on-5 (2nd in 5-on-5 scoring ratio); they can beat you on the power play (tops in the league); they can shut down your power play (tied for 2nd in penalty killing). They simply have too many ways to beat a team.

Why Vancouver won’t win: Demons. Since Vancouver reached their only Stanley Cup final in 1994, the Canucks have reached the playoffs ten times. They have a total of five series wins, and in none of those years did they make it past the second round. The thing they have going for them, if you can say that, is that coach Alain Vigneault is three for three in first round tries. That’s not a lot of consolation. And, they’re only playing .500 in April (ok, so it’s 2-2-0).

Canuck on the hot seat: Roberto Luongo. Since joining the Canucks in the 2006-2007 season, Roberto Luongo has not won fewer than 33 games in a season, has not posted a GAA higher than 2.57, has not had a save percentage below .913, and he has 28 shutouts. OK, now about the playoffs…1.77, .941… 2.52, .914… 3.22, .895. Those would be his GAA and save percentages in each of the last three years, each getting worse from one year to the next. And it probably escapes no one’s notice that a lot of that debacle last year came at the hands of the team he is facing in this round.

Why Chicago will win: Nothing beats experience. There is an intangible difference between a contender – even a favorite – that has not yet won a championship, and a club that might not measure up on paper, but who has those rings on their fingers. And there is nothing in Vancouver’s game that Chicago fears. They’ve seen this movie.

Why Chicago won’t win: Timing. The Blackhawks are not exactly coming into this series breathing fire. They actually sort of stumbled in. Dallas losing to Minnesota in a game that could have eliminated Chicago aside, the Blackhawks are 7-6-3 to close the regular season after rolling off an eight-game winning streak in lae February/early March. They’re best might be behind them.

Blackhawk on the hot seat: Corey Crawford. Chicago has a talented defense, but ultimately someone is going to have to stop pucks fired by the top offense in the league. It won’t be Crawford’s baptism in the NHL playoff wars, but it will be close to it. His NHL playoff experience is limited to 16 minutes of one game last spring. He’s had a really nice rookie season. This is a different animal.

A lot of folks are looking at maps of downtown Vancouver plotting where they will plunk down their lawn chairs for the parade. That’s quite a bit of expectation to live up to. And this draw is probably the worst one for the Canucks of the other seven teams in the West making the playoffs. If they get past this round, maybe those maps will come in handy. We’re thinking they won’t.

Chicago in six

San Jose (2nd seed/48-25-9) vs. Los Angeles (7th seed/46-30-6)

Theme: Hey! We’re still here!!

Why San Jose will win: With apologies to Canuck fans, the Sharks might be the hottest team in the West heading into the tournament. They finished 9-2-1 in their last 12 games, five of the wins coming by three or more goals. They were 10-for-30 on the power play (and had power play goals in eight of the 12 games, seven of the first eight of that stretch). Their offense is steamrolling opponents.

Why San Jose won’t win: In those 12 games to close the regular season the Sharks were only 29-for-39 in penalty killing (74.4 percent). Even if you take away the four goals in six tries they allowed in a 6-2 loss at Phoenix in the season’s penultimate game, the 81.8 percent success rate in penalty killing that results isn’t al that hot, either.

Shark on the hot seat: Joe Thornton. It is one thing to be a player whose team falters in the post-season, but a player who performed above and beyond his statistics in those disappointments (Caps fans, see: “Ovechkin, Alex”). Then there is Joe Thornton. He is “Mats Sundin-like” with his ability to put up almost metronomic points-a-game regular seasons (1,001 points in 995 career regular season games). But he has 65 points in 91 career playoff games, and he is a minus-14 in the last 21 playoff games in which he played. It’s not all on Thornton; the Sharks’ recent disappointments have been team efforts. But at 31, the clock is starting to tick loudly on Thornton’s career, and his teams have only five playoff series wins in his five seasons in San Jose.

Why Los Angeles will win: Strength beats strength. San Jose enters this tournament in a tie for the league’s second best power play (with Anaheim). But the Kings have the fourth best penalty kill (85.5 percent). Not only that, they don’t allow a lot of opportunities (tenth lowest number of shorthanded situations faced). The two factors combined so that no team in the NHL allowed fewer power play goals than did the Kings this season.

Why Los Angeles won’t win: The Kings seem to have a timing issue, too. From March 9th through March 29th the Kings went 8-1-1 and cemented their place in the top eight in the West. They did not finish well, however, going 2-4-0 in their last six, with one of the wins coming in a Gimmick against Phoenix. What is more, in what might now look like a statement game, San Jose pasted the Kings, 6-1, on April 4th. Los Angeles might have seen their peak, and it is in their rear view mirror.

King on the hot seat: Drew Doughty. No one could say that defenseman Drew Doughty had a bad year this season, not with an 11-29-40, plus-13 scoring line in 76 games. But no one seems to be spreading his name around as an “inevitable” Norris Trophy winner. Not that his reputation needs much by way of rehabilitation, but he can force himself back into the mix in the discussion of elite defensemen with a good series here against a team that will put pressure on the Los Angeles defense and goaltenders.

If there is a certainty in any series in the first round in either conference, this might be the one. San Jose has too many weapons for the Kings to contend with.

San Jose in five

Detroit (3rd seed/47-25-10) vs. Phoenix (6th seed/43-26-13)

Theme: Ding! Round 2!!

Why Detroit will win: This makes 20 years in a row that the Red Wings have made the playoffs. Mike Babcock has been around as coach for the last five appearances before this season, and he hasn’t lost an opening round since he lost to Edmonton in his first try in 2006. In other words, this is what Detroit does these days – win early playoff rounds. And they have uncommon scoring balance. No player finished with more than 80 points (Henrik Zetterberg had 80), but twenty players finished the season with at least ten points. Detroit did not have a 30-goal scorer, but 13 players had at least ten goals. The Red Wings had three different players with at least ten power play goals; 14 had at least one man advantage marker. Sixteen different Red Wings had at least one game-winning goal. Someone on this team will beat you.

Why Detroit won’t win: You can almost see the chips and cracks in the armor. Nicklas Lidstrom finished in “minus” territory for the first time since Columbus discovered the New World. Henrik Zetterberg is day-to-day with a knee…oops, lower body injury. Pavel Datsyuk played in only 56 games this season. Brian Rafalski in only 63 games. Kris Draper in only 47. The Cup tournament is a grind, played seven games at a time, and one wonders if Detroit has the finish left to make a deep run of it.

Red Wing on the hot seat: Valteri Filppula. He might not get the ink that a Nicklas Lidstrom, a Pavel Datsyuk, or a Henrik Zetterberg gets, but he has been a valuable performer for the Red Wings, especially in the playoffs. He is 15-26-41 in 75 career post-season games, and before this is over he is going to have to perform at that level or better as one of the next generation of Wings to carry on this post-season tradition.

Why Phoenix will win: Familiarity. Last season was the Coyotes’ “happy to be here” moment, reaching the playoffs after a six-year absence from the post-season. And yet, they still took the mighty Red Wings to a seventh game in their opening round matchup. There isn’t the wide-eyed novelty associated with just “making it,” and the Coyotes know they can play with these guys. What is more, the Coyotes went 2-0-2 against the Red Wings in the season series. Taking this a step further, Phoenix can match Detroit in terms of scoring depth. Twenty Coyotes registered at least ten points this season.

Why Phoenix will not win: Phoenix has that point scoring depth, but they really lack a go-to, high-end talent that can turn a game by himself. Shane Doan is the Coyotes’ only 20-goal scorer. And for a team that plays such a system-based, close to the vest style (14th in goal scoring, 13th in fewest goals allowed), they do not have as good a record in one-goal games (21-8-13) as do the Wings (21-7-10).

Coyote on the hot seat: Keith Yandle. Among defensemen in the NHL the top three scorers all come from the Western Conference. Nicklas Lidstrom (second), you’ve no doubt heard of. Lubomir Visnovsky (first), you might have heard of lately as a potential Norris Trophy finalist. But third in scoring among defensemen is Keith Yandle. Oddly enough, he is only one of two defensemen in the top 11 in scoring that does not have a game-winning goal this season (Atlanta’s Tobias Enstrom is the other), and he is in a goal scoring drought over all, having potted only two in his last 30 games after recording nine in his first 52 contests. The ‘Yotes could use some contributions from Yandle, especially since his frequent partner, Derek Morris, will miss Game 1 with an upper body injury.

Detroit is the limousine of the NHL, riding to the playoffs in style, frequenting the exclusive playoff venues every season. Phoenix is the Camry… functional, reliable over the course of the season, will get where it needs to go. But do Camrys show up in the valet parking of the poshest clubs? Like the second, third, or finals round of the Stanley Cup tournament? Didn’t think so.

Detroit in six

Anaheim (4th seed/47-30-5) vs. Nashville (5th seed/44-27-11)

Theme: “Nashville” is just “Anaheim” spelled sideways.

Why Anaheim will win: The playoffs are about playing things close with little margin for error, and Anaheim has the best record in one-goal games in the league (29-10-5). Part of what gives them those one-goal wins is a lethal power play that ranked in a tie for second in the NHL. And part of what makes that power play so good is having the league’s top goal scorer for the regular season (Corey Perry) and the league’s top active career goal scorer (Teemu Selanne). Between them they have 81 total goals and 30 of those on the power play.

Why Anaheim won’t win: We are tempted to say “because they can’t kill penalties,” which is true but there are three playoff teams in the West below them in penalty killing efficiency (San Jose, Chicago, and Phoenix – all below 80 percent for the season), and Nashville has a poor power play. There is a question in goal, however. Jonas Hiller has suffered from vertigo symptoms that limited him to three games since the All Star break (only one of which he played 60 minutes), none since March 24th. That leaves it up to Dan Ellis, who hasn’t played in (or won) a playoff game since 2008 with Nashville, and Ray Emery, who hasn’t played in (or won) a playoff game since 2007 with Ottawa. They’ve done well in relief of Hiller (both with GAAs under 2.40 and save percentages above .915), but this is a different sort of season.

Duck on the hot seat: Cam Fowler. The rookie defenseman came straight to the NHL from last June’s draft and got some early Calder Trophy consideration for the offensive numbers he was putting up from the blue line. But while his offensive numbers shine (10-30-40, second in scoring among rookie defensemen), he is a minus-25 on the season (299th of 303 defensemen dressing in the NHL this season).

Why Nashville will win: You really have to ask yourself that, step back, scratch your chin, and then probably end up saying, “hell if I know.” They are 26th in winning percentage when leading after two periods, 22nd in winning percentage in one-goal games. They are 22nd in offense; their power play is poor (26th in the league; worst among playoff teams). It really comes down to two things – goalie Pekka Rinne, who might be the best goaltender in this tournament, even with Tim Thomas in it, and the fact that the Predators beat the Ducks in three of four meetings this year. Sometimes, a team just has the knack.

Why Nashville won’t win: See above. Even with Rinne, this will be a hard series that has to be played on Nashville’s terms – low scoring and tight checking. Give Rinne a chance to win games. That is a hard way to play when you need four wins, not just one.

Predator on the hot seat: Sergei Kostitsyn. Among players skating in at least 50 games this season, Sergei Kostitsyn has the best shooting percentage (23 goals on 24.7 percent shooting) by far in the NHL (Phoenix’ Lauri Korpikoski is second at 18.4 percent). The other side of that coin is that he takes only 1.2 shots per game. Would those percentage numbers drop if he shot more? Almost certainly. But given Anaheim’s iffy goaltending, it can’t hurt to try.

These teams aren’t altogether different. Anaheim has better scoring, and Nashville has better defense and goaltending, but both are as likely as not to grind out wins. We like Anaheim’s superior playoff pedigree (a number of players from the 2007 Cup team remain), but we really do not like their goaltending at all.

Nashville in seven

OK, there you have it, the Peerless Prognosticator's prognostos for your 2011 Stanley Cup first round series. And as we like to say, “if you’ve read this far…SEEK HELP!”

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Eastern Conference Round One Prognostos

There are seven other series in the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament. You already have our picks for the Caps/Rangers series. Now, for the others in the East…

Philadelphia (2nd seed, 47-23-12) vs. Buffalo (7th seed; 43-29-10)

Theme: Big, bad bullies versus the shifty shrimps with the great goalie.

Why Philly will win: Against a great goalie, it helps to be able to attack him with depth, not allowing him a breather of a shift. The Flyers might have the deepest set of skaters in the NHL, certainly in the East. Eighteen skaters with at least ten points, six with at least 20 goals. They can put a 20-goal guy on the third line (James van Riemsdyk, who has 21) and a ten goal guy on the fourth line (Andreas Nodl, who has 11).

Why Philly won’t win: A lot of attention is being paid to whether Chris Pronger will or won’t dress for this or that game in this series, and truth be told, the Flyers don’t seem the same without him in the lineup. They finished the season 6-4-4 after Pronger went out of the lineup with a broken right hand. It will be a factor and perhaps a force multiplier for a bigger problem. Sergei Bobrovsky has never started a playoff game in goal in North America. He gets the call to start the series. He did not end the season well, going 0-2-2 in his last five appearances with a 3.27 GAA and .892 save percentage.

Flyer on the hot seat: Mike Richards. With Chris Pronger out, Richards takes on a bigger leadership role (one that he might share with Pronger under normal circumstances, even though Richards wears the “C”). He struggled down the stretch, going 2-3-5, minus-3 in his last nine games (over which the Flyers were 3-4-2), and he has a total of four goals in his last 21 games.

Why Buffalo will win: Ryan Miller. The defending Vezina Trophy winner did not start the season well (3-5-2 in his first ten games), but he ended it well, going 5-1-1, 1.90, .937 and two shutouts over his last eight appearances.

Why Buffalo won’t win: Miller suffered an “upper body” injury against Toronto on March 29th and played only 51:48 in his next two appearances (he stopped 28 of 29 shots in doing it). If there is any lingering discomfort, the Flyers will only add to that discomfort with their ability to get production from anywhere in their lineup.

Sabre on the hot seat: Thomas Vanek. The Sabre left wing closed with a rush, going 9-12-21, plus-11 in his last 17 games. He is going to have to keep up that sort of pace to help offset the depth in scoring the Flyers can bring to the series.

Ryan Miller does a better job of holding off the Flyers than Sergei Bobrovsky (or Brian Boucher, who will get significant time in this series) does against Buffalo.

Buffalo in six.

Boston (3rd seed; 46-25-11) vs. Montreal (6th seed; 44-30-8)

Theme: A series that looks better on paper than it is likely to be.

Why Boston will win: Tim Thomas. The unconventional Thomas led the league in GAA (2.00), save percentage (.938) and pitched a shutout in almost one of every six starts he had this season (nine in 55 starts). He had a couple of hiccups down the stretch in allowing three goals to Toronto in a 4-3 Gimmick loss to Toronto and four goals in a 5-3 loss to the Rangers, but even with those bumps he was still 6-1-1 in his last eight appearances with a 1.49 GAA, .949 save percentage and two shutouts, one of them coming against the team he faces in this round.

Why Boston won’t win: Since Thomas got that shutout of Montreal (a 7-0 win on March 24th), the Bruins are 5-3-1, but they have some trouble finding the back of the net. In their last nine games of the season following that win Boston averaged 2.44 goals per game, and their power play was only 3-for-22 (13.6 percent).

Bruin on the hot seat: Nathan Horton. Horton had a solid year in his first season with the Bruins after spending six seasons with Florida. But this is his first NHL post season (his first post-season, in fact, since he was at Oshawa back in 2003). His 26-27-53, plus-29 level of performance during the regular season…does he have that in him with the lights shining a little brighter on him?

Why Montreal will win: The Canadiens seem to have righted a ship that was in danger of taking on too much water to make a splash in the playoffs. In late March they lost three consecutive games, each by shutout (to Boston, Buffalo, and the Caps), but the Habs finished up 4-1-1. Special teams improved down the stretch -- their power play came alive in the last ten days of the season, going 6-for-15 in the last five games (40.0 percent), and the penalty killers are 32-for-34 (94.1 percent) over their last nine games.

Why Montreal won’t win: If you look at those games down the stretch after they were shut out in three straight games, that 4-1-1 record was built on a pile of sand. Only one win came against a playoff team (a 2-1 overtime win over Chicago). They were 2-5-0 in their last seven games against playoff teams. And Carey Price has been like the little girl with the curl lately. When he’s good, he’s very good (he hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a win since December 16th, a total of 20 wins), but when he’s not, he’s bad (of his 19 losses in regulation over the same period he allowed more than three goals 11 times). That’s a hard formula to get to four wins in a seven-game series.

Canadien on the hot seat: Scott Gomez. The Canadien center is the guy you remember in high school – quarterback of the football team, class president, prom king, valedictorian. Then you see him at the ten year reunion and ask, “dude, what happened? You let yourself go.” Gomez averaged 17-48-65 in six years with New Jersey (with a 33-goal year thrown in there) to start his career. This year, 7 goals and a minus-15 (worst plus-minus on the club). He hasn’t had a goal since February 5th, a 29-game drought. Even with that, he has it in him to perform at this level (he had 14 points in 19 playoff games last season), but he has to show it in this series.

It will be a competitive series, but frankly, neither team is playing well enough to go on a deep run. Thomas has more saves in him than does Price.

Boston in six

Pittsburgh (4th seed; 49-25-8) versus Tampa Bay (5th seed; 46-25-11)

Theme: Sidney, Sidney, wherefore art thou, Sidney?

Why Pittsburgh will win: There might not be a more resilient, nor a better coached team at the moment than the Penguins. Dan Bylsma has gotten just about everything he could out of a lineup lacking two of the top five talents in hockey (Yevgeni Malkin’s consistent application of that talent – or lack thereof – notwithstanding). It says a lot about Bylsma’s coaching that Sidney Crosby finished the season as the Penguins’ leading scorer by miles (66 points to Kris Letang’s 50), despite Crosby playing in only 41 games.

Why Pittsburgh won’t win: The object is getting to “four” first. And to do that a club needs some semblance of balance in scoring and defense. There are nights when one has to bail the other out. It is hard to see how an offense that lacks anything resembling a go-to guy (even Jordan Staal, who played in only 42 games, would not be a “60-point” player over a full season at his scoring pace) cobbles together four wins. No team in the first round puts more pressure on its defense and goaltending than do the Penguins.

Penguin on the hot seat: Chris Kunitz. Kunitz led all Penguins not named “Crosby” in goals (23), despite playing in only 66 games. He is probably the poster boy for the Penguins at the moment – a hard-working, tough as nails cuss who, if you are an opponent, hate to play against, and if you are a fan of the opposition, simply hate. But with all that grit, he produces…except lately. Kunitz finished the regular season with one goal in his last eight games, the wrong time to go cold on a team that has to squeeze goals from all over the lineup.

Why Tampa Bay will win: They average almost three goals a game, and their power play hummed along at more than 20 percent for the season. They are also coming into the tournament on a roll, having gone 7-1-0 to close the regular season. Their oft-maligned defense allowed only 14 goals in those eight games (four of them coming in their only loss, a 4-2 loss to Buffalo).

Why Tampa Bay will not win: Goaltending. Dwayne Roloson had respectable numbers with the Lightning (18-12-4, four shutouts, 2.56, .912), but his save percentage was actually better in the 20 games he played with the Islanders (.916) to start the season. He had a memorable playoff performance in 2006 with Edmonton, leading the oilers to the finals while compiling a 12-5, 2.33, .927 mark. But does he have that in him? The Tampa Bay offense carries their goaltending more than most teams competing for the Stanley Cup, which relieves some of the burden. The break Roloson gets is in the opponent for this round, who has to be on top of its game to cobble together goals in the absence of high-end offensive skill.

Lightning on the hot seat: Steven Stamkos. Has the third-year player run out of gas? On February 6th, Stamkos scored his 40th goal of the season in his 54th game, putting him on a pace for 61 for the season. He finished with five in his last 28 games (a 15-goal pace). If the early-season Stamkos shows up, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a counter-punch, unless Crosby returns and steps right into his mid-season form. If the late-season Stamkos is what the Lightning get, Pittsburgh can cobble together enough goals to win.

Tampa Bay looks a little bit too much like last year’s Caps to really make a dent in the playoffs, but Pittsburgh is just so dented all over the lineup. Before it’s over, this might be the most compelling series in the first round, a contest of wills – Tampa’s flash and youthful exuberance against Pittsburgh’s battle-tested and cobbled-together lineup. Bylsma would get our vote for the Jack Adams Award, but we have a hard time seeing how he gets his team to “four” in this one (unless there is a miracle involving the number “87”). Over the last decade or so, the first round in the East has almost always had a lower seeded team (or three) jump a higher seeded team. We have two in this year's edition, and this is the other one.

Tampa Bay in seven

And there you have it...Round One. As always, do not use these picks for cash wagering. Save your money for Powerball.