Now that the qualification round is completed, we’re ready for the puck to drop on Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With that extra round of hockey priming us for what’s next, what exactly are we in for, and what did we learn?
Some teams that really shouldn’t be here have made it in. The two lowest seeds of the 24 teams that returned to play have upset heavily favoured opponents, so the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens have already shocked the hockey world. Can they keep doing more of the same? Here are some takeaways from the qualification round that could give us a hint of what’s to come.
Penalties are way up
Since the playoffs include overtime, the per-game numbers are not exactly what you would expect for playoff penalty numbers, so I took a little extra care and adjusted for the overtimes and made the playoff numbers a per-60 minutes in all situations metric. But even after that adjustment, there were some surprising things to learn here.
For starters, the narrative that refs completely put the whistles away in the playoffs — something that I’ve been very guilty of spreading as well — is not exactly true. Over the past five seasons, power play opportunities have actually gone up slightly in four of the five years. I would assume the persistence of that idea despite the evidence to the contrary is likely because players are more desperate in the playoffs, and commit way more infractions. So the refs call about the same number of penalties, but if they were to call it by the book there would be a lot more calls overall.
This qualification round saw a drastic increase in penalties called. In fact, if a regular season saw penalties called at the same rate, it would be the highest frequency of power play opportunities since 2008-09.
If that huge increase in penalties carries forward into the first round, teams like the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames who thrive on power play scoring should be given a better chance at winning their series than in a normal situation.
Goals are not so up
With all those power plays, players coming back from a huge layoff in essentially pre-season conditions, you would expect goals to be way up as well, right? I know I did, and turns out I was dead wrong on that front. The qualification round, including the round robin for the top-seeded teams, saw just 5.31 goals per game. For reference, the regular season was 6.04 goals per game, and the last time the league was all the way down at 5.31 or lower was the very height of the dead puck era in 2003-04, when the league averaged a paltry 5.14 goals per game.
Some of that drop in goals came from small sample size aberrations like the Maple Leafs scoring on less than two per cent of their shots at 5-on-5, or Carey Price stymying the Penguins to an absurd degree, but so far this post-season the goaltenders and defensive schemes have been far better prepared than the scorers have been. Exactly the opposite of what I expected.
Beware of Nathan MacKinnon
He’s only played in round robin games to determine seeding, so the intensity wasn’t nearly as high as the elimination series, but MacKinnon has come ready to play. No player fired as many shot attempts from the slot per 20 minutes at 5-on-5 as MacKinnon, who heads into Round 1 with 5.8. He put 4.83 of those attempts on net, about a full shot more per 20 minutes than the next best shooter, Sebastian Aho.
Even crazier: of those 4.83 shots from the slot per 20 minutes at 5-on-5, 3.38 of them were off the rush. MacKinnon is flying, and he had more scoring chances off the rush than all but two players had scoring chances overall.
Bruins in trouble?
Over the years the Boston Bruins have more than earned the benefit of the doubt, and that when the puck drops for real, they’re going to come to play. However, their performance in the round robin against other top seeds was troubling to say the least.
Exhibition is exhibition, but the Bruins controlled just 30.8 per cent of the inner slot shots, 38.2 per cent of the slot shots, 44.8 per cent of the slot shot attempts, and 47.9 per cent of the slot passes in their round robin play. None of those numbers are anywhere close to the dominant Bruins team we’re used to seeing, so you have to wonder if something is going wrong there.
Playoff seeding may not be do or die, but losing out in that little tournament has taken from what would have been a matchup against the 24th place Montreal Canadiens, to taking on the Carolina Hurricanes, a team that controlled 57.1 per cent of the inner slot shots, 57.8 per cent of the slot shots, 56.5 per cent of the slot shot attempts, and a completely absurd 73.2 per cent of the slot passes in their qualification beat down of the New York Rangers.
The Bruins have all the ingredients of a Stanley Cup contender and are one season removed from making the Stanley Cup Final, but the Hurricanes are an extremely tough first round opponent, and they seem far more primed at the moment.
Flyers a well-oiled machine
After nearly five months off it’s tough to say that the Philadelphia Flyers came into the playoffs red hot, but they were just as great in the round robin as they were to close out the regular season. At 5-on-5 they looked like a juggernaut, allowing just five inner slot shots against in three games. The average team in the 2020 regular season allowed more than that per game. Per game!
They were a bit more porous while killing penalties, but Montreal had one of the most ineffectual power plays in the league, so this series looks like a very uphill battle for the underdog Canadiens.