Predicting Round 1 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs with recent trends

The Hockey Central at Noon panel discuss how they think the Eastern Conference will play out and the possibility of the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals meeting in the Stanley Cup Finals.

With the puck set to be dropped on the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday night, everyone is now frantically scrambling to wrap their heads around the various matchups and better inform their opinions on how they think they’ll play out.

The thing that makes the playoffs an equally delightful and daunting time is how many different factors there are to consider in each series, and how dramatic of a difference the two teams in a series are and how that might affect the outcome. Some of them serve as red herrings to distract us from the scent, while others are far more prophetic in their predictive value.

Let’s do a little bit of digging in the hopes of uncovering some of those more-enlightening trends that can help paint a better picture of what to look for, and maybe even what to expect in the opening round.

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1. The Importance of Recent Play

Team 1st 57 Games Last 25 Games Difference
MIN 49.72 53.43 +3.71
CHI 49.25 52.95 +3.70
ANA 49.93 51.68 +1.75
WSH 52.01 53.10 +1.09
OTT 48.68 49.11 +0.43
NYR 49.08 49.28 +0.2
CGY 50.09 50.04 -0.05
SJS 52.88 52.74 -0.14
CBJ 51.32 50.68 -0.64
TOR 50.79 49.92 -0.87
EDM 51.88 50.95 -0.93
MTL 52.72 51.74 -0.98
NSH 51.15 50.06 -1.09
STL 50.99 49.37 -1.62
BOS 56.35 54.14 -2.21
PIT 52.42 49.21 -3.21

(All data denotes percentage of score-adjusted unblocked shot attempts that each team is responsible for during the course of 5-on-5 play, and has been plucked from Corsica)

We went into this at greater length last year around this time, but it’s been well established that slicing the season into smaller intervals is more telling than looking at the full picture without context. We’re using the final 25 games as an arbitrary cut-off point because it’s a nice and clean number, but also because it covers just enough of everything. It emphasizes relatively recent play, while at the same time not exposing us to too much short-term noise with the data.

Obviously generally speaking you’d prefer a larger set of games to feel more confident, but the main reason why it’s important to look at how teams have been trending in the recent weeks is because things tend to change as the 82-game marathon goes along. Injuries occur and older players may start to wear down as the miles pile up while younger players emerge (whether it’s their own doing or because they finally start to earn their coach’s trust and a longer leash). Our opinions of just how good the teams involved are and what they’re capable of should change accordingly with the new information.

A good example of this are the Minnesota Wild, who improved more than any other playoff team from a shot share perspective as the season went along. If you look even further at only the numbers since the trade deadline, their near-55 per cent shot attempt rate paces the entire league. They paid an undeniably steep price for Martin Hanzal at the trade deadline, but he’s been an absolute force for them thus far. Just as important as his own personal contributions is that his presence in the lineup has helped solidify their bottom-6 by pushing everyone else into their more natural spot.

This development is noteworthy for two reasons: a) even while they were rattling off a ton of wins early on, there were questions about how legit the Wild actually were and whether it was just a percentage-driven haze that have now been alleviated, and b) their first round opponent, the St. Louis Blues, haven’t been able to keep their head above water at five-on-five since selling off Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline.

As for the Penguins, I’ve got my eyebrows raised about their cratering underlying numbers. Even before the devastating Kris Letang injury, the red flags had started to pile up about whether they were even a passable facsimile for the championship team they were last season. Then again, if Crosby and Malkin are firing on all cylinders I don’t want to be the sucker that picks against them. And it’s not as if the Blue Jackets are entering the series playing their best hockey themselves.

Just some stuff to consider. It’s not quite SAP’s magical black box formula, but somewhere in the mid-to-high 60s is a pretty good starting point nonetheless for all of you out there that fancy yourselves as prognosticators.

2. ‘The McDavid Rules’
Pete DeBoer and his staff have a lot of questions right now, and not nearly enough answers. None of this may wind up mattering if Joe Thornton and Logan Couture aren’t able to step back into the lineup and play up to their full potential, but they should be devoting every single waking minute leading up to the start of their series against the Oilers trying to devise a working strategy for slowing down Connor McDavid.

Considering the regular season he just put together (in which he’ll likely take home both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies), that’s obviously easier said than done. Those plans will involve a heavy dose of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who was relied upon to eat up all of the tough minutes throughout the year and will surely continue to do so.

They’ll also likely involve a ton of clutching, grabbing, and holding on for dear life while banking on the idea that the referees can’t call everything. That’s something McDavid is already used to in his young career, seeing as he just drew more penalties during the course of five-on-five play this season than anyone has in a single season since 2010:

Player Season Penalties Drawn Penalty Differential
Connor McDavid 20162017 38 +32
Nazem Kadri 20152016 38 +11
Jeff Skinner 20102011 37 +26
Dustin Brown 20112012 35 +21
Jeff Skinner 20112012 34 +22
Derek Dorsett 20102011 32 +7
Steven Stamkos 20102011 32 +12
Tom Wilson 20142015 32 +2
Corey Perry 20132014 31 +13
Evgeni Malkin 20112012 31 +11
Nikolaj Ehlers 20162017 31 +18
Dustin Brown 20102011 30 +14
John Tavares 20112012 30 +21
Rick Nash 20112012 30 +18
Taylor Hall 20102011 30 +21
David Clarkson 20112012 29 +4

Honestly, it’s not the worst idea in the world for the Sharks, considering the rate at which called penalties have been declining over the years. It may seem counterintuitive, what with how post-season hockey is characterized by its rough-and-tumble play, but the officials seem to be more willing to put their whistles away come the playoff time:

McDavid is going to get a ton of attention from the Sharks in his first playoff action. How he handles it will ultimately determine how the series shakes out, but right now there isn’t really any reason to believe he’ll be phased by it. Slowing him down, both in the figurative and literal sense, seems like an impossible task at this point with how hot he’s running.

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3. Exorcising Old Demons
There’s nothing fair about how good the Washington Capitals have been over the past handful of years, and how little overall post-season success they have to show for it. For as much undeserved flack as someone like Alex Ovechkin takes for it, there’s also no one that more deserves a better fate than Braden Holtby.

Since entering the league, he’s been nothing short of tremendous as a puck-stopper. He’s been recognized for being the best at his position with last year’s Vezina Trophy, and he’s routinely sported a save percentage north of .920. Even with a baseline performance that high, when the playoffs roll around he manages to elevate his game to an even greater level.

He’s currently working on the best post-season resume we’ve ever seen a goalie put together, stopping an otherworldly 93.7 per cent of the shots he’s faced in just under 50 starts. And yet somehow he’s managed to post just a 22-24 record in those games, almost entirely because the goalie at the other end of the ice has miraculously kept pace with him against all odds:

Player Shots Against Goals Against Saves Save %
Braden Holtby 1439 90 1349 0.937
Capitals Opponents 1438 98 1340 0.932
Rest of League 18966 1536 17430 0.919

There’s an argument to be made that this current Capitals team is the most well-positioned one they’ve put on the ice this era. They’re incredibly deep, without any real flaws in their game or holes in their lineup. But if they’re finally going to translate all of their success into a sustained playoff run they’re going to need to find a way to also carry over that trademark goal scoring prowess we’ve seen throughout the regular season.

The goalie they’re facing playing more like himself and less like the second-best playoff goalie ever would probably be a pretty good start to making that finally happen.

4. The Impact of Coaching
I’m a bit reticent about attributing this entirely to Claude Julien’s arrival considering we’re only working with a sample of 24 games, but if the changes he’s instituted since replacing Michel Therrien aren’t at least partly responsible for the improvements the Canadiens have made then it’s one heck of a coincidence.

The most profound uptick in that time has come on the penalty kill, where they’ve bounced back after a dreadful start to the year.

Coach Shots Against/Hour Goals Against/Hour High Danger Chances Against/Hour Save %
Michel Therrien 46.88 6.98 27.00 0.851
Claude Julien 43.52 4.03 18.5 0.907

Obviously whenever your goalie is stopping the puck it props up everything around him, but it sure looks like it’s the product of a mutually beneficial relationship rather than just purely the work of one player. The Canadiens have gone away from the outdated diamond formation on the penalty kill, moving towards more of a conventional box set under Julien.

That, and a more aggressive approach in defending against players attempting to enter the zone have led to a sharp decrease in high danger chances for the opposing power play, which has surely played into the improved numbers for their goalies.

The other factor to consider is that they’ve suddenly gone from being one of the league’s most penalized teams under Therrien to one of the most disciplined ones under Julien:

Situation Time on Ice Penalties Taken Penalties Taken/Hour
5v5 under Therrien 2731.12 169 3.71
5v5 under Julien 1230.81 41 2.00
All Situations under Therrien 3521.54 248 4.23
All Situations under Julien 1465.82 66 2.70

If this is something that’s actually representing a new norm rather than just a blip in the radar, then it’s a pretty encouraging development for their chances this post-season. With how slim the margin for error is in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and how difficult goals are to come by, cutting down premium opportunities for the opposition and making life more difficult for them offensively is imperative.

Especially when you’re going up against a team like the Rangers, who finished the 2016-17 campaign in the top 10 for the rate at which they generated both scoring chances and goals scored when on the man advantage.

5. Historical Precedence
The Ottawa Senators have made a habit of proving the people projecting their imminent demise wrong, but if there’s anything to be gleaned from recent history it’s that they’re unlikely to make any real noise this post-season.

They’re just the 14th team since the 2005 lockout to qualify for the playoffs with a negative goal differential in the regular season, and 11 of those previous 13 were bounced in Round 1 in fairly short order:

Team Season Goal Differential Result Playoff Games Won
TBL 20052006 -8 OUT ROUND 1 1
MTL 20052006 -4 OUT ROUND 1 2
TBL 20062007 -8 OUT ROUND 1 2
BOS 20072008 -10 OUT ROUND 1 3
NYR 20082009 -8 OUT ROUND 1 3
CBJ 20082009 -4 OUT ROUND 1 0
OTT 20092010 -13 OUT ROUND 1 2
MTL 20092010 -6 OUT CONF. FINALS 9
WSH 20112012 -8 OUT ROUND 2 7
MIN 20122013 -5 OUT ROUND 1 1
DET 20132014 -8 OUT ROUND 1 1
DET 20152016 -13 OUT ROUND 1 1
PHI 20152016 -4 OUT ROUND 1 2
OTT 20162017 -2 TBD TBD

If there’s one silver lining for them it’s that it sounds as though their opponent will be shorthanded on the back-end with Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo both on the shelf, and it’s not like the Bruins were blessed with riches on the blueline to begin with.

Still, even with that being the case they’re left fighting a pretty big uphill battle here against a dominant, more well-rounded five-on-five squad.

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