Sportsnet’s analytics experts share 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs brackets

Pittsburgh-Penguins'-Sidney-Crosby-celebrates-with-the-Stanley-Cup

In this June 11, 2017 photo, Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) celebrates with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Nashville Predators in Game 6. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Sportsnet’s three NHL analytics writers, Steve Burtch, Andrew Berkshire and Dimitri Filipovic, each fill out their Stanley Cup Playoffs brackets and share reasons behind their picks.

How do their brackets compare to yours?

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ANDREW BERKSHIRE

Why Toronto is my dark horse pick:
I didn’t pick Toronto to get out of the first round, but the only reason why is I think the Bruins are the best team in the league. Even with Toronto’s depth at forward, I think that series is a toss up.

If the Leafs are able to get past Boston, they’d be the team I’d pick to go all the way to the Stanley Cup final out of the East, largely due to their ability to create scoring chances. Only the Penguins create more chances than the Leafs, but Freddy Andersen has been better than Matt Murray this year, which makes Toronto really dangerous.

Why Washington will be upset in the first round:
It’s tough not to give the benefit of the doubt to a team that has been this dominant for a decade or so, but the Capitals have just not been good this season. They’ve managed to ride the percentages to a great regular season, but I think the luck runs out really quick in the post-season.

How my bracket could get busted:
I’ve got the Bruins going all the way, but their series against Toronto in the first round is easily the toughest of any, and the Leafs could definitely win that series to put my bracket right in the garbage can.

Team I wanted to pick but couldn’t:
I would love to see the Predators win the Stanley Cup for a variety of reasons, but there are a few underlying weaknesses with they way they’ve played this season, the biggest being how much they have relied on Pekka Rinne to steal games.

The Preds have also built a reputation for comeback wins, but that isn’t something you can rely on in the playoffs, and all they need is a couple of off games from Pekka to see their playoff dreams end earlier than expected. Maybe they’ll tighten up in the playoffs and prove me wrong, but based on the numbers, the Jets look a bit stronger.

Why Boston will win the Stanley Cup:
Of the teams that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Bruins’ high danger scoring chance differential at 5-on-5 is plus-50 better than any other team, their scoring chances on net differential is plus-100 better than any other team, and their scoring chance differential is plus-130 better than any other team.

Their control of shot quality is absurd, specifically defensively, and they’re equally strong in score-adjusted shot metrics, and dangerous pass differentials.

The Bruins’ biggest weaknesses are special teams, and as those tend to be less important come playoff time, the NHL’s biggest even strength behemoth looks like an unstoppable force. The only issue they may run into is whether Zdeno Chara’s body can hold up for the long playoff run.

STEVE BURTCH

Why San Jose is my dark horse pick:
The Sharks ended the year in 11th spot in the NHL and third in the Pacific with 100 points. Despite their seemingly mediocre results for a playoff side, they dominated the season series with their Californian rivals Anaheim and Los Angeles, going a combined 6-1-1 and outscoring them 22-14 in the process. They also enter the playoffs with the fourth-best expected goal differential across their final 25 games of the season.

If San Jose can survive the gauntlet of the Pacific, they actually match up surprisingly well against both Nashville and Winnipeg – the two teams most likely to make it out of the Central. This is largely due to the fact that the Sharks had the second-best penalty differential of all playoff teams behind only Philadelphia, while Nashville was the most penalized team in the NHL by a wide margin and Winnipeg gave up more shots and scoring chances on the PK than any other team in the league.

The Sharks may be able to ride some power play success late into the post-season and perhaps get one last shot at the Stanley Cup for ‘Jumbo’ Joe Thornton.

Why Washington will get upset in the first round:
Washington vs. Pittsburgh in the second round of the playoffs seems like an annual right of spring these days, with the two teams having faced off in Round 2 each of the past two seasons.

Unfortunately, Washington seems like a bit of a paper tiger in comparison to their prior runs at obtaining an elusive Stanley Cup. This year’s Capitals have slid significantly by most underlying metrics and will have their hands full with a Columbus Blue Jackets team that features productive skilled players throughout their lineup.

The Blue Jackets had a 10-game winning streak in March and ended the year going 3-2-2 to secure their spot in the playoffs. If two-time Vezina winner and first-team all-star Sergei Bobrovsky can play to his ability (ranked first in the NHL with plus-32.76 Goals Saved Above Average) in this year’s playoffs it seems likely that Washington will struggle to score enough to escape the possession problems that saw them close the year out ranked 26th in 5-on-5 xGF% and 24th in 5-on-5 CF%.

The Caps also haven’t gotten the results from Braden Holtby they have grown accustomed to from past years as he has dropped from a consistently positive keeper in terms of Goals Saved Above Average to a mediocre minus-2.16 this season. As a result, Philipp Grubauer will start the series in net. Unfortunately, it seems Ovechkin’s window to win a Stanley Cup is closing.

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Where my bracket could get busted:
Believe it or not, my bracket actually picked the Toronto Maple Leafs over both the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, largely due to their special teams advantage and very slight declines in underlying performance from the two Atlantic juggernauts as the season wound down.

The Bruins-Leafs matchup is actually the closest run of the opening round, and assuming whoever wins there plays the Lightning, we would again be treated to an amazingly tight matchup, even if Toronto and Boston are both slightly favoured over Tampa Bay. Much of the decline for the Lightning can be attributed to the slide in performance from their starter Andrei Vasilevskiy, who went from early-season Vezina favourite across the first three months, all the way down to significantly below average in his final 15 games of the season.

Essentially the Atlantic Division race is a three-way toss-up that could break my projections quite easily. Sorry Devils fans, but my model says there is a less than 10 per cent chance New Jersey makes it to the Eastern Conference final.

Team I wanted to pick but couldn’t:
The Winnipeg Jets are arguably the most exciting team in the NHL right now. They feature excellent scoring depth in their forward group, top-end defenders on the blue line, and they seem to have finally found a high-end starter in 44-game winner Connor Hellebuyck. They have also been handed an opening round gift as their opponents, the Minnesota Wild, were hit by late-season injuries to key defenders Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon.

Unfortunately, Winnipeg’s special teams remain a problem area despite the fact they ended the year ranked fifth in PP% and ninth in PK%. Essentially they are living off the elite shooting of Patrik Laine and the top-end goaltending of Hellebuyck – which is logically sustainable, but very problematic if either one runs cold or goes down with injury.

Laine had seven distinct stretches this year of five or more games where he didn’t score a power play goal – including nine- and seven-game dry spells. If his shooting starts to miss the mark, their most dangerous weapon with the man advantage is blunted. Similarly if Hellebuyck struggles to keep the puck out of the net on the PK, the Jets’ propensity to both take penalties (they were the fourth-most frequently short-handed team this season) and give up chances (Hellebuyck spent more time on the PK than any NHL goaltender, faced the most shots on the PK in the NHL, and faced the most High Danger Shot Attempts) has the potential to get them into trouble.

Why Pittsburgh will win the Stanley Cup:
Feel free to stop me if you’ve heard this before: Pittsburgh is favoured to win the Stanley Cup. Following their early-season struggles to get on track, the defending Stanley Cup champions have rounded into form quite nicely as the season wrapped up.

In the final 25 games they rattled off the best record of any Eastern Conference playoff side (16-7-2) and they had the best 5-on-5 Scoring Chance percentage in the NHL (54.87 per cent). They also retain one of the most obviously lethal offensive machines of any team in the NHL featuring three scorers who posted seasons of 89 or more points (Malkin 98, Kessel 92, Crosby 89). Oh and their top defender, Kris Letang, posted 51 points and is healthy entering the playoffs.

But perhaps the biggest boon to the Penguins this year is that their division is relatively weaker than it has been the past two seasons. The Metropolitan seems to have been supplanted by the Atlantic as the top division in the Eastern Conference as Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto have ridden high for most of the season.

Maybe a slightly less stressful run to the finals will help cement the fact that Pittsburgh is a true dynasty in the mold of past great teams. They will become the first team since the New York Islanders from 1979-1983 to win three consecutive Stanley Cups.

DIMITRI FILIPOVIC

Why the Anaheim Ducks are my dark horse pick:
They’re a prime example of why season-long numbers can be deceiving this time of year. While their underlying resume doesn’t necessarily look all that inspiring, it’s worth noting how much of that includes the exoskeleton of a lineup they were forced to use for extended periods of time as injuries ravaged their roster.

Getting only 100 combined games out of Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler this season, there was even a stretch where they were using Chris Wagner and Derek Grant as their top two centres. All things considered, it’s actually kind of remarkable that this Ducks team was able to hang around long enough to actually make the playoffs to begin with.

Full credit for that goes to John Gibson, who should be recognized for his masterful display in net this season as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Not only did he stand on his head and carry the team during those injury-riddled spells, but he even took his game to new heights during the stretch run when they made their push to get in. In his 21 appearances following the all-star break, Gibson stopped an astounding 93.7 per cent of the shots he faced, allowing the Ducks to only lose four times in regulation during a make-or-break stretch when they needed every point they could get.

While they’re now missing Cam Fowler, which is certainly a blow, compared to what they went through earlier in the year they’re actually finally relatively healthy at just the right time. That makes them a scary out with the post-season here.

Why the Washington Capitals will get upset in the first round:
To be honest this is as much about the opponent the Capitals drew as it is about them. The Blue Jackets are coming into the playoffs firing on all cylinders since the trade deadline, having lost just twice in regulation over their past 17 games. More importantly, they’ve been mauling teams by tilting the ice at five-on-five, which seems like an issue for a Washington team that’s been uncharacteristically pedestrian in that area this season.

At five-on-five Washington has controlled just a paltry 48.4 per cent of shot attempts, while sporting an even lower 47.1 per cent expected goal rate. Those figures were 24th and 26th in the league this season respectively. To put that into some further historical context, it’s the first time the Capitals have dipped below the 50 per cent threshold since 2013-14. That year, they missed the playoffs, prompting widespread changes that resulted in a new head coach and general manager.

Here’s the good news: they have home ice advantage in this series, and they still boast the type of high-end talent at the top of their lineup to temporarily cover up any of those flaws by simply scoring their way out of trouble.

There’s also the fact that it would be so perfectly ironic for this to finally be the season Washington came through and made a long run after falling short with far superior incarnations of this team in years prior. This pick is one instance where I certainly wouldn’t mind being wrong.

Where my bracket could get busted:
Here’s the thing: because of the wacky seeding structure the league insists on using to promote rivalries, we could conceivably get a second round that pits the 1 seed vs.the 2 seed, the 3 seed vs. the 4 seed, and then something like the 9 seed vs. the 12 and the 10 seed vs. the 14.

I bring that up not to beat a dead horse again, but instead to point out that any one of the four teams coming out of the Pacific Division could take advantage of that quirk en route to stamping their ticket to a Western Conference final appearance. At that stage, who knows what’ll have happened with the Predators and Jets. That series could very well be a draining seven-game bloodbath, with the winning team surviving as a tired and banged up unit ripe for the picking.

As a result, one of the Ducks, Sharks, Kings, or Golden Knights could stand to benefit in a big way. Good luck figuring out which one it’ll be, because sorting through the Pacific Division hierarchy was one of the trickiest parts of this entire exercise.

Team I wanted to pick but couldn’t:
The Leafs. There’s no question they’re drawing the short end of the stick with their first round opponent being the Bruins. Toronto finished seventh in the standings, posted the fifth-best goal differential, and boast a historically great power play. For their troubles they’re facing a Bruins team that’s only 44-13-8 with a plus-65 goal differential in their last 65 games after a slow start to the season.

Even if Toronto somehow finds a way to slay Boston in round one, they’ll likely have to then go up against a third-ranked Tampa Bay Lightning team that poses an entirely different set of challenges.

In an ideal world, this Maple Leafs team would’ve parlayed its strong regular season showing into a cushier opening round matchup, finally winning a playoff series and continuing the natural progression of this young core’s rise to prominence. Instead they’re looking down the barrel of a second consecutive one-and-done at the hands of one of the league’s best.

Why the Nashville Predators will win the Stanley Cup:
If you stack up everyone’s roster from top to bottom, Nashville looks like the team with the fewest obvious exploitable flaws for an opponent to target in a series. Where we would’ve highlighted goaltending as one of those potential red flags in the past, that appears to no longer be the case. Not only did Pekka Rinne stop the aging curve in its tracks, but he appears to have reversed it for the time being by putting together a herculean regular season that’ll likely earn him the Vezina Trophy.

Once again armed with an embarrassment of riches on the blue line, Nashville has already shown its ability to tighten the screws in high leverage situations by shortening the depth chart and essentially having a top defence pair on the ice at all times.

One potential difference maker that could separate this team from last year’s version that fell just short is the presence of a second scoring line for opponents to contend with. With the arrival of Kyle Turris, and Kevin Fiala finally realizing his endless potential en route to a much anticipated breakout season, the Predators now have an equally menacing 1-2 punch up front as well.

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 Time on Ice Shot Attempts % Shots on Goal % Goals For % Expected Goals For %
Filip Forsberg Ryan Johansen Viktor Arvidsson 518.53 56.2 56.9 68.6 55.3
Kevin Fiala Kyle Turris Craig Smith 545.72 59.2 57.5 72.3 60.7

(All stats at five-on-five, and pulled from Corsica)

As we know anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but on paper the Predators look like the team best positioned to be the last one standing this season.

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