How to Pick a Playoff Contender

Momentum

People often talk about ‘momentum’ heading into playoffs. Momentum is an interesting concept. You can often see it shifting within a game when a big save on one end leads to a big goal at the other end. Momentum also can affect a series, as the Anaheim Ducks proved to us in 2003 as they took out nearly everyone in their path. (Yeah it was goaltending, but the players had to make a few good plays too).

You also hear people talk about a team ‘having momentum’ heading into the playoffs. I don’t buy it. Here are a few examples to support my case.

In 2008, Washington finished the season by going 11-1-0! Ovechkin was unstoppable, Huet was playing lights out, and most people expected them to make a bit of a run. They played Philadelphia and lost 1st round. Last year, Detroit finished the year 17-4-1. In round 1, they squeaked by Phoenix in 7 games, then lost to San Jose in 5 only games. (Though San Jose won each game by only 1 goal).

Here are the post-lockout cup champions, along with a note on how they ended the season:

2006-Carolina – Won only 4 of their last 9 games

2007-Anaheim – Won only 6 of their last 12 regular season games

2008-Detroit – ended season 7-3-1 (standard for a President’s Trophy winner), but lost 6 straight in February

2009-Pittsburgh – Out of the playoff picture in January, turned it around and carried it through to victory

2010-Chicago – ended the season 6-0-1, but lost 7 of 9 in March (4 to non-playoff teams)

I think it’s important to separate the concept of momentum from the reality of sheer talent. All the teams that have won the Stanley Cup in the post-lockout era (and throughout history) were very good teams. While Detroit and Chicago finished the year well, they still had some late season struggles. And even though they technically ended the year well, and could attribute some ‘momentum’ to them, a more accurate explanation is that they were simply great teams playing up to their established level of talent. Conversely, the 2008 Capitals and 2010 Red Wings finished the year incredibly well, but weren’t able to sustain that level come playoff time.

(NOTE: The one anomaly from above, the ’09 Penguins, can be explained by a few things. Firstly Sergei Gonchar played on 25 games that season, but came back for the entire playoff run. Furthermore, the late-season additions of Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz gave Crosby some decent linemates, and gave the Pens the additional scoring they were missing earlier in the year.)

Team +/-

When it comes down to it, a good team is a good team. The following data helps to establish a measure of ‘good’.

      ——-Finish——        
Year Team Points Conf Overall GD Rank GF Rank
2006 Carolina 112 2nd 3rd +34 6th 294 3rd
2007 Anaheim 110 2nd 3rd +50 6th 258 T-6th
2008 Detroit 115 1st 1st +73 1st 262 3rd
2009 Pittsburgh 99 4th T-8th +25 9th 264 T-4th
2010 Chicago 112 2nd 3rd +62 2nd 271 3rd

As you’ll note from these recent cup champions, apart from Pittsburgh, all have finished in the top two in their conference, and top 3 overall. Furthermore, while one would expect high-placing teams to have a great goals differential, it seems that the goals-for category is a particularly telling stat. Apart from Anaheim in ’07 (which had two fall-of-fame defencemen and a very solid goalie), the other four cup winners finished in the top-4 overall in goals for.

These are the four teams I picked to have a shot at the cup:

  Team Points Conf Overall GD Rank GF Rank
2011 Vancouver 115 1st 1st +77 1st 262 1st
2011 Philadelphia 106 2nd 3rd +36 4th 259 3rd
2011 Detroit 104 3rd 6th +20 11th 261 2nd
2011 Boston 103 3rd T-7th +51 2nd 246 7th

Based on past data, I feel confident that one of Vancouver or Philadelphia will come through and take it all, though Boston does have a small resemblance to the ’07 Ducks, albeit a poor man’s version (Giguere, Pronger, Niedermayer, lots of size and skill up front, defensive minded coach vs. Thomas, Chara, Kaberle, lots of size and skill up front, defensive minded coach). Detroit meanwhile scored quite a few goals this year, but struggled to keep them out, which is explained in part by the poor goaltending they had part of the year. (Osgood was hurt almost all year, and when Howard missed a few stretches, Joey MacDonald was the defacto starter…).

Here are the top 5 teams in terms of goal differential and goals for:

  Goal Differential  
1 Vancouver +77
2 Boston +51
3 Pittsburgh +39
4 Philadelphia +36
5 San Jose/New York +35

 

  Goals for:  
1 Vancouver 262
2 Detroit 261
3 Philadelphia 259
4 Chicago 258
5 San Jose 248

Additional Notes:

-Pittsburgh has played great despite losing Crosby and Malkin, but doesn’t have the offence to go all the way.

-Chicago still has the offence, but their 1st round match-up against Vancouver makes them tough to pick.

-New York makes a surprise appearance in goal differential. Will give Washington a fight

-San Jose looking strong as usual, but that leadership group must have nightmares come playoff time…

1ST ROUND PREDICTIONS COMING TOMORROW

      Finish——        
Year Team Points Conf Overall GD Rank GF Rank
2006 Carolina 112 2nd 3rd +34 6th 294 3rd
2007 Anaheim 110 2nd 3rd +50 6th 258 T-6th
2008 Detroit 115 1st 1st +73 1st 262 3rd
2009 Pittsburgh 99 4th T-8th +25 9th 264 T-4th
2010 Chicago 112 2nd 3rd +62 2nd 271 3rd
                 
  My Big 4              
2011 Vancouver 115 1st 1st +77 1st 262 1st
2011 Philadelphia 106 2nd 3rd +36 4th 259 3rd
2011 Detroit 104 3rd 6th +20 11th 261 2nd
2011 Boston 103 3rd T-7th +51 2nd 246 7th

One thought on “How to Pick a Playoff Contender

  1. I totally agree on being careful on the idea of momentum; I’ve always been wary of it as well since sometimes a big “playoff push” can burn a team out.

    In my opinion, I also like to look at the kind of scoring a team gets – particularly, do they have a guy they can turn to to be “captain clutch”. Depth scoring is important, but having a bonafide scorer is also important (as you pointed out in the last article, a large number of the top point-getters game from teams in the final four). Looking back at last few cup winners:

    Chicago – Kane and Toews
    Pittsburgh – Malkin and Crosby
    Detroit – Zetterberg and Datsyuk
    Anaheim – this one is more of an anomaly, but although Selanne and Getzlaf didn’t light the lamp a tonne they did combine for five game-winners
    Carolina – Brind’Amour and Staal

    That’s a pretty impressive crop of top scoring talent on those teams. Even if you look at the teams they played against in most years, there were big scorers that brought those teams there.

    And that, to an extent, is why I’m quite skeptical about the Bruins’ chances and don’t think Nashville will go far even though they play a tremendous team game. Their leading goal scorers this season have been Lucic and Horton; not exactly names that strike fear into the hearts of goaltenders. Playoffs typically “tighten up” a bit; lots of close scoring games, defensive matchups, etc. Those scoring-type players above play a crucial role because they have the ability to win a game in the blink of an eye. You could be dominated all game, but all it takes is a second to change that, and that can change a series too. As great as Halak was in last year’s playoffs for Montreal, they would have been dead in the water without Cammalerri as well. If you can put a team like Boston in a hole, I can see them having trouble digging out.

    Something in my gut tells me Vancouver is out by the conference finals, but I have a hard time fully legitimizing it. Luongo’s playoff numbers in the last two years have been a little suspect, but he’s been money. You used to be able to say you could just shut down the Sedins and winning would come easy, but Kesler (and to a lesser extent, Burrows) have just become so dangerous.

    I think I’m going to go a little more unconventional with my picks this year; I’ll go with either SJ or Anaheim in the West, and either Washington or the winner of the 4-5 series in the East. I risk looking like a fool, but 3 out of 4 of those teams I really think will surprise, and 1 is perhaps just me blindly hoping they’ve overcome some past demons.

    Great articles, Pete!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *