The Conference Finalists and the Importance of Match-Ups

There are a lot of good teams in the NHL, with the vast majority of them playing in the Western Conference. The length of the playoff rounds in the West is a testament to that. In fact, only one series played thus far took fewer than six games. (Detroit vs. Phoenix, first round). There is reason to believe that teams like Chicago and Detroit would still be in the post season mix were they fortunate enough to play in the Eastern Conference, though it’s of course impossible to know.

Whether things went right or went wrong, the most common answer is usually the simplest one. Often you’ll see analysts break down a series in a way that’s fairly one-sided. I think there is a need to keep things simple. It’s much easier to describe certain aspects of play (offence, physical play, etc) than it is to describe defensive breakdowns, poor coaching decisions, and other gaffes that are generally uninteresting and require more time and analysis. (It may also be due in part to the way we get our news – TV for instance is a medium which isn’t built for thorough analysis due to its short and varied segments). It’s much easier to say “Ryan Kesler dominated the Nashville Predators” and leave it at that; it’s more labour intensive to discuss Mike Fisher’s weaknesses – not that great in the faceoff circle, poor defensive awareness, overmatched physically, etc.

Similarly, for years, people have been questioning star players like the Sedins’ and Joe Thornton for their playoff failures, and partially or fully ignored their key opponents. In this year’s playoffs, the Sedins’ have faced the following defensive pairings:

Chicago: Keith-Seabrook

Nashville: Weber-Suter

So two Team Canada Olympic blueliners (and last year’s Norris Trophy winner) in round one, followed by what might be the best defensive pairing in the entire league in the second round. Not surprisingly, the Sedins’ had a very good game 1 against San Jose, playing against a good, but unspectacular Boyle-Murray pairing.

Same story in many of San Jose’s playoff failures. Before there was Pavelski and Couture to help down the middle, it was pretty much the Joe Thornton show in San Jose. And in 4 of San Jose’s last 5 playoff exits, he’s played against a number of world-beaters:

2006 – Edmonton: Chris Pronger

2007 – Detroit: Nick Lidstrom

2009 – Anaheim: Chris Pronger

2010 – Chicago: Keith-Seabrook

So while it’s easy to criticize stars for poor performance, there are two sides to every story.

What applies to individuals certainly applies to teams. In the past few weeks, I tried to rate the teams in terms of the quality (on paper) of their forwards, defensemen, and goaltending. I ranked all 16 teams initially before the first round began, and then re-ranked them before the second round. The problem with this approach is that no team plays in a vacuum; they play against other teams. Even if the initial rankings I made were somewhat accurate, re-ranking the teams was problematic because I tended to overrate the importance of the previous round. For instance, I wasn’t a big fan of Boston’s offence after they struggled to score against Monreal, but they had no problem ripping up the Flyers. (And I still think Philadelphia has the best group of forwards and defensemen in the league when fully healthy – The Flyers have SIX players headed for surgery this off-season). Thus I thought less of the Bruins going into the second round because they performed below my expectations in the first round. Similarly, I didn’t think highly of Washington going into round 1 against New York; I actually thought the Rangers had a chance. But since they handled the Rangers so easily, I thought the Caps would certainly take Lightning, who barely beats a Pens team which had the worst top-6 of any team in the playoffs. Thus, I overrated the Caps and underrated Tampa Bay. (Or equally, I overrated New York and underrated Pittsburgh). If you want to gather any insight from a series, you need to know both sides.

Besides the unknown concerning *injuries, there’s also the unexpected performance of certain players, lines, and teams. If you’d predicted that Tampa Bay would make it this far, you’d be going against all logic. But here they are, and the stats don’t lie. The 3rd line has been a revelation for Tampa Bay, with Bergenheim-Moore-Downie providing incredible scoring depth with 30 points. With Ryan Malone and Steven Stamkos (5 and 6 points respectively), failing to produce much, they’ve been among the keys to Tampa’s success, along with stellar play from Dwayne Roloson. Former LA Kings castaway Teddy Purcell is also having a coming out party with 13 points in 12 games. Vinnie Lecavalier also has 12 points after a  season that saw him produce just 54 – his lowest total since 2002. Few would have predicted this offence from unlikely sources, or that Dwayne Roloson would be just as good at 42 as he was 8 years ago for Minnesota (when the Wild made not one, but TWO straight comebacks from 3-1 series deficits, against Colorado and Vancouver) or 5 years ago for Edmonton. However, there may be some mitigating factors here. Could Dwayne Roloson’s magnificence have anything to do with Pittsburgh’s offensive woes? Could Tampa’s scoring outbursts be influenced by Washington’s young, injured, porous defence, and young, inexperienced goaltending? I’m not suggesting that Roloson isn’t good (he’s very good), or that their offence isn’t potent (it is), but Tampa has certainly benefitted thus far from a weaker Eastern Conference and some great match-ups.

(*Although you can assume in any given year that the teams that went to the finals the previous year will be beat up – Chicago and Philadelphia certainly were this year)

Tampa Bay and San Jose

What’s the Tampa Bay formula? Pretty standard stuff – lots of offence, grizzled veterans, and stellar goaltending. Tampa has 4 of the top 10 playoff scorers, and Dwayne Roloson is leading the playoffs in all meaningful goaltending categories.  San Jose has a similar formula – a potent (but more balanced) offence, a large complement of established veterans (with a few great youngsters mixed in) and similarly great goaltending. Niemi hasn’t been as consistent as Roloson, but he’s been fantastic in almost every game they’ve won (save the huge comeback win in the LA series). Neither of these teams relies much on their defence, as both groups are very average by playoff standards. (Hence the need for great goaltending).

Boston and Vancouver

Their opponents are also incredibly similar. Both are very well balanced. Great goaltending, very solid defensemen, and good but for the most part unspectacular forwards. Boston is a bit deeper offensively, while Vancouver is deeper defensively. Boston usually rolls 4 lines, all of which are good, but none of which are particularly potent offensively. (By contrast, Tampa Bay and San Jose rarely use their 4th line.) Vancouver also rolls 4-lines unless they’re behind, though they have a few elite forwards (Sedins’ and Kesler) that they really rely on for offence. Both play a physical, defensively responsible game, forecheck aggressively, and generate a lot of offence off the cycle.

So, who’s the best?

This may sound strange, but it may not matter anymore who the best team is. Though I’ve doubted them for quite a while, I’m starting to think that San Jose may be the best team. However, I don’t think they’re going to beat Vancouver. San Jose doesn’t match-up very well against Vancouver, as the Canucks have exactly the right attributes (great defence and goaltending) required to keep the Sharks at bay. The Canucks won’t shut them down altogether, but unlike Detroit, who couldn’t handle San Jose’s big, skilled forwards for most of the series, the Canucks have big, physical, and mobile defensemen that can keep San Jose’s potent offence – their key strength, (or in business strategy terms, their key competency) – somewhat in check. Equally distressing for the Sharks is the Canucks speed, physicality, and forechecking style. While San Jose has tons of mobile, skilled forwards, their defenders aren’t nearly as impressive. San Jose’s is the example that proves the cliché “the best defence is a good offence” as the Sharks have outshot their opponents all season long and through most of the playoffs. However, the Canucks generated 38 shots in game 1, and really dominated the Sharks in the third period. The Sedins’ in particular have a renewed ability to cycle the puck and dominate in the offensive zone, and the third line had a similarly dominant performance, playing against a pretty subpar San Jose third pairing (Wallin-Demers). The Sharks D has a few big guys who lack mobility (Wallin and Murray) have trouble with the Canucks speed; they have a few little guys who have trouble shutting down the cycle (Boyle and White), and they have a few younger defencemen who haven’t hit their prime (Vlasic and Demers). The Sharks are an incredibly impressive team up front, and Niemi is solid in goal, but their defence is definitely their Achilles heel. The Canucks don’t really have a pronounced weakness. They could use a bit more scoring, but in this series, San Jose’s defence might help them make up the difference.

The Boston -Tampa Bay series is a bit more unpredictable. With both teams sweeping their previous series, the long layoff seemed to have an effect on the play. Game 1 certainly wasn’t a high-quality game, as despite taking a quick and early 3-0 lead, Tampa wasn’t pushing the play as much as Boston was giving up easy goals. Boston is certainly missing Patrice Bergeron’s offence and two-way play, as he really solidifies that second line between Marchand and Recchi. Boston needs all guns firing to take out Tampa Bay, as they don’t have the star power of the St. Louis’, Lecavalier’s, Stamkos’, and Roloson’s. Though I hate to minimize this series, I feel that the Western Conference teams are a cut above, and will probably triumph over whoever comes out as the Eastern Conference champion.

Of note, since 2006, the higher seeded team has won the Stanley Cup in 4/5 years. (The only exception was Pittsburgh in 2009). Regardless of which teams end up in the finals, the western team will be the higher seed, and a slight favourite to beat either of the potential eastern representatives.

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