Thursday, April 28, 2011

The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Quarter-Finals Recap, Semi-Finals Preview, and a Look at the Last 10 Years of CQF Play

Round one of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs is in the books, and calling the conference quarter-final round a wild ride would be an understatement. Forty-eight games occurred in this post-season-opening tournament, and thinking back over the past decade of playoff hockey, I cannot recall a more exciting round. It’s entirely possible that the round seemed so intense because the final four series went to a game-seven situation, and two of those needed overtime to decide the outcome, but either way, this was some high-octane hockey.

After the jump we’ll acknowledge the winner of each series, skim over the awfulness that was my pick selection, and we’ll preview the semi-final round. And as an added nugget, we’ll look at snapshots of the previous 10 seasons of NHL Conference Quarter-Final play.

I picked the Phoenix Coyotes to squeak past the Detroit Redwings in seven games, and I couldn’t have been wronger. The third-seeded squad that calls the Joe home made quick work of the six-seed ‘Yotes, and broomed them from the picture in four straight. It was the lone sweep of the quarter-finals, which only makes the loss that much more embarrassing for Dave Tippett and company. Every year I pick the Redwings to get eliminated –- both because I loathe them, and because I think their agedness will be a factor –- earlier than they do, and they continue to show a post-season savvy perhaps unmatched across the league.

Phoenix displayed their disadvantage by only losing by one goal once; Detroit handled them 4-2, 4-3, 4-2, and 6-2, courtesy of six series points from center Pavel Datsyuk, and a solid 2.50 goals-against average, .915 save percentage from goaltender Jimmy Howard.

Sticking with series I predicted incorrectly (Anaheim in seven), it was the Nashville Predators that advanced for the first time in franchise post-season history. Fifth-seeded Nashville upset the four-seed Anaheim Ducks by ending their season in six games. Despite incredible performances from Anaheim goalie Ray Emery, winger Corey Perry, and the ageless forward Teemu Selanne, the Ducks could only squeeze two victories out of the series: a two-goal game-two margin, and a three-tally win in the fourth contest.

We’ll stay in the west, and stay with the theme of bad picks of mine.
The previous two post-seasons have seen a scary-looking San Jose Sharks teams not reach the potential they established in the preceding regular seasons. I imagined their playoff skin to still be prime for a piercing, and anticipated that the Los Angeles Kings (seventh-seed) would be a conference-wide surprise. Their shock, though, was short-lived, and they were sent packing in six games. In sum, Jonathan Quick, as well as he played, cannot carry this L.A. team on his royal back. Furthermore, the Kings went a dull 0-3 in overtime contests against second-seeded San Jose, managing their only two wins in games two (a 4-0 blanking) and five (3-1).

Still west, still wrong, it’s Vancouver-Chicago, where the Canucks came in the one seed, and should’ve (in my estimation) sent the defending champions home in five games. Unfortunately for my pride, it took all seven. If you’re a hockey fan –- and even if you’re not but you tuned in a touch –- you know that this series was the gem of the first round. When Vancouver went up three games to none, I was feeling good about my prediction, stoked that the Blackhawks were all but destined to be one-and-done in their attempt to defend their championship, and flat-out amazed at the style of play exhibited by Alaine Vigneault’s squad.

Typically, you have a solid offensive core with one or two playmakers, an aggressive trio of defensive pairings, and a goaltender that epitomizes the last-line-of-defense mantra that a goaltender is supposed to epitomize. This recipe is, obviously, one you follow if you want to go deep in the post-season, and have a shot at winning it all. Vancouver might as well be the Richard Blais of this year’s playoffs. They do things their own way, and the only thing that can get in the way of their own success is themselves. In doing things their own way, the Canucks swarm –- and I mean swarm -- to every loose puck, they win most of those battles in the corners and along the boards, they create turnovers, and they probably cycle better than any offensive unit in the game right now.

They also have aggressive defensemen who keep the puck in the zone, create turnovers, and literally anchor the offensive units. Vancouver’s biggest problem is Roberto Luongo, and as much as I think Blackhawks fans are smug, and over-deserving, they had every right to be in the face of the Canuck netminder when he gave blowing the series the old college try, and then some. How that man managed to steal Olympic gold from the U.S. is still a mystery to me.

But, everyone knew it would be tough for Chicago to defend as they had to blow up their roster for cap space after last season’s championship, and you have to give that team kudos for fighting to the bitter end. In terms of picks, this was the only series winner I pegged, but I went oh-fer in picking correct number of wins per series in each of the four matchups.

Out east, I looked a little better. I nailed Tampa Bay in six right on the head, and boy was I glad for that franchise. I like Tampa Bay. I like Guy Boucher and his gutsy coaching style, and I think having Stevie Y at the helm of this front office will mean good things for this team. I was impressed by Tampa Bay’s championship in the pre-lockout campaign, and it’s nice for this club to have some success in Florida, where the teams in Miami seem to steal all the pub. Pittsburgh definitely had their work cut out for them not having Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby healthy, but I didn’t feel sorry for the one bit, ‘cause screw the Penguins. I did, however, shed one lone tear for our old pal The Lone Reader, who took in his first NHL playoff game ever in this series. Unfortunately for him, it was the 8-2 drubbing the Lightning dropped on Pittsburgh last Saturday.

Regarding Washington-New York, I was money there again, selecting the Caps to finish the Rangers in five. This was also an easy pick though, because it is a proven fact that the New York Rangers are –- in my hockey-viewing lifetime -– atrocious in the post-season. Not that I care, but if you need to, blame Lindros.

The Philadelphia Flyers took on the familiar Buffalo Sabres, and I was only one game off the mark in predicting this Philly win: They needed seven to disperse Lindy Ruff’s team, and I’d called for the Flyers in six. This Philly team really should’ve handled business sooner than they did, as Buffalo was a bit outmatched. You have to appreciate Ruff’s ability to get his group this prepared for a high-scoring, bruiser club like Philadelphia, and you also have to wonder what Peter Laviolette is doing starting three different goaltenders in a playoff series. But hey -– they advanced.

Boston-Montreal was the fourth Eastern Conference pairing, and it was a doozy. They needed all seven –- just like I said -– contests to eliminate the pesky Habs, but eliminate them they did, also in a game-seven overtime. Some good hockey there.

Playoff leaders through round one:

Philadelphia’s Danny Briere has six goals, his teammate Claude Giroux has tallied eight assists, and fellow Flyer Kimmo Timonen has registered a nice plus-nine in the +/- category. And we might as well make this first grouping and all-Philly affair, as noted goon Daniel Carcillo has amassed 26 penalties in minutes. Between the pipes, it’s the aged Dwayne Roloson manning the Tampa Bay crease with a hefty .949 save percentage, while Michal Neuvirth of Washington has generated an impressive 1.38 goals-against average.

Looking ahead to the semi-finals:

Fifth-seeded Nashville hosts one-seed Vancouver, and that series gets underway at 8 pm Central this evening. Keith Jones made a good point in saying that the Predators are thanking the Blackhawks for softening up the Canucks for them, and Mike Keenan threw in his own two cents suggesting that Vancouver will need better play from the Sedin twins this series. Both are correct in that a) the Canucks will struggle early against Nashville, and b) the play –- points-wise -– of Daniel and Henrik dropped off significantly after game three, but it’s possible that the wilted performances of one R. Luongo made matters significantly worse.

Chicago is a bruiser of a team, and they gave Vancouver fits. Jeremy Roenick suspects that the Predators will be an even tougher challenge for the finesse play of the Canucks to overcome, and he might be right as well, but I’m not sold on it costing them the series.

The pick: Vancouver in six

Two tilts tomorrow night, and they come in the form of the five-seed Lightning and the one-seed Capitals; the third-seed Redwings will do battle with two-seed San Jose.

In that Eastern Conference series, I know that Roloson is 41 years old, but I don’t think it matters. He’s got his game face on, and I think the offensive production Tampa Bay is capable of will significantly inflate that nice G.A.A. Neuvirth has put together. The Caps can be fierce, but let’s be honest: They’re a bit limited in forward production, and the Rangers weren’t a test. You can’t expect Alexander Ovechkin to do everything, and that’s a mistake Washington has been guilty of in the past. Sure, he spread it around a bit in round one, but again: That was against New York.

The pick: Lightning in six

I didn’t think San Jose could get past the Los Angeles Kings, but they proved me wrong. Detroit proved me wrong as well, but I always pick against them. I won’t make that mistake again.

The pick: Detroit in five

On Saturday, a pair of bad-boy clubs will get after it when three-seed Boston travels to two-seed Philly. I like Boston. I always jump on their bandwagon come playoff time. Usually they choke. They turned things around last year, and they’ve got a nice collection of players including Tim Thomas in net, Zdeno Chara leading the D, and David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Patrice Bergeron as high-quality point producers. Problem is: It won’t be enough for this hungrier-than-ever Flyers squad, who will pounce on every Bruin mistake. I also give them the coaching edge in Laviolette over Claude Julien.

The pick: Flyers in seven

Now, having assessed what’s already happened, and what will happen, I wanted to take a look at a few statistics. I’m not sure what compelled me to collect this data, but I think it was a hunch that told me I’d see more of all things better when I compared this year’s quarter-finals with the quarter-finals of the previous 10 seasons. That turned out to not really be the case at all. What I think gave me the number-crunching itch was that I a) used to think that the playoffs mattered little until it was Conference Finals time, and b) have been able to neutrally invest myself in this year’s and last year’s NHL post-seasons since my Blues have been absent from competition.

Well, technically they were absent in 2008-09 as well, when they laid a Canuck-sized egg and got swept by Vancouver, but let’s not split hairs here.

I went through each quarter-finals series, and found out how many goals were scored, how many shots on goal were generated, how many major penalties were assessed, whether or not home-ice advantage was a factor, how many overtime periods occurred, and the average number of games played per series. (Editor’s Note: Shots on goal are registered shots that would’ve been goals had the goalie not saved them. No, pipes and crossbars don’t count. Major penalties include game misconducts, fighting, spearing, boarding, charging, etc. I left out all the minor infractions. Overtime refers to the number of overtime periods, not games, played. For each of the previous three quarter-finals rounds, come-from-behind-game wins is an available stat.) Why I chose the stats I did is as much a mystery to you as it is to me, but here they are nonetheless:

1999-2000 Conference Quarter-Finals (eventual champion: New Jersey Devils)
Goals: 207
Shots: 2,228
PIMs: 185
Home vs. Visitor: 5/3 in favor of home teams
OTs: 3
Average number of games per series: 5.125

2000-01 CQFs (eventual champion: Colorado Avalanche)
Goals: 212
Shots: 2,428
PIMs: 190
H vs. V: 4/4 tie
OTs: 14
GPS: 5.5

2001-02 CQFs (eventual champion: Detroit Redwings)
Goals: 217
Shots: 2,612
PIMs: 280
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 6
GPS: 5.875

2002-03 CQFs (eventual champion: New Jersey Devils)
Goals: 228
Shots: 2,745
PIMs: 235
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 18
GPS: 5.875

2003-04 CQFs (eventual champion: Tampa Bay Lightning)
Goals: 242
Shots: 2,620
PIMs: 50
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 14
GPS: 5.875

2005-06 CQFs (eventual champion: Carolina Hurricanes)
Goals: 259
Shots: 2,653
PIMs: 220
H vs. V: 3/5, visitor
OTs: 15
GPS: 5.5

2006-07 CQFs (eventual champion: Mighty Los Angeles Ducks of Anaheim)
Goals: 216
Shots: 2,576
PIMs: 420
H vs. V: 6/2, visitor
OTs: 11
GPS: 5.375

2007-08 CQFs (eventual champion: Detroit Redwings)
Goals: 256
Shots: 2,929
PIMs: 180
H vs. V: 5/3, home
OTs: 10
GPS: 6

2008-09 CQFs (eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins)
Goals: 225
Shots: 2,723
PIMs: 405
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 6
GPS: 5.5
Come-from-behind wins: 13

2009-10 CQFs (eventual champion: Chicago Blackhawks)
Goals: 289
Shots: 3,103
PIMs: 245
H vs. V: 4/4 tie
OTs: 15
GPS: 6.125
CFBWs: 19

2010-11 CQFs
Goals: 287
Shots: 3,056
PIMs: 375
H vs. V: 6/2, home
OTs: 18
GPS: 6.125
CFBWs: 11

So, there’re those numbers. And really, I do know why I chose them. I thought we would see an interesting comparison between the five pre-lockout seasons, and the six since. I imagined that by reducing the size of goaltender pads, containing goalie puck play to the behind-the-net rhombus, and eliminating the two-line pass, that offensive production would be dramatically different, which is what the league wanted since, that’s what the other three major leagues do: The NFL has tailored offensive play to favor the passing game; In baseball, people want power hitting; and in the NBA, if you’re not dunkin’ and droppin’ threes, then you’re a nobody.

We did see goals scored go up and stay up, but not significantly. Shots gradually worked their way up to, and recently crested the 3,000 mark. PIMs have been all over the place. I thought once the Donald Brashears and the Ty Domis were gone from the game, we’d see them taper off, but guys are still getting after each other quite a bit in post-season play. Overtime periods have also been sporadic, but notably high this year and last. We learned that home-ice advantage is a factor: In seven of the 11 seasons examined, teams with the higher seed won. Only twice was there a tie. Number of games per series has sputtered around a bit, but, like shots, they crested a mark (six-plus) last year, and stayed there this year. Come-from-behind wins was an interesting stat to look at for two reasons: 1) The media always discuss come-from-behind series wins, but I wanted to look at it on a game-by-game basis, because 2) Often-times it seems that the club that scores first in a game hangs on to win, and this stat wanted to assess the validity of such a claim.

These numbers also made me think a lot about defense. It seemed that, in the earlier parts of the decade, defense was a massive factor in games and in series. You’d have lower numbers of shots on goal, and thus higher numbers of blocked shots, and even lower-scoring games. And to a degree, we do see that: more shots, more goals, and higher-scoring contests. What I don’t believe is that defensive units are softer, or that the pool of goaltending talent is smaller. I think these are the areas that the post-lockout rule changes have had an impact on, and that it’s better in every way imaginable for the game.
Enough on my own assessment of those numbers, though. There’s something to be said for analyzing your own collected data. There’s also something to be said about this year’s Stanley Cup Conference Quarter-Finals, and that is that it was probably the best opening round of playoff hockey I’ve seen in a long, long time.