In most sports relative skill levels are the magic smoke in the ox that determines the outcome of games, specifically playoff games. In the NHL more than other major league sports there are other factors that obliterate the relevance of the skill level of the two or three best players. Health is often a big factor, and coaching is perhaps more important than in any sport but football.

But for the most part, what determines early playoff series is the matchup. The interplay between the tendencies and abilities of the 36 skaters and two (or more) goales on the ice each game are what decides a game. Factors like home ice and the officiating are influential, but not (usually) paramount. If we look at each of four series briefly who does what better becomes apparent.

Montreal Canadiens vs Tampa Bay Lightning:

This is the one series that is already over. That Tampa Bay didn’t get good goaltending from Lindback is evident, but a more interesting stat tells the story. In three of the four game, including both of the games in Tampa Bay where Lightning coach Jon Cooper had last change, the Montreal Canadiens were able to get more players free of coverage for two or more shots on goal in the game. Essentially, the goaltending wasn’t the only issue for Tampa Bay, their defense wasn’t as good as Montreal’s at addressing the other teams depth.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets

This series is so even on the ice it would be impossible for any casual sports fan to look at the four games and tell which of the two finished the season on top of a division and which was a wild card. If you were going to pin this series being even on one thing, it would have to be complacency. Both teams have given up two goal leads twice. In three of the four games the team that won had more shots and more than forty shots on goal.

San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings

Multiple shot diversity is again playing a a factor. San Jose has been even in one game (game 1) and ahead of Los Angeles in what I’ve decided to call the “Shooting Depth Quotient” in the other three games. Simply put they’ve again had more players get loose to get multiple shots. In other terms the almost no name defense of the Sharks has been superior to the Doughty led defense of the Kings. The Sharks lead their series 3-1.

Boston Bruins vs Detroit Red Wings

Yup, the SDQ is in play again. The Bruins had a greater SDQ in all four games, and while it was fairly close in three, the game with arguably the most lopsided outcome, game three, the Detroit Red Wings got half as many players loose for multiple shots as did the game winner. In game three where the Bruins out scored the Wings 3-0 the visitors had 12 players get loose for multiple shots. The Bruins lead this series 3-1.

The Nashville Predators cut ties with the NHL’s longest tenured head coach. They did it in the nicest possible, way of course but not renewing a contract is only different from firing in semantics. Barry Trotz who was the only head coach the Preds, their fans, and the world had known is soon to be merely the first head coach in team history. The issues with finding a replacement however are complex enough that his replacement is not only sure to be there less time, but significantly less time.

The main issues are:

  1. Nashville is not a major market.
  2. General Manager David Polie has to be on ice as thin as any general manager.
  3. The Predators have no history of success.
  4. The direction ownership and management wants to go in will severely limit the potential pool.

On the first point there is no arguing. On the third point there is even less. The team has won less than one playoff game a year sine its inception. The franchise has won exactly two playoff rounds in its history, not in the same year. The hero of one of those series was Joel Ward. A solid player, but not the guy who should be carrying a team.

David Polie had the opportunity to thicken the solid water on which he stands this year in selecting the American Olympic roster and coaching staff. He had every American player in the NHL, SHL, AHL, KHL, USHL, College, and CHL to choose from. No coach would say no. No healthy player would decline. The American program four years ago rocked the hockey world by beating Canada in a pre-medal game, and taking the eventual gold medal winners to overtime.

This years squad did nothing. Literally nothing. They flopped. The flailled about in the medal round and lost to Finland int he Bronze medal round, a game where they failed to bounce back from a loss to Canada. When the games mattered, the coach, hand picked by Polie couldn’t keep them focused. The squad he picked with no need to budget minded, no limitations on when they can talk to free agents, and no worries about how they’d adjust long term to a pretty small city and its dearth of entertainments.

Of these points, as other places have proved, the second and fourth points are most important. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles all had major market attractions, solid enough fanbases to support a team, and resources. What they lacked were a general manager who had an unassailable position, and ownership committed to making the team a winner. The Nashville Predators are not as far gone as the Oakland Raiders or the Atlanta Thrashers were in terms of disaffected and negative affect ownership, but are not at the upper tier or even the middle.

To find a coach that gives them the chance of moving among the elite of NHL franchises, the ownership needs to decide which group they want to be in, make the right choices and the right man will become available.

 

It is a truism in sports; football, and hockey most of all that defense wins championships. We’ve seen it year after year. This year it seems to be adding a wrinkle to itself. Powerplays are costing teams games. Not by failing to produce, but by favoring offense so heavily, they aren’t prepared to play responsibly.

The Dallas Stars in game two of their series with the Anaheim Ducks were down two to one in the third. They were on the powerplay. On the ice are Valeri Nichushkin, Sergei Gonchar, Colton Scevoir, Cody Eakin, and Trevor Daley. Gonchar at age 40 is not in any way the skater he was ten or fifteen years ago. Nichushkin is rookie who is not only in his first NHL season, but his first season playing hockey in North America. Facing them were Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Ben Lovejoy. Either Getzlaf or Fowler deserve watching, and if you fall asleep at the switch with both of them on the ice, you deserve what happens next. The Stars did.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a lead last night, they went on a powerplay, and lost it. All the momentum they had, and it was notable, the disorder of the Blue Jackets was equally notable. But the Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, the same man who was in charge of a very mushy team USA roster not long ago, puts out a PP of Malkin, Crosby, Niskanen, Kunitz an Neal against a team that had nine short handed goals in the regular season. The most defensively capable of that group is probably the 34 year old Chris Kunitz. As you know, the BlueJackets scored, the Penguins did not and the scramble began. Momentum was reversed, an the game ended ugly for Penguins fans.

In the first game of their series, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Montreal Canadiens.  The Bolts are up 2-1 on home ice, a raucous crowd is making the building shake. P.K. Subban is in the box for slashing.  Onto the ice storm Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, they are joined by Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan and completing the unit is Valeri Filppula. We can argue about who the best defender in that group is, its probably Callahan, but it doesn’t matter. They got cute, and got beat by Brian Gionta setting up Lars Eller. To highlight how little offense the pair produced only seven more points than rookie Ondrej Palat, and neither actually surpassed Stamkos who was limited to 37 games and 40 points, while Gionta and Eller played 81 an 77 respectively. While the teams went back and forth scoring on a game that went to overtime, the Lightning never led again, and lost the game.

The Dallas Stars ended the second game of their first playoff series since the 2007-08 conference finals exactly where they didn’t want to be. They are down two games to zero, and the games were not as close as the score in the first game would indicate.  Through 120 minutes they have given up eight goals. Only two of those goals came while on the penalty kill. One more was an empty net goal.

Worse, a look at the number of shots in each game says that it isn’t just pure shot totals getting them in trouble. The first game was a high but not outrageous 35 shots against Kari Lehtonen, but the second was not high at all. Just 19 shots found their way through sprawling forwards and stalwart defenders. His save percentage in the two games this series is .886 and .842. Neither of those numbers can be called anything as glorious as average.

But there are alternatives to Lehtonen. Jack Campbell who played for the US National Development team allowed 1 goal in April playing int he AHL. The former 1st round pick also was named Man of the Year for the Texas Stars. Given how poorly the current netminded has done in his playoff exploits, it might be time to give Campbell a call before the opportunity passes the club by.  Closer to home is two time Vezina winner, and playoff warrior Tim Thomas. Yes, Thomas isn’t having his best year, and yes he did not play in the playoffs or at any other time last year, but his career numbers indicate that when the light shines brightest and people say he can’t, that’s the time Thomas glows.

No matter what option Lindy Ruff goes with, assuming he gets the choice, the Stars do need to figure out what to do with their goaltending. The current situation will make a waste of the hard work, dedication, and determination of players like Jamie Benn, Alex Goligoski, and others all season long.

The only original six matchup of the first round could send the victor to a second round matchup with another original six team. For now the Boston Bruins, the team that has dominated the east for the last few years faces off with the Detroit Red Wings the model franchise of the west for many years. The contrast in syles, club directions, and cities couldn’t be greater. One similarity is that both teams have enormous, passionate fans all over the globe. You can’t follow either the team on the road and not spot jerseys for the visitors and hear the chants urging them on.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins did something they haven’t done in a while, finished the regular season with home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. They have had a lot of turnover since they last raised Lord Stanley’s Cup; gone are Michael Ryder, Andrew Ference, Rich Peverley, Tim Thomas, Mark Recchi, Tomas Kaberle, and Tyler Seguin. In their place are Reilly Smith, Jarome Iginla, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Dougie Hamilton, Loui Erikson. The structure is the same, the mind behind the bench unchanged but the attributes of the men in the spoked-B is rather different.

Best Players

Patrice Bergeron who scored the cup clinching goal not long ago has had his second highest goal scoring season, Zdeno Chara is still the best shutdown defenseman in the league. Jarome Iginla enjoyed yet another 30 goal season, Tuukka Rask had stellar numbers, and David Krejci and Milan Lucic are proving it almost doesn’t matter who is on their line that they will succeed with whoever.

X-Factor

The young Bruins have to stay focused on the very quick, highly talented stars of the Wings and not be dazzled or rattled by Datsyuk, Zetterberg (if he plays) or otherwise fall into Babcock’s inevitable plan to pull the Bruins out of their physical, space denial game.

 

Detroit Red Wings

It was an open question if the Red Wings would make it into the playoffs at all. The fact that they did means Mike Babcock is likely to come up short on votes but still have a great claim to the Jack Adams award for best coach. This roster was riven with injuries, is aging, and no one would have been surprised if their playoff streak finally expired. The good news for the Red Wings is that the Bruins are a good matchup for them.

Best Players

Pavel Datsyuk is not the man he was five years ago, but he is still capable of breath taking plays. Gustav Nyquist was an unknown a fistful of months ago, today he’s the guy who led the Red Wings in goal scoring despite playing just 57 games. Kronwall is one of the best hitters in the NHL and woe to anyone who doesn’t keep their head up. Daniel Alfredsson at 41 is still showing there’s gas in the tank and led the team in scoring, his 121 NHL playoff games, with 100 points in them, is more than many of the Boston Bruins defense total NHL games.

X-Factor

With the injuries they’ve suffered, and the ones they will no doubt collect in the opening games, can this team hang with a deeper squad that is just as well coached? This team had one player crack 20 goals in a Wings uniform, while the opponent had two cross 30 and two more over 20. If as the road team Babcock can consistently create the right matchups to win the series, it will be his finest coaching job to date.

(No actual content here, had this been a real post there would be words about hockey, instead there are no words at all. Except these ones.)

This may be the best first round matchup for hockey. The Kings have won a cup recently, as have have the Ducks. The Sharks spent half a decade as the favorites to win it and still haven’t. A first round meeting of two California teams where the winner will quite likely play the third California team is likely to catapult the youth hockey enrollment numbers. And yes, seeing guys like Carter and Richards go toe to toe with Thornton and Pavelski will be more than a bit fun to watch too.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks a very interesting mix of household names and guys no ones ever heard of. They have arguably the deepest six defensemen in the NHL, without having a guy currently at an elite level back there. Thornton and Marleau will get most of the media attention, but Vlasic, Pavelski, and Couture have worn out some boots this season getting them here.

Best Players

While Joe Thornton is still the best pure passer in the NHL, he’s not getting any younger, Joe Pavelski is a different case. They younger Joe is clearly at, or possibly just reaching the height of his powers, and Marleau just keeps trucking along.

X-Factor

Do they want it? This team has not ever reached its potential. Some years they went into the playoffs very damaged, others they got hurt early, and some years they just showed up and expected to win. This year they need to go attack the ice like it is their last chance at glory and their only hope at salvation, because it just well may be.

Los Angeles Kings

Same story, different year. The Kings enter the playoffs this year with bottom tier scoring and top end defense. The backup goalie could be a starter on many teams, and the late season trade piece (in this case Gaborik) are expected to scare up offense for the whole team. If you’re looking at recent history, that was what happened their Cup year. Can it happen now? Who knows?

Best players:

Jonathan Quick is having a solid, if not spectacular year, Drew Doughty is still improving in his own zone, and Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are the only two players who managed to break 20 goals this season. For the team to make a deep run, they are going to need help from all over the roster.

X-Factor

Goaltending. If Quick can regain his cup winning form, or Martin Jones goes in and makes people look as foolish as he did in the regular season, the Kings will likely be playing in May. They will still need to score goals however and that has been a problem in LA for at least half a decade.

This is a playoff pairing we haven’t seen much of. Neither team has been all that impressive over the last half decade. In the first meeting between the two back in 2003, the Wild prevailed in the first round meeting. In the more recent meeting in 2008, the Avalanche prevailed. Not many players are left from either squad. The Avalanche were the surprise of the season. Wild were plagued by injury at all the worst possible times, to all the worst possible players. The Avs chased down the division title, and the Wild fended off the Stars and Coyotes, which brings us here.

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche surprised everyone this year with new head coach Patrick Roy getting superb offense and adequate defense out of a rather lopsided roster. In the previous season the defense was woeful, and the offense only pretty good. Led in scoring by Matt Duchene and in goals by Ryan O’Reilly, two even younger players in Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon were key in their success contributing 50 goals good for second and fourth in team scoring.

Best Players:

Semyon Varlamov has spent the last three seasons reminding his former team simply by playing what they gave up. No more so than this year when his .927 sv% brought the Avs to the playoffs while the goalie brigade in Washington brought them to the golf course early. Landeskog and Duchene are two guys who are going to be household names for a good long time up front.

X-Factor

We’re now in the playoffs, and this is still a very, very young team Duchene, Landeskog, O’Reilly, Mackinnon were the top four scorer’s for this team and their average age is about 21 and enough time to recover from an epic hangover. If their offense can’t get going, their defense isn’t up to saving them in a best of seven series.

Minnesota Wild

The Wild are a very odd team to quantify, they only had two player hit twenty goals this season. But they were 7th in goals against despite a brigade passing through the goalie crease as Darcy Kuemper, Ilya Bryzgalov and John Curry all spent time in net in place of Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis) and Niklas Backstrom (he’s Niklas Backstrom) spent significant time sidelined. They do have Matt Moulson and a few others that might be dangerous if played well by Yeo, but not many teams are going to be intimidated by the offense the Wild have historically put on the ice.

Best Players:

Ryan Suter is probably leaving Las Vegas with the Norris trophy. If he doesn’t, there should be damn good story around it. Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville both need to watched carefully, and Marco Scandella’s days of flying under the radar are overdue to come to an end.

X-Factor

Mike Yeo doesn’t have much experience as an NHL head coach. This is his third season, and second playoff trip. He should know his players (most of them) better than his opposite number knows the Avalanche. If he can push the right buttons a the right time, the Wild do have a chance at the second round.

This series could be described as “A Tale of Two Cities In Freefall” by someone who particularly loved Dickens. That writer would no doubt treat their readers to a wordy, drawn out description of the teams records fillled with references to the a book most people never bothered to suffer through; that writer isn’t me. Neither the Blues who ended the season on a zero for six slide, nor the Blackhawks who played mediocre hockey have much to shout about coming into the post season.

Saint Louis Blues

The list of players dinged up over the last month of the regular season for the Blues reads like a who’s who of the team. David Backes spent time on the shelf, Olympic sharp shooter T.J. Oshie was down-checked, faceoff stud and defensive stalwart Valdimir Sobotka is down and out. Vladimir Taresenko hasn’t taken the ice since mid march, and both Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund found themselves in need of time to heal. Which makes it remarkable that the team was still within striking distance of the President’s Trophy until the final games of the regular season. This is a very talented team when healthy, who work hard and are coached well.

Best Players

On a team this deep, it is hard to winnow the list. Backes and Steen have gotten a lot of attention, but Oshie was second on the team in scoring. On the backend, it is hard to argue that the a more talented group has hit the ice for a playoff run since Bourque and Roy were in Colorado together. This team has three defensemen who could be considered number ones in Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk. In net they have Vezina winner and Olympic medalist Ryan Miller who is having one of his better years despite how much of the year he spent on the woeful Sabres.

X-Factor

This team has all the talent in the world, how well the execute and stay focused will determine how deep they go. Two years in a row they ran into the Kings and produced two brilliant, beautiful series which they lost. This year its the Chicago Blackhawks on the agenda.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

The defending champions had a very fast, very talented roster. Where the Blues thrive in games that are ultra physical and play a counter punch style many nights, the Blackhawks are quite happy to win on pure skill and determination. This team can make lots of great passes, the core group has been together a long time, and know each other very well. Of that core, Hossa, Toews, and Kane have all missed time due to injuries.

Best Players

Like the Blues, this is a pretty deep roster. Sharp led the team in scoring in the regular season, Seabrook is a very effective defensive-defenseman, Keith might be on the shortlist for the Norris, and not many GM’s would take too long thinking about a trade package coming their way that included Toews or Kane.

X-Factor

How much will fatigue and the physicality of the Blues affect this team? The Stanley Cup finals didn’t end until just before the draft in late June and most of this roster was part of that win, many of their top players played in the Olympics, and they do not have home ice advantage in this series.