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.