The matchups are set. The playoffs are here. Months of takes and predictions will finally come to reality over the coming weeks and months. It’s the best time of the year. The best tournament in professional sports, the toughest trophy to win. The Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Every team has a chance, but some teams have a better chance than others, and it seems like the best team never wins, while there’s always that dark horse team that makes a run.
Here’s 3 team you should pick to make a bit of a run, and three you shouldn’t and may be headed for first round exits. We’ll avoid the obvious ones. This wouldn’t be any fun if I told you Tampa is a good team to pick this April, and that Colorado may not have a very good chance. All possession stats are score and venue adjusted courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
St. Louis Blues
The league’s hottest team since the new year fell a point short of winning the Central division after being last in the league on January 1st. Since then, their 30-10-5 record is the best in the league, and have brought the Blues from an embarrassment to a contender. The main reason for their meteoric rise? Jordan Binnington. Binnington took over the reins in net on January 7th, and he put up a .933 5v5 sv%. Compare that to the .898 sv% Jake Allen was giving you prior to Binnington’s arrival, and you’ve got a brand new team. Goaltending has been a huge part of it, but the Blues have played real good hockey down the stretch, unlike the other teams in their division that they’ll ultimately have to go through. A 53.39 FF%, 54.25 xGF%, and 54.06% actual GF% in the Blues’ final 25 games compares extremely favorably to the way their first round opponent, the Jets finished the season in their final 25 games. And if they get there, the Stars and Predators as well. They’ve got the star power; A top line of Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly, and Vladimir Tarasenko is terrifying as well, Alex Pietrangelo is still a top flight dman. Binnington may be due for regression in the playoffs, but the team in front of him has been good enough that he won’t need to be what he has been in his short, but incredible career thus far. Especially in an underwhelming central division, the hot Blues could make a bit of a run here.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights lost 7 out of their last 8 games of the regular season, but considering that backup Malcolm Subban played in 6 of those games, the games weren’t very meaningful, and they continued with excellent underlying numbers, the skid isn’t too concerning. Prior to the 8 game skid, Vegas had won 10 of 11 from the day they acquired Mark Stone. In their last 25 games, they were top 4 in the league in CF%, FF%, xGF%, and High Danger Chances For. Adding Max Pacioretty just before training camp and Stone at the deadline are both upgrades over James Neal and David Perron, who were part of the team that brought Vegas to the cup final last season. The biggest question mark for Vegas may be Marc-Andre Fleury and his health. He played the final two games of the season, allowing 4 in each against LA and Arizona, but the Knights need to hope he’s 100% come Game 1, because Subban isn’t much of a safety net. Fortunately for the Knights, their path is relatively easy and neither the Sharks or Flames goaltending is above average. They’re a real good team, have a relatively easy path to the conference final, and have been playing as one of the league’s best teams since the trade deadline and their acquisition of Mark Stone. Pick them against the Sharks in what may be a short series.
Ah, the Bunch of Jerks. After 9 consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, the Hurricanes qualified in Game 81. They had some terrible early season luck when they were producing more shots than any team in the league but they weren’t going in. The Canes figured it out around the New Year, and haven’t looked back. They fleeced the Wild in a trade for Nino Niederreiter on January 17th, and though they were playing good hockey before that, Nino’s arrival really jump started their season. Since December 29th, they have the third most points in the league behind just Tampa and St. Louis and ahead of teams like Boston, the Islanders, and Calgary. They’re underlying numbers have been excellent all season and they’ve continued their torrid offensive play down the stretch. In their last 25 games, they’re 5th in Corsi For, and 2nd in Expected Goals For, showing that they’re putting lots of pucks to the net and at a high quality. They’ve been below average shooters all year, however, which is why they’re not higher than 7th in the east, so if they can get a little luck in the playoffs, they’re going to be tough to stop. Sebastian Aho is a super star, and should be getting at least some consideration for the Hart this year – he’s been that good. Teuvo Teravainen had the quietest 76 points of anyone in the league. Michael Ferland had a career year, Andrei Svechnikov is just 19 just really broke out mid-season, and Jordan Staal is still the really good defensive center he’s been his whole career. On top of that, they have one of the better backends in the league. Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Dougie Hamilton may be the best big 3 on the blueline in the league, and there are nice compliments in Justin Faulk, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Calvin de Haan, if he’s healthy. They’re a really good team, but I have one concern – fatigue. They fought tooth and nail down the stretch to make the playoffs, which certainly takes its toll with the games being so meaningful and pressure filled. It’s a young team that hasn’t been there before, but if you want a fun, dark horse pick, Carolina could be a team that surprises people.
The Jets are an anomaly. They were maybe the best team in the West last year and undisputed Stanley Cup contender. They had very little roster turnover from last year to this year, and started the season out great, but in the last two months of the regular season, they’ve fallen apart. In their last 30 games, they finished 13-14-3, a 79 point pace over an 82 game season. It’s not as if this has been bad luck or goaltending either. Connor Hellebuyck’s sv% rose from .910 to .917 in their last 30 games, and their possession numbers have tanked. Their 47.96 CF% is 22nd in the league, 47.74 FF% is 24th, and they’ve score just 48.82 of the goals over their last 30. That’s bad, and a large enough sample that it’s not just a cold streak. Most concerning, they have a 45.14 xGF%, which ranks 29th in the league ahead of just the Flyers and Red Wings. Yuck. They’ve had injuries to Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey, and Brandon Tanev, but that excuse can only go so far when they’ve been playing this poorly. Patrik Laine has 1 goal in his last 19 games and just 7 in his last 50 games, which is extremely uncharacteristic of a guy with one of the league’s best shots and scored 44 goals last year. There’s been no issue with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor, they’ve continued to score at a great pace, which has made their downfall such a question mark, considering they’re the same team that dominated the West for much of last season. They’re facing one of the league’s hottest teams in the Blues, so it’s not an easy matchup by any means for them despite the fact that they have home ice. I’m taking the Blues here.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks have been just as bad in Wins and Losses as the Jets since the deadline, and won just 3 of their last 12 regular season games. This is moderately concerning given the record, but their underlying possession numbers are still good. What concerns me is goaltending. Martin Jones has been, statistically, the worst starting goalie in the NHL this year. On raw sv%, he’s the worst in the league at .896. His sv% is .0178 lower than his expected sv% and he has a Goals Saves Above Average (GSAA) is second worst at the league at -23.35. San Jose should be a really good team, one of the league’s best and if Erik Karlsson can return to Erik Karlsson from coming back from injury, then that is a massive boost, but I’m not convinced they can do it if Jones’ terrible play continues. Against a good offensive team like the Golden Knights, the Sharks are going to need to get a save if they want to have any chance in this series, which they haven’t gotten since the deadline, or really all season. Goaltending can sink a team, and can lead a team to triumph on it’s own, and unfortunately for a really good team like the Sharks, it’s likely the former. If they get a good goaltending performance, they’re a contender, but I don’t think it’s likely. Stay away from them.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Similar to the Sharks, the Leafs finished the regular season ice cold, winning just 4 of their final 14 regular season game. Actually, it’s been more than just a 14 game stretch. Since December 29th, the Leafs have lost more than they’ve won going 20-18-6 in 44 games, an 86 point pace. The Leafs are on polar opposites of the offense/defense spectrum, leading to their on-ice rates being middle of the pack. In that 44 game stretch, the Lear top 5 in all of Corsi for, Fenwick For, Shots For, Goals For, and Expected Goals For. On the contrary, they’re bottom 7 in all the same categories against. Long story short, their offense is really good, and their defense is bad, and you can figure that out on paper. The reason they’ve mostly been a good team this season is Frederik Andersen. He put up a dazzling .922 sv% in his first 45 games of the season, but from the beginning of March in his last 14 games, he’s played at a below average .898. This isn’t really rocket science here, look at their lineup. Their top 3 centers are the best trio in the league with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri, accompanied by guys like Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson, that offense is as good as it gets. The issue is their first round opponent, the Boston Bruins, are one of the best defense teams in the East can over power one of those lines with the Patrice Bergeron line, and other with the top pairing of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy while the David Krejci line plays up front. Their X-factor is Andersen. If he stands on his head, they absolutely have a chance in this series, but anything short of that, the Bruins will be able to expose their defensive flaws, and if they can nuetralize the Leafs powerful offense, it may be a quick series. The Leafs path to the cup goes through Boston and likely Tampa, and I don’t see them getting by either. They’re a pretty good team a victim of the playoff format, so I’d stay away from them in your bracket.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are more unpredictable than any playoffs in sports. A hot goalie can upset the leagues best team, or a goalie’s cold streak could sink one. Posts, bounces, bad calls, flat-out randomness, anything can change the playoffs on a whim. This could be a total swing and a miss, but hey, I’m just excited to get going.
Featured Image: John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP
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