Monday, March 11, 2013

Breaking down the Eastern Conference playoff picture

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Saturday night in Toronto, Sidney Crosby played what may have been the best one point game of his career.  Last night's five assist performance against the Islanders -- four of which were second assists -- could have been viewed as a market correction, but for the fact that he deserved every single one of those assists.  He should have had ten points this weekend. The "Pens need a top-6 winger" notion has been moved to its rightful place at the bottom of Ray Shero's to-do list at the trade deadline.  Even Ron Cook comes to this conclusion in his War on Declarative Sentences in this morning's PG. (Ex. "Do you think Crosby is loving what Kunitz and Dupuis are doing?"  Gee, Ron.  I guess I'm not sure?)

Is it just me, or do you think Kuntiz would rather score three goals than two goals?
The Pens have a 7-point lead over the Devils in the Atlantic with a hectic week of games starting tomorrow.  The shortened schedule might suck if you have a wife and family who expects to see you on occasion, but if you don't, then the idea of Boston, Toronto, New York, Boston, Washington in a 7-day period gives you an ooey-gooey feeling.  The Pens, with 36 points, are two points behind Montreal for the #1 seed, but the Bruins are lurking with 35 points and 4 games in hand.  Boston is the class of the East, which is why tomorrow night's matchup is the first of the season to get the following Official GTOG Designation: HUGE.

With the season halfway done, let's take a spin around the East and look at each team's playoff chances (according to this site) and where we think things will wind up.  Click to continue reading...

Boston Bruins: 100% chance of making the playoffs

The best thing about the Bruins is that they're built to beat quality teams in a 7-game series, not beat the Islanders 7-1.  Their top-6 is almost perfectly constructed: they have high-end talent (Krejci, Bergeron), established talent (Horton), talented bruisers (Lucic), obnoxious and repugnant talent (Marchand), and emerging elite talent (Seguin).  They have the best defenseman in the league (Chara), their PK is at 92%, and their goalie has a 1.97 GAA and .927 SV%.  The Bruins are the scariest matchup in the East.  Nothing that has happened this season gives us any confidence that the Pens' defense will be able to slow the Bruins from having their way around the Pens' net.

Going to start re-hating the Bruins so quickly tomorrow night. 
The bad sign if you're a Bruins' fan is that Chris Bourque was not only on your team, but he played in 18 games.  It doesn't matter that he was waived three days ago (SPOILER ALERT: he wasn't claimed).  That stink is still in your locker room.  And as much as the Bruins scare the Pens, the reverse is also undoubtedly true.  Kuntiz and Dupuis can make life a nightmare for Chara (read this) and if you get him off his game, the Bruins are a different team.  The Pens are 8-4 against Boston in the last 3 years, including 3-1 last year (with 46 shots in the only loss).  This is the Eastern Conference's heavyweight fight.

Mid-season prediction: #1 seed.

Montreal Canadiens: 99.9% chance of making the playoffs

No one thought they'd be this good; no one thinks they are actually this good.  Therrien is a difference maker, they have impressively balanced scoring (12 guys with 10+ points), and we know better than to underestimate them.  But they don't stack up talent-wise with the Pens and they aren't built to exploit the Pens' biggest defensive weaknesses: clearing pucks and bodies from in front.  Maybe we're underestimating them again?

Nope. Wrong sweater.
Mid-season prediction: #4 seed.

Pittsburgh Penguins: 99.7% chance of making the playoffs

The Pens have a big enough lead in the division with only 22 games left that a few well-timed wins over the Rangers and Devils should be enough to do the trick, even if Malkin is out for more than the 1-2 week current estimate.  We write enough about the Penguins.  Let's just pray for health.

Mid-season prediction: #2 seed

Toronto Maple Leafs: 92.6% chance of making the playoffs

It seems like the Leafs, and particularly Phil Kessel, are often thrown into the seller category when trade deadline scenarios are discussed.  (Wait. Is that a link to a hockey story from something called the "Latinos Post?" Yes.  Yes it is).  This notion does not make a lot of sense.  Kessel may be "underperforming," but he still has 23 points in 26 games, keeps defenses on their heels with his speed, and is signed through next season with a very reasonable cap hit ($5.4 million).  I'm not saying they should start dealing prospects at the deadline, but they haven't been in the playoffs since 2004.  They should roll the dice with what they got.

Hire a stylist, yes.  Trade him, no.
Mid-season prediction: #7 seed

Ottawa Senators: 88.8% chance of making the playoffs

They're this season's 2010-11 Penguins: They have very limited offense and all of their best players are hurt, but they were good enough at the start of the year that if they can manage to sneak a loser-point out of the games they lose there's no reason they can't hang on to a playoff spot.  The shortened season puts them in a really tough spot heading into the trade deadline. The Spezza and Karlsson injuries give them the feel of being sellers, but they only have to hang on for 23 games and they can sneak in the playoffs and hope everyone gets healthy.

Mid-season prediction: #8 seed

Carolina Hurricanes: 88.1% chance of making the playoffs

The dark-horse to make a deep playoff run.  Their top-5 forwards are very skilled, their 3rd and 4th lines are deep and experienced and, most importantly, they have a lot of room to get better.  Five of their best players -- Jordan Staal, Jamie McBain, Jiri Tlusty, Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk -- are still in the ascendance phase of their careers.  We know they're all good players, but we aren't sure yet how good they are.  Semin has been better than they could have hoped and Eric Staal may end up being the best non-Penguin forward in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  Throw in a very aggressive management team, and this team has the potential to get to the Cup finals and sabotage TV ratings in the process.

"Eric, I see you've enjoyed your time in front of the Buffalo net. Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable here in front of Marc-Andre?" - Brooks Orpik 
Mid-season prediction: #3 seed

New York Rangers: 84.1% chance of making the playoffs

Another team with a lot of upside.  The Rick Nash trade left them very top-heavy (their 7th highest scoring forward has six points), but they can be so strong defensively and in net that if their PP can land somewhere in the 20-25% range in the playoffs, they could go 12-9 and end up in the Cup finals. I think they were a better team last year when Dubinsky and Anisimov gave them the forward depth they lack this season, but only slightly.

Prediction: #5 seed

New Jersey Devils: 43.9% chance of making the playoffs

Without Brodeur, they're a mess.  You never want to bury Brodeur, but he's 40 years old, hasn't played in 3 weeks because of mysterious back "soreness," and there are unconfirmed reports that he's lost feeling in his hands.  That's been a recurring condition for Brodeur, as in 2003 he explained to his ex-wife during their divorce that the only reason he had sex with her sister was: "I didn't realize it wasn't you. I lost feeling in my hands."

Very reliant on his hands.
They're the hardest team to count out because they're in the mix every year, but their team stats are below average (23rd in GF, 15th in GA, 18th in PP%, 25th in PK% and -10 goal differential) and the Parise/Cup hangover effect is lingering.  I think it's a narrow miss for them

Prediction: Miss playoffs

Winnipeg: 35% chance of making the playoffs

It would be fun for Winnipeg to be in the playoffs if only to hear Olli Jokinen's interview before Game 1: "I'm vaguely familiar with this notion of the Stanley Cup.  I believe it's that thing Canadian people get excited about every spring while I'm playing for Finland in the World Championships, but I'm not 100% certain."

Here's their problem: they aren't very good.  If every team in the East played to their highest potential, they're probably only better than Florida and Buffalo.  Andrew Ladd has two Stanley Cups with two different teams, but he was a depth player on those teams.  Nothing against him, but when he's your best guy, you don't win 7-game series.  They'll linger and make it interesting, but aren't talented enough.

Mid-season prediction: Miss playoffs

Tampa Bay Lightning: 26.6% chance of making the playoffs

We flip-flop on Tampa more than on any other team.  Sometimes we're convinced they suck.  Other times, especially when their PP is clicking, they look like a lock to chase every opponent's goalie.  They have really high-end talent, but there's a problem with it.  Before I explain, a disclaimer: I'm about to use the plus/minus statistic.  I know it's not perfect, calm down.

Tampa's five best forwards are: Stamkos (-1), St. Louis (E), Purcell (+2), Lecavailer (E), Conacher (-1).  That's a combined Even.

Compare that to the 5 highest scoring forwards on the top 5 teams in the East: Penguins (+48), Canadiens (+17), Bruins (+61), Hurricanes (+51), Maple Leafs (+14).

Of course it's not a perfect comparison, and obviously goaltending and defense factor in, but the underlying trend is clear: the damage that their top-5 forwards can do to your team can be undone.  While they're still on the ice.  Especially when their goalies are all backups, and this guy is one of their defensemen.

Brian Lee: A Tanner Glass-ian 22 games, 0 points, -13.
Mid-season prediction: Miss playoffs.

Philadelphia Flyers: 14.2% chance of making the playoffs

There's a 100% chance that I desperately want the Flyers to miss the playoffs.  I just don't think they're going to.  Because that would be too good to be true.

Their problem is that they aren't good when they play good teams: 5-10 against teams currently in the playoffs.  Bryzgalov's save percentage is under 90%, and if you think Tampa's top 5 scoring forwards have a plus/minus problem, Philly's are a combined -29.  What they have going for them is that we know they're better than this.  Or at least we think we do.

They have played more games than anyone else in the East, so they have only 3 games in the next 13 days.  Then they're in Pittsburgh.  If the Pens put their foot on Philly's throat with last week's come from behind win, Sunday, March 24th may be the opportunity to step down.

Mid-season prediction: Terrible karma if I say they'll miss the playoffs.  #6 seed

Washington Capitals: 13.8% chance of making the playoffs

Say what you want about Ovechkin -- and we will have plenty to say when the time is right to drop our official rebuttal to Neil Greenberg's indefensible assertion that Ovechkin's decline is consistent with the declines of the all-time greats -- but he had one of the funniest sequences I can remember during yesterday's Caps-Rangers game.  During a delayed penalty call against Ovechkin with the game tied at 1, Ovechkin took a second penalty.  The Rangers scored during the delay, then scored again while Ovechkin was in the box.  If there's a Gordie Howe Hat Trick, there has to be a name for this penalty-penalty-goal-goal sequence by Ovechkin.  The Ovechquad?

Probably about to do something dumb.
I'm on the record as thinking as recently as three days ago that they will make the playoffs, but that's probably because my perception of the Caps is based off of their roster four years ago.  It's entirely possible that they just aren't that good.  And mentally, even with their third coach in a year, they're still an absolute mess.  Just look at what Semin was last year with the Caps (horrible) and what he is this year with Carolina (a no-brainer All-Star).  There's no possible way that anyone on this team enjoys playing with Ovechkin which really isn't that big of a problem when you consider that he's only the captain, the highest paid player in the league, and signed through 2021.

Mid-season prediction: Miss playoffs

New York Islanders: 12.3% chance of making the playoffs

Something is wrong with the way standings points are given out if this Islanders team still has a 12.3% chance of making the playoffs.  They can wreak a little bit of havoc on the standings because they can score goals in bunches, but they lose big too frequently, have no home-ice advantage at all, and they have a 37-year old goalie who has no interest in being on the team.

Mid-season prediction: Miss playoffs

Buffalo Sabres: 1% chance of making the playoffs

After the end of Pens-Isles last night, I flipped to the third period of the Flyers-Sabres.  Man, is Buffalo bad. They have to be the most depressing team in the league to root for, narrowly edging out the Florida Panthers but only because no one roots for the Florida Panthers.

The only intriguing thing about them is that they have Steve Ott, signed through next year at a very reasonable and affordable $2.85 million cap hit.  Steve, how would you like to play 16 minutes/night on the best team in the East?

"Is that something you might be interested in?"
Mid-season prediction: June 30, 2013: "With the 30th overall pick, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Buffalo Sabres select..."

Florida Panthers: 0.1% chance of making the playoffs


  1. 1)Boston
    8)Whatever Atlantic team decides to look marginally competent these last 20 games. I truly have no idea. I want to say Isles, but it does feel like wishing bad luck to count out Philly or NJ.

    1. Incidentally - doesn't the East just suck this year? (in my best Ron Cook redundant question voice)

    2. Agreed, the East is very weak. I mean, the Jets and Islanders are in the conversation. That's all you need to know.

      Curious to hear your thoughts on the trade post I just put up.