After taking a breather following the blistering conclusion of the regular season, the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us. You can take in all the action on TV, but NBC Sports Live Extra also is streaming three of the contests online tonight.
Tune to NBCSN as the Nashville Predators host the Chicago Blachawks, with pre-game coverage beginning at 6:30 ET:
As division winners and last year’s conference final representatives, the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens seem like the gold standard in the East. However, there are plenty of red flags that indicate they’re nowhere near as dominant as their win-loss records make them appear.
Whether you prefer NHL.com’s new stats or you stick with resources such as War on Ice, the bottom line is that possession stats don’t favor either team. The Rangers and Canadiens fall in the lower half (if not lower third) of various rankings in seemingly every scenario, and just about every luck-related stat argues that they’re both paper tigers. Montreal and New York come up as the top two teams in PDO at even strength, one of the tell-tale signs of teams that are getting a ton of bounces (or not nearly enough).
Long story short, if the Rangers and Canadiens are haunted by the question “What if our luck runs out?,” they should be. Both teams have shooting luck that runs a little high, yet the most obvious area where they can get a reality check is with goaltending.
On paper, you’d think that Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist would continue to be all-world goalies, but the Canadiens above all should know how frail a setup that can be. After all, one ill-fated Chris Kreider plunge can negate that advantage.
Beyond that, both teams could face teams with red-hot goalies, negating that advantage … and there’s also the chance that Price and/or Lundqvist could falter. Price, for example, has a .909 career playoff save percentage (down from a stellar .919 career regular-season mark). If the likely Vezina winner and possible Hart recipient merely falls from elite to merely very good, Montreal could be in trouble.
People may roll their eyes at fancy stats talk, but recent history backs much of it up. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have had a nice run of things, and they generally hog the puck better than anyone else.
Interestingly enough, possession stats actually smiled upon the 2013-14 version of the Rangers despite a bumpy regular season, yet the current rendition of the team lost some helpful pieces in the offseason, particularly underrated defenseman Anton Stralman.
Ultimately, the Kings stand as an interesting fork in the road for this debate. Many stats skeptics will sneer at the fact that the defending champs topped many metrics this season and didn’t even make the playoffs. That they were beaten out by the Calgary Flames, one of the worst possession teams in the NHL, is clear proof that Corsi and Fenwick aren’t everything.
The thing is, nobody ever professed they were. Just like nobody’s professing that the Rangers and Canadiens are flat-out bad. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a team’s goalie being its best player, and it’s far from unreasonable to think that Price or Lundqvist could put together Conn Smythe-type runs.
At the same time, no advanced-stats advocate would be surprised if it was the Senators and/or Penguins who advanced to the second round.
Pittsburgh, by the way, finished with the third-highest score-adjusted Fenwick in the NHL.
Pressing Playoff Question: Is this finally Alex Ovechkin’s time?
Around this time in 2014, Alex Ovechkin experienced a season so rotten his hair literally turned gray. The Caps missed the playoffs, people obsessed over his plus/minus rating and the Russian Olympic hockey team crashed and burned in Sochi.
Some paint Barry Trotz as the wizard who finally got Ovechkin to play along. Others say No. 8’s scoring stats really aren’t that different from 2013-14. Wherever you land in that specific argument, the tenor is far more positive regarding the Ovechkin this year than it was the last.
Much of sports writing revolves around praising or lambasting a star player when his team wins or loses — yet the dirty secret is that success or failure often boils down to the supporting cast.
So the biggest reason why this might be Ovechkin’s year isn’t because he stopped “gliding.” It’s because the Caps are the most competent and stable they’ve been since the happy days of the Bruce Boudreau era.
“This is a different team compared to the last couple years,” Ovechkin said, per CSN Washington. “A mature team, an experienced team.
“It’s a lot different.”
Simply put, Ovi’s getting a lot more help.
Braden Holtby’s put together a borderline Vezina season; while Semyon Varlamov showed flashes of brilliance with Washington, the bottom line is that Holtby’s the best net option the Capitals have had since Ovechkin first put on that goofy eagle sweater.
The Capitals also invested big-time in their defense this offseason, and it’s paid off. Matt Niskanen is starting to feel it, with 11 of his 31 points pouring in since March. John Carlson’s enjoying easily the best season of his career, and Mike Green hasn’t been too shabby as he chases a new deal, either.
Washington’s offense isn’t as explosive as it once was, yet there’s reason to think that they can survive a slow night or two from their big guns. Ten different players scored at least 10 goals this year; 17 skaters scored at least 17 points. Marcus Johansson found the back of the net a career-high 20 times, and Troy Brouwer tied a personal best with 43 points.
Caps GM Brian McLellan says the club’s secondary scoring behind Ovechkin (and Nicklas Backstrom) could be vital for a successful Cup run.
“That’s going to be the key, I think, to winning a lot of the games,” he said, per CSN Washington. “Goals scored by third and fourth line guys at the right moment. A rebound goal, a traffic goal. I don’t think it’s total numbers, I think it’s more impact goals than it is anything else for those guys.
“We’re going to need all those guys to chip in – [Jason] Chimera, [Joel] Ward, Brooks Laich, [Curtis] Glencross – we’re going to need big goals from those guys to be successful.”
Overall, the Capitals have the most forward depth, best goalie and best defensive group since Ovechkin came to DC. They also have an experienced head coach in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
Will that be enough for Ovechkin to finally break through at the team level after all those years of frustration? A lot of things can happen in the postseason, obviously, but it’s been a long time since Ovechkin’s outlook was this optimistic.
Maurice describes Jets as huge underdogs vs. Ducks
For some, it may seem obvious to call the Anaheim Ducks the favorites and the Winnipeg Jets the underdogs, as Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice did to the Winnipeg Sun.
Then again, considering the Jets’ strong finish and the Ducks’ recent history of playoff disappointment, it makes sense that Maurice still hast to come out and say it.
“We’re a huge, decided underdog in this series,” Maurice said. “They finished first, best team in the Western Conference. We didn’t. But we have some confidence in our game.”
Maurice praises the Ducks’ skill and size, pointing out that “you don’t finish first in the Western Conference by accident.”
Again, though, there are some who will look at the Jets as serious upset threats.
Beyond the scorching-hot finish for Winnipeg – particularly frequently embattled goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who ended the year on the run of his life – the Jets have been a strong possession team during the entire season and final stretch. They boast an array of quality forwards (especially underrated guys like Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little), a deep defense when healthy, and now possibly the goaltending they’ve been craving.
In other words, those who are paying attention probably think that the Jets shouldn’t sneak up on the Ducks at all, yet it’s understandable why Maurice might want to play that card.
The Ottawa Senators will enter the playoffs with heavy hearts, as word surfaced on Tuesday that assistant coach Mike Reeds died at the age of 55. Bayshore Broadcasting first reported the sad news that his battle with cancer has ended.
The news has been confirmed by the team.
Reeds had been fighting the disease for years before he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer recently. Bayshore Broadcasting’s report indicates that he was also dealing with pneumonia symptoms when he passed away on Tuesday morning.
Reeds played 365 regular season games and 53 postseason contests at the NHL level, spending most of his career with the St. Louis Blues (who drafted him 86th overall in 1979). He also spent parts of two seasons with the Hartford Whalers.
He began his coaching career as an assistant coach with the Peoria Rivermen. Reeds won championships with the Kalamazoo Wings in the AHL and the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL before becoming a Senators assistant beginning in 2011-12.
The hockey world is already outpouring its support for the veteran coach, as you can see below.
The entire Ottawa Senators organization sends its deepest condolences to the Reeds family. Rest in peace, Mark.