The Conference Finals in both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference offer a group of fascinating story lines and opportunities to analyze the teams and the NHL in 2014. With each game during both Conference Finals, Hockey Prospectus will look at what the statistics say about the direction of the series, the league and who will raise Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Montreal Canadiens 3 New York Rangers 2 (OT)
The margin in which the Rangers out-shot the Canadiens. We are not quite yet at apology time from us to Dustin Tokarski, but the 24-year-old goaltender played a terrific game despite facing more pressure than his counterpart Henrik Lundqvist, who just happens to be the best goalie alive.
Tokarski had several great stops, including one at the doorstep against Martin St. Louis. The game-tying goal, which game with under a minute left, went off a skate in the blue paint and truly had nothing to do with the goalie. Does this mean it was the right call to start him? We’ll never really know what Peter Budaj would have done and we won’t know until the whole thing plays out whether the first two games were the real Tokarski (Note to self: trademark “The Real Tokarski”) or if it was just small sample goalies being small sample goalies.
If you were told that a player on the Montreal Canadiens had a plus-2 Penalties Drawn vs. Taken ration, you might name 18 or 19 players before you guessed Brandon Prust. He of the egregious Derek Stepan hit finished the game with three penalties drawn and only one taken – the one where he ended Stepan’s series by crushing him for no apparent reason, after the puck was gone and while the Rangers’ forward was not looking.
If statistics like this were a little more widely talked about, this would be a pretty big embarrassment for the NHL. Not only was he allowed to stay in the game, but he added value to his team with his gross hit by ultimately providing them with three power plays.
As an aside: If you ever own a team and want to win the Stanley Cup, it seems like a pretty safe plan to have a fairly inconsequential player lay a dirty hit on a good player in attempts to take him out for the series. Other than being a horrible thing to do, it’s got little downside. It has been proven the league allows it.
3) +7.8%, 11.1, 1
Thomas Vanek’s Relative Corsi, ice time and go-ahead assist. Vanek was blamed by the NBC broadcast for a goal that happened on a P.K. Subban whiff, where Vanek beat two other forwards back to the D-zone on the backcheck and was in position to make a play on the puck. The bounce did not go his way – that’s how it goes – but it was more proof that the narrative is holding steady that the league’s 25th best point producer does not care or whatever. Yet, by the numbers (and an actual analysis of that goal against) he looked pretty caring.
The second number gives you an idea of what is going on behind the bench in Montreal sometimes. Playing one of the league’s perennial scorers 11 minutes in a game in which you could fall down three games to none is a bad choice. It is much like Joe Torre dropping Alex Rodriguez to the 8th spot in the order during the 2005 playoffs. Is he struggling? Sure. Will one of the league’s best producers struggle forever? Isn’t his chance to put the puck in the net much higher than non-scorers?
4) 11, +3.1%, 54.3%
Derek Stepan’s points, Relative Corsi and percentage of power play time. He is a star player. If the Rangers still blow by the Canadiens in five and he comes back for the Cup Final, we’ll forget about this whole silly Prust thing and praise him for being a tough ole Canadian boy. If they lose, his absence will be a major reason. Stepan is a legitimate two-way, top-six forward who could play in that role on any team in the NHL. Being out will cause lines to shuffle, players who are not as talented or not as good a fit to play on the top two lines and bottom players to get more ice time. The injury simply makes the Rangers a worse hockey team.
It has some luck involved – and a great goalie – but Benoit Pouliot has a Goals For % of 68.4 to go along with eight points and a +5.9 Relative Corsi during the post-season. He is one of the more under-appreciated players around, often producing points at 5v5 and possessing the puck. Because he was drafted high and has come short of expectations, he’s often looked at as kind of a bust who is trying to salvage a career. The truth is he is a very solid third line player, who can step up to a top six role or play on the power play if need be because of his hands and offensive instincts. With Stepan out, it is very likely he will see a jump from around 14 minutes per game. Keep an eye out for him.