Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

The playoffs are here! After six months of watching regular season games, we now get to enjoy the spectacle that is postseason hockey.

Funny Tweets aside, this year’s playoffs are probably going to be really fun, mainly because you could make a case for 8 to 10 teams to win the Stanley Cup, and not be completely off base with your choice (#parity).

The Western Conference may be better than the Eastern Conference this year, but there are still some intriguing matchups in the East.

Here’s a breakdown of each first round series in the East, along with predictions provided by intuition and a statistical model.

Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Washington Strengths: The Washington Capitals finished the season with a 52.0% CF%, and had a 52.4% CF% post trade deadline. With Braden Holtby in net, and elite shooters/playmakers such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechking, the Captials could be expected to maintain a slighty elevated PDO. They did, and their goals for percentage on the season was the top in the league. They also have elite special teams. Their dominance of the league standings this year was no fluke; the Capitals are a very, very good hockey team.

Washington Weaknesses: The Washington Capitals really don’t have any weaknesses. Perhaps the only thing that could be labeled as a weakness for them is how they’ve played recently; their power play and penalty kill numbers have dipped over their past 25 games.

Philadelphia Strengths: The Philadelphia Flyers may not have been the a good puck possession team over the course of the entire season, but in their past 25 games, they’ve been better than the Capitals, posting a 52.7% CF%. There’s a lot to like on the back end, as guys like Radko Gudas, Evgeny Medvedev, and Shayne Gostsibehere have played surprisingly well this season, and up front, there’s still Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, as well as players like Sean Couturier. Combine all of that with one of the league’s best 5v5 goalies in Steve Mason, and you get a team that probably is better than their spot in the standings.

Philadelphia Weaknesses: The Flyers don’t have a strong penalty kill, with their shorthanded group ranking 20th in the league in efficiency. Washington has one of the league’s top power plays, so the Flyers will need to stay out of penalty trouble if they want a shot at pulling off the upset.

I like the Flyers, and think they would beat most other opponents. The Capitals are just too good, and though Philly puts up a fight, they still fall to the Caps.

Shane’s prediction: Washington in 7.

Model prediction: Washington in 5.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers

Pittsburgh Strengths: Ever since Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench for Pittsburgh, the Penguins have been one of the league’s 5v5 teams, with a CF% of 55.3% only being bested by the Los Angeles Kings’ 56.5%. The 5v5 dominance is complimented by a strong penalty kill (5th in the league in efficiency), and solid net minding from Marc-Andre Fleury (his .921 save percentage is 6th among goalies who played 50 games).

Pittsburgh Weaknesses: The only weakness in Pittsburgh game since Sullivan has taken over is the power play. Even then, it’s still near league average in efficiency (16th), and with talent like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang, absolute dominance is only a few tweaks away. If the power play starts clicking, Pittsburgh will be borderline unstoppable.

New York Strengths: Henrik Lundqvist.

New York Weaknesses: The New York Rangers one of the league’s worst puck possession teams, and have been playing terrible recently, with a dismal 46.2% CF%. Their penalty kill is 26th in the league, and their power play is essentially average. It’s hard to find a strength for the Rangers besides Lundqvist, which speaks volumes to how good the Swedish goaltender is.

It’s really, really hard to see the Rangers winning a game, let alone beating Pittsburgh. The Pens sweep.

Shane’s prediction: Pittsburgh in 4.

Model prediction: Pittsburgh in 5.

Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders

Florida Strengths: The Florida Panthers may have started the year out getting out-shot and relying on the percentages, but since the trade deadline, they’ve been 7th in the league with a 52.5% CF%. They’ve also got Roberto Luongo, who has a .922 save percentage in 62 games this season.

Florida Weaknesses: Florida’s special teams are atrocious (23rd in power play efficiency and 24th in penalty kill efficiency). This is a team that really relies on their 5v5 play, and the more time spent at even strength, the better.

New York Strengths: The Islanders have two net minders who have played well this year, with Jaroslav Halak posting a .919 save percentage, and Thomas Greiss posting a .925. New York’s penalty kill is also 4th in the league in efficiency.

New York Weaknesses: At 5v5, the Islanders don’t look strong. Recently, in fact, they’ve been terrible; since the trade deadline, their 46.9% CF% is 23rd in the league. The Panthers have been playing good; the Islanders have not.

The Panthers appear to have a massive advantage over the Islanders at 5v5. If New York is going to win this series, they’re going to need a Herculean effort from their goaltender, and they’ll need their special teams to be good. I just don’t see either of those happening.

Shane’s prediction: Florida in 5.

Model prediction: Florida in 6.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

Tampa Bay Strengths: The Tampa Bay Lightning went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year, then returned most of their roster. They’re a good puck possession team again, finishing 6th with a 52.2% CF%. They’ve got Ben Bishop, who is second among goalies with 50 games played with a .926 save percentage. Their penalty kill efficiency is 7th in the league. There’s a lot to like about Tampa… when they’re healthy.

Tampa Bay Weaknesses: The problem is, the Lightning are not healthy headed into the postseason. They’re missing Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos, two of their best players. As a result, possession numbers have slipped recently, down to 51.6% in their last 20 games. It will be interesting to see how the Lightning match up against other teams with two key players missing from their lineup. (It should also be mentioned that Tampa Bay’s power play is dreadful, ranking 28th in efficiency).

Detroit Strengths: The Detroit Red Wings have been a strong Corsi team ever since the return of Pavel Datsyuk, and they’ve been playing well of late, posting a 52.8% CF% in their past 20 games. Petr Mrazek had a very strong start to the season, and finished with a .921 save percentage, making him a potential X-Factor, even if he’s struggled lately.

Detroit Weaknesses: The biggest weakness for the Red Wings is that their goaltenders have really struggled recently, posting a .895 save percentage in their past 20 games. Other than that, the team doesn’t have too many holes; their special teams are pretty average, not being good, but not being bad, either.

Detroit looks like a decent opponent, though I think a healthy Tampa Bay would steamroll them. Still, the Red Wings challenged the Bolts last year, and pushed them to seven games; I expect the same to happen this year.

Shane’s prediction: Tampa Bay in 7.

Model prediction: Tampa Bay in 5.

(statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.com and are score adjusted at 5v5 unless otherwise mentioned.)

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