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May 28, 2010
NHL Playoffs, Stanley Cup Finals
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Philadelphia Flyers

by Timo Seppa

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Chicago vs. Philadelphia

The Chicago Blackhawks (52-22-8, 112 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (41-35-6, 88 points) could not have taken more different paths to the Stanley Cup Finals. While we all know that the Western Conference is stronger than the Eastern Conference, you would have thought that being a second seed would have counted for something. That wasn’t the case in the slightest, with Chicago facing just about the toughest road possible, while Philadelphia’s path of least resistance ended up avoiding both President’s Trophy winner Washington and defending champion Pittsburgh. You could even make an argument that #7 Nashville––hot down the stretch and ultimately a minute shy of going up 3 games to 2 against Chicago in their opening round series––could have taken out Philadelphia’s toughest opponent––on paper––#2 New Jersey, had they played head-to-head.

Chicago’s road to the Finals:

  • #7 Nashville – 47-29-6, 100 points, -5.8 GVT (17th in NHL), but 13-6-1 since the Olympic break
  • #3 Vancouver – 49-28-3, 103 points, 50.1 GVT (3rd in NHL)
  • #1 San Jose – 51-20-11, 113 points, 45.3 GVT (4th in NHL)

Philadelphia’s road to the Finals:

  • #2 New Jersey – 48-27-7, 103 points, 24.6 GVT (6th in NHL), but 17-17-6 over their last 40 games
  • #6 Boston – 39-30-13, 91 points, 1.7 GVT (15th in NHL)
  • #8 Montreal – 39-33-10, 88 points, -10.7 GVT (18th in NHL)

Did Philadelphia have a relatively easy path to the Finals? Sure, but signs pointed to their being a tough out in the playoffs all along. But while those signs may have pointed to this #7 being better than your run-of-the-mill #7, let’s keep it real: we’re still talking about a #2 versus a #7 in this Finals matchup. 7th seeds aren’t supposed to win it all – After all, the #5 Devils in 1995 were the lowest seed to hoist the Cup in recent memory.

Meanwhile, Chicago has done just as well as we thought they would (Whew!). Tom Awad’s VUKOTA projections-- also utilized at ESPN Insider and ESPN the Magazine––had the young Blackhawks as Puck Prospectus’ preseason choice to win it all. I’m thinking that the NHL Preview issue of ESPN the Magazine, with the Chicago quartet of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and––ahem!––Cristobal Huet on the cover may very well end up being a collector’s item.

So, is there any reason for us to change our prediction now?

Chicago Offense vs. Philadelphia Defense

Chicago Blackhawks’ Offense: 29.5 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)

During the regular season, Chicago’s offense was led by forwards Patrick Kane (15.8 OGVT, 19.1 GVT), Marian Hossa (10.3 OGVT, 15.0 GVT), Patrick Sharp (9.9 OGVT, 14.4 GVT), Jonathan Toews (9.3 OGVT, 17.0 GVT) and defenseman Duncan Keith (13.7 OGVT, 22.3 GVT). Through three postseason rounds, Toews leads all NHL scorers with 26 points (7 G, 19 A, 26 P +4), while Kane currently ranks third at 20 points (7 G, 13 A, 20 P, +2), making their cases as Chicago’s most likely Conn Smythe Trophy candidates. Yes, the much-discussed Dustin Byfuglien (1.4 OGVT, 2.0 GVT) does lead the Hawks with 8 goals, but aside from the headline splashes of having tallied 4 game winning goals, his line of 8 G, 2 A, 10 P, -3 plus-minus falls well short of his big name linemates. And Big Byf’s plus-minus is the worst of all Blackhawks averaging more than 11 minutes of ice time.

Philadelphia Flyers’ Defense GVT: +7.1 (Rank: 6th in NHL)

True, Chris Pronger (8.8 DGVT, 18.4 GVT) and Matt Carle (6.8 DGVT, 10.6 GVT) were two of the top 10 defensive players in the NHL, but those who watched the Flyers closely know that while the pair were dominant at the beginning of the season, Carle’s performance trailed off dramatically after a good month or two, really making it veteran Kimmo Timonen (5.4 DGVT, 10.2 GVT) that the Flyers relied on most at the blue line, along with Pronger. Regardless, the good news for Philadelphia is that all three are now playing at the top of their games in the postseason.

Coach Peter Laviolette should get credit for both realizing how weak his third defensive pairing is, and for acting aggressively upon it by massively skewing playing time towards his better players. Check out the average TOI for the Flyers’ defensemen for the playoffs: Chris Pronger 28:48, Kimmo Timonen 26:35, Matt Carle 25:25, Braydon Coburn 24:23, Lukas Krajicek 10:32, Ryan Parent 7:53.

As far as forwards: After a mildly disappointing regular season, last season’s Top 10 prospect Claude Giroux (1.7 DGVT, 8.1 GVT) has returned to playing like a premier two way forward, leading the Flyers at +10 plus-minus.

Philadelphia Flyers’ Goaltending GVT: -6.9 (Rank: 21st in NHL)

The saga of Philadelphia goaltending in 2009-10 is well known, but in case you missed it, here’s a recap, in a form fit for Twitter:

Flyers’ number one goaltender (# games): Emery (26) Boucher (9) Leighton (11) Emery (8) Leighton (14) Boucher (24) Leighton (7).

So, who is this Michael Leighton, anyway? Because the Michael Leighton that has played for Philadelphia this season (16-5-6 record and .918 save percentage in the regular season; 6-1-1 record, .948 save percentage and 3 shutouts in the postseason) bears little resemblance to the journeyman Michael Leighton of the .902 save percentage over 102 career games––with Chicago, Nashville, Philadelphia, Carolina and Philadelphia again––since 2002-03. In fact, that Michael Leighton’s -7.2 career GVT places him in the bottom 3% of all NHL players, ever. Heck, that guy was even discarded earlier this season by Carolina––a team with by far the worst record in the NHL at the time––after posting an abominable .848 save percentage over 7 games.

Is it possible that the two Michael Leighton’s are the same man, after a transformative moment of clarity revealed the hidden secrets of goaltending to him? Unlikely – but promisingly, Leighton did post a .936 save percentage with 9 shutouts over 65 regular season and playoff games with the Albany River Rats in 2007-08, his last bit of regular playing time before this Philly gig…so maybe he had started to put the pieces together at age 26.

Incidentally, Philadelphia doesn’t even make it past Boston without a 6’3” lump of Ryan Parent falling on stopgap wonder Brian Boucher in Game 5, because Leighton made the difference in a nip-and-tuck series. Don’t forget—that as bad as Leighton’s lifetime numbers are—Boucher had an .899 save percentage this season to go along with a -12.7 career GVT. That’s in the bottom 2% of all NHL players, ever.

Total GVT Difference: +29.3 GVT Chicago

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Philadelphia Offense vs. Chicago Defense

Philadelphia Flyers’ Offense GVT: -3.8 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)

Don’t look at that GVT, because it’s misleading. The Philly offense isn’t lukewarm – It’s either hot or cold. As I’ve detailed on several occasions, the Flyers were a Jekyll and Hyde team on offense, going through long stretches where they could score like the prolific Capitals, alternating with long stretches where they’d struggle to score worse than the puck-challenged Bruins or Oilers. Yet surprisingly, Philadelphia’s remained hot for essentially the entire postseason. Does that mean that they’re focused, all of a sudden? Or that the bottom’s bound to drop out? Only time will tell, but don’t expect middle of the road from the Broad Street Bullies.

Not surprisingly, former first round picks Jeff Carter (10.2 OGVT, 13.3 GVT), Mike Richards (9.7 OGVT, 12.4 GVT) and Chris Pronger (9.5 OGVT, 18.4 GVT) paced Philadelphia on offense, but contributions came from a number of players. Ten Flyers had Offensive GVT’s of at least 3.0 – Only Washington had more contributors (11) of that level.

Chicago Blackhawks’ Defense: +30.2 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)

The Blackhawks’ excellent 2.48 GA/game (6th in NHL) in 2009-10 was derived from their excellent defense, not their goaltending. That’s apparent from the fact that Chicago’s league-leading 25.1 SA/game was best in the league by nearly two shots against per game. Blueliners Duncan Keith (8.6 DGVT, 22.3 GVT) and Brent Seabrook (7.7 DGVT, 10.9 GVT) were two of the top 10 defensive players in the league while Patrick Sharp (5.4 DGVT. 14.4 GVT) was one of the top 5 defensive forwards. While not a bargain in terms of contract, Brian Campbell (5.6 DGVT, 11.3 GVT) was the fourth Blackhawk to rank among the top 30 defensive players in the NHL.

Chicago Blackhawks’ Goaltending: -20.7 GVT (Rank: 30th in NHL)

Just imagine how good the Blackhawks GA/game could have been without Cristobal Huet (45.5 GP, .896 save percentage, -7.4 GVT) in net. But the good news is that the Hawks are in the Finals anyway, with Huet keeping 26 year old Antti Niemi (36.5 GP, .912 save percentage, 8.8 GVT) from losing too much tread off the tire; Niemi was kept fresh for the postseason by facing only 936 regular season shots.

With both the Philadelphia offense and Chicago goaltending playing better during the playoffs, the overall effect is pretty much a wash.

Total GVT Difference: +13.3 GVT Chicago

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Power Play vs. Philadelphia Penalty Kill

Chicago Blackhawks’ Power Play: +0.6 GVT (Rank: 12th in NHL)

Much like with Pittsburgh, it’s surprising that an elite even strength offense didn’t translate into an elite power play (17.7%, 16th in NHL) during the regular season, but Chicago has picked up their man advantage in the playoffs, tallying at a 22.6% clip. Jonathan Toews (9 PPG), Patrick Kane (9 PPG) and Troy Brouwer (7 PPG) were Chicago’s best power play producers, while Marian Hossa and Kris Versteeg were relative disappointments.

Philadelphia Flyers’ Penalty Kill GVT: +3.0 (Rank: 14th in NHL)

The Flyers have improved to an 87.0% penalty kill in the playoffs, but that has something to do with disappointing performances by their opposition. Among Flyers with significant penalty killing time, Matt Carle, Blair Betts (2.7 DGVT, 4.1 GVT) and Ian LaPerriere (2.8 DGVT, 1.8 GVT) were among Philadelphia’s best regular season penalty killers, while Braydon Coburn (4.0 DGVT, 4.2 GVT) and Lukas Krajicek (-0.4 DGVT, -1.4 GVT) were liabilities.

Total GVT Difference: +2.4 Philadelphia

Advantage: Even

Philadelphia Power Play vs. Chicago Penalty Kill

Philadelphia Flyers’ Power Play GVT: +8.9 (Rank: 3rd in NHL)

Philadelphia has kept up a solid power play during the playoffs, scoring at a 20.7% clip. During the regular season, Chris Pronger (5 PPG out of 10 G) and Scott Hartnell (8 PPG out of 14 G; 3.5 OGVT, 5.1 GVT) augmented the Flyers’ man advantage, while Braydon Coburn and James Van Riemsdyk (3.8 OGVT, 5.4 GVT) detracted from its effectiveness.

Chicago Blackhawks’ Penalty Kill: +16.7 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)

Through 16 postseason games, Chicago has improved upon an already fine penalty kill by successfully preventing scoring in 86.6% of situations in which they were down at least man. Jonathan Toews, Brian Campbell and Kris Versteeg (3.2 DGVT, 9.3 GVT) were the Blackhawks’ best penalty killers, while “defensive specialists” like John Madden (3.1 DGVT, 2.8 GVT) and Dave Bolland (1.9 DGVT, 2.0 GVT) are overrated compared to their reputations.

Total GVT Difference: +7.8 GVT Chicago

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Season Series Results

In their one meeting this season, Philadelphia defeated Chicago 3-2 on March 13, in Philadelphia, during a stretch where the Flyers lost 12 of 17 games. In a game featuring Cristobal Huet and Michael Leighton in goal, Philadelphia notched one of their most memorable wins of the season, with Scott Hartnell tying the game with little more than 2 minutes remaining, only to set up an even more dramatic goal: Chris Pronger tipped home the game winner on a saucer pass from Claude Giroux with 2 seconds remaining. It’s a game that both teams no doubt remember vividly.

Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers

Faceoffs

Keeping in mind that faceoffs have been shown to be particularly crucial for offensive zone draws on the power play (with a faceoff win often correlating to a goal within 10 seconds or so), Chicago ranked third in the NHL at 52.4% in faceoffs while Philadelphia was an average 50.1%. Jonathan Toews’ 57.3% faceoff percentage was fourth for players with at least 1,000 faceoffs; the Blackhawks’ captain has remained an outstanding 57.9% in the postseason. Philadelphia’s only above average center for the playoffs has been fourth liner Blair Betts at 56.6% (50.9% regular season), with regular season go to man Jeff Carter (52.4%) having been hobbled or out for most of the campaign.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Injuries and Intangibles

Philadelphia’s Peter Laviolette gets the nod at head coach over Chicago’s Joel Quenneville – Laviolette led the surprising Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup victory in 2005-06.

The Flyers must feel some magic right now, and they’re clicking on all cylinders. With their dramatic win over Chicago in the regular season, another dramatic win could get in the Blackhawks’ heads.

The Flyers have all of their key players healthy for the first time in the playoffs, making both teams relatively healthy, but an injury to either starting goaltender would cause their team to take a major step down in quality to their backup.

Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers

Prediction

With the Blackhawks significantly stronger at even strength (5 on 5 Goals For/Against Ratio: Chicago 1.20, 4th in NHL; Philadelphia 0.97, 17th in NHL), the Flyers may be hoping to make up for the difference on special teams. Unfortunately, as you get deeper into the playoffs, it’s a fact that there are less power play opportunities.

Putting that aside, it’s still possible that we’ll continue to get the high scoring Flyers of their 3.8 GF/game streaks as well as an above average Michael Leighton. If so, we’ll have ourselves a long and competitive series. But even with a Philly team that’s clicking, let’s not forget that Chicago’s still got the best and most well-rounded team in the league. If you played this series ten times over, Chicago would likely win eight or nine of those times.

Chicago Blackhawks  (total): +56.3 GVT (2nd in NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers (total):  +8.3 GVT (12th in NHL)
Total GVT Difference:        +48.0 Chicago Blackhawks

So the prediction is that VUKOTA nails it, with our preseason pick going all the way. And yes, Marian Hossa will finally lift the Cup in his third Finals appearance in a row, each with a different team.

Prediction: Chicago Blackhawks in 6 games.

Conn Smythe winner: Jonathan Toews

Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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Prospectus Q & A (05/26)
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Numbers On Ice (06/01)

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