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April 22, 2009
The Cinderella Story
Who is the NHL's version of the 2008-2009 Arizona Cardinals?

Puck Prospectus

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It’s the story that everybody loves to see: an unheralded team, on nobody’s radar, manages to pull off an upset, wins a few improbable games, and makes it to the sport’s biggest stage to play for the championship; sadly for fairy-tale lovers, they often come up short near the end. While the Arizona Cardinals are current the poster child, having gotten to the super bowl 3 months ago, the NHL has provided an plethora of them over the last decade: the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002, the Anaheim Ducks in 2003, the Calgary Flames in 2004 and the Edmonton Oilers in 2006. Here are three teams that have a shot at joining the ranks of suprise teams from previous years:

Vancouver Canucks

While not a low seed, the Vancouver Canucks finished only 7th overall in the NHL standings and won the division title in their very last game of the regular season. Yet the Canucks are only a win away from passing to the second round, and I wouldn’t be very surprised to see them in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Canucks have a lot of things going for them. They are a very balanced team: they finished above-average in both offense, defense and goaltending during the regular season, posting + 9, + 8 and + 12 GVT scores in each category. While their offense is associated mainly with the Sedin twins, the Canucks have a significant number of secondary offensive options, from the emerging Alexandre Burrows, Ryan Kessler and the aging but still effective Pavol Demitra. This is without mentioning Mats Sundin, who hasn’t wowed since being acquired at mid-season but remains dangerous.

The Canucks’ blueliners are a low-key bunch; none of them will ever compete for the Norris trophy. However, they get the job done as well as any other teams' blueliners. Willie Mitchell, Alexander Edler, Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo are all top-4 defensemen on any NHL team, while Kevin Bieksa provides offensive punch. If the Canucks have a weakness on defense, it’s the lack of a true power-play quarterback. such as a Brian Rafalski or Andrei Markov.

The Canucks were the 3rd-hottest team in the NHL down the stretch, their 30 points in their last 21 games trailed only the Penguins and Hurricanes over that time. While it’s always dangerous to extrapolate from a small sample of games, in the Canucks case this emergence had a very logical reason: the return from injury of goaltender Roberto Luongo. Here lies the strongest argument for the Canucks making a potential run.

My colleague Timo Seppa has said that Luongo has a “Conn Smythe profile”, and nothing could be as true. Luongo is, simply put, the best goaltender in the NHL right now, and has been for several years. When he is on top of his game, his numbers are unmatched. He’s finished no lower than 12th in GVT in any of the last 5 years, has consistently been among the NHL leaders in save percentage, and plays well whether he faces 20 shots or 40. Of course, the knock against him used to be: “What has he done in the playoffs?” Two years ago, in his playoff debut, Luongo emerged victorious from a goaltending duel with Marty Turco in the first round before the Canucks succumbed to the eventual champion Anaheim Ducks. His numbers for that year: GAA 1.77, Save % 0.941. Taking into account his numbers through 3 games this year? GAA 1.64, Save % 0.945. He has given up 25 goals over the equivalent of 17 playoff games, counting overtimes. Those are, indeed, Conn Smythe numbers.

One last factor plays in the Canucks favor: the potential defeat of a top seed. If the Ducks manage to defeat the Sharks and the Red Wings overcome Columbus, as seems likely, the Canucks will face the winner of the Chicago-Calgary series, instead of the powerful Red Wings. This would make the path to the Conference Final easier, giving the Canucks a better chance should they defeat the Blackhawks or Flames, of battling against the winner of the Ducks-Wings series. While never a sure thing, the scenario seems realistic. Luongo has been deprived of one or two Vezinas he’s deserved over the last few years, but a Conn Smythe would be even more satisfying.

- Tom Awad

New York Rangers

Overachievers.

Never during the miserable 2-9 stretch that led to Tom Renney’s firing did we ever imagine that we were looking at a Rangers team that would go deep into the playoffs. Even with the ship righted, only the most myopic fan believed that John Tortorella’s re-energized crew could make it more than a round into the playoffs against the Eastern Conference’s best teams after rallying for a 7th seed.

Recent Broadway Blues’ squads have demonstrated some toughness, both under Renney and Tortorella. After taking a 2-0 series lead on Saturday against the favored Capitals, the Rangers became the first team ever to take 2-0 leads in three straight first round matchups as the lower seed.

As giddy as the Big Apple was on Saturday night after Game 2, victory parade preparations were put indefinitely on hold by a disappointing 4-0 loss on Monday night. Having scored a grand total of one goal in the last two games, Coach Tortorella will need to find a blend of lines that will produce offense for an offensively challenged team, which may be akin to the working of some sort of minor miracle. New York will not last long in the playoffs if they are wishcasting more 1-0 shutouts by King Henrik, as such offensive efforts will usually end up looking more like the Game 3 drubbing than the Game 2 Houdini act.

Keep in mind that the Rangers have the worst even strength GVT of any playoff team, - 17.3, while the Bruins –next round’s likely date– post a league-leading + 56.5. Looking further ahead, potential Conference Final opponents New Jersey and Pittsburgh check in at + 30.2 and + 29.2. Contrast the Rangers’ current and potential matchups with the current matchup of another would-be Cinderella and you will see that Anaheim actually outranks San Jose + 11.1 to + 9.7 in even strength GVT. The odds of catching lightning in a bottle for a few matchups in a row are much, much longer for the Rangers. Making matters worse, the offensively challenged Broadway Blues have a -22.8 power play GVT, second worst in the NHL, while only their + 25.7 penalty killing GVT, 2nd in the NHL, is exceptional.

New York truly has their work cut out to advance past several excellent teams. Ergo, a secret formula is required if we are to see an unlikely Rangers appearance in the Stanley Cup finals:

-Broadway darling Henrik Lundqvist (+ 18.3 GVT, .916 current season, .907 career playoffs, .936 current postseason) must continue to –playoff cliche– stand on his head.

-The Rangers must duplicate the high effort and shot blocking blueprint of Game 2, while improving upon their offensive execution. As New York’s best offensive players all have sub-7.0 offensive GVT’s (Nik Antropov + 6.9, Nikolai Zherdev + 4.9, Scott Gomez + 4.7, Ryan Callahan + 4.3, Chris Drury + 4.2, Markus Naslund + 3.3), this may involve the pulling of a rabbit out of a hat. No other playoff team’s top offensive player has a lower GVT, with St. Louis’ Brad Boyes + 9.7 and Montreal’s Alexei Kovalev + 9.2 being the next lowest.

-Pray that close regular season contests with Boston (2-2, +0 GD) are predictive of close games in the playoffs.

-Be blessed with the speedy recovery of Chris Drury’s injury, which seems to be rendering him largely ineffective.

Maybe the Rangers get their mojo back against the flawed Caps, exploiting their lack of offensive depth and intermittent defensive doldrums to win 2 out of the next 4 games and advance. We will assume as a given that Simeon Varmalov won’t have a .982 career postseason save percentage.

Without storybook magic, that will likely be the end of the line for this underdog.

At the end of the day, New York will only have a Tortorella, not a Cinderella.

- Timo Seppa

Anaheim Ducks

The Anaheim Ducks barely snuck into the postseason after finishing two points ahead of the Minnesota Wild. With a point total of 91 on the year, the Ducks were regarded as the worst team to be playing for the Stanley Cup. Unlike the Arizona Cardinals however, the Ducks were never as mediocre as they appeared to be. According to Football Outsiders, Arizona finished the regular with a weighted DVOA of -0.5%, which ranked 20th overall in the National Football League. DVOA, Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, breaks down every play and compares a team performance to the league average based on situation in order to determine value over average. Based on Goals Versus Threshold, the Ducks were 10th overall at even strength (+ 11. 1 GVT), including a 7th ranked + 10.8 GVT in the net and a 5th ranked + 14.4 GVT on power play offense. While the Cardinals were objectively worse in the NFL regular season than the Ducks in the NHL regular season, these teams share some commonalities. The often erratic Cardinals went against their regular season statistics by turning around their running game and defense over their four appearances in the postseason.

While the Ducks have continued their strong even strength defense and goaltending, they have completely turned around a – 5.0 GVT penalty killing defense ranked 23rd in the regular season. The Ducks have transformed their poor 79.7 penalty killing percentage into a respectable figure, 86.7 PK%. Their already elite power play unit which had a 23.6 power play efficiency on the season has scored on 30 % of power plays in the postseason, a highly unsustainable number that would have easily led the league in the regular season. Jonas Hiller, while a good goaltender, is unlikely to keep up his stellar 3 game performance throughout the postseason. His .919 Save Percentage and .934 ESSV%, have risen to .947 % and .948 %, respectively. One number that has gotten worse: Goals Per Game. With 2.90 GPG, 150 ESG, Even Strength Goals and a – 1.9 offensive GVT, the Ducks were the definition of average. In the postseason thus far, Anaheim has only produced a disappointing 2.67 GPG with an average 5 ESG and has certainly not received any fluke performances on offense from marginal contributors during the regular season.

Could it be that the Sharks are not as good as everyone suspects on special teams? No, considering that San Jose is a top five power play scoring team, + 18.8 GVT, and a top five penalty killing team, + 7.0 GVT. Three games in the postseason are the same as three games in the regular season. With a small sample of games, it’s hard to take the Ducks’ significant improvements in special teams performance seriously. Jonas Hiller, while on a hot streak, is going to have a hard time keeping up his great postseason numbers. However, the Ducks were never that bad of a team to begin with. They were always among the top third in the league in performance and had similar even strength GVT’s to Calgary (+ 9.5 GVT), Carolina (+ 8.1 GVT) and even the San Jose Sharks (+ 9.7 GVT). This year’s Ducks are not like the 2008-2009 Arizona Cardinals that overachieved in the postseason. This team is more like the 2008-2009 Philadelphia Eagles, who barely made the postseason on the final day of regular season play after loses from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys. That Eagles team defeated the third seed Vikings and the first seed Giants, before being eliminated made in the NFC championship game. If the Ducks could advance to the second round and defeat the Detroit Red Wings, despite already being a better team than many believed, they truly might be this years cinderella story.

- Andrew Rothstein

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