Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Western Conference Finals Preview: Goaltending

Jonathan Quick
Jonathan Quick is the best goaltender in this series.
The Western Conference will feature the two hottest goaltenders in the playoffs: Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles and Mike Smith for Phoenix. Quick’s postseason #’s: 8-1, 1.55 GAA, .949 SV%. Smith’s #’s: 8-3, 1.77 GAA, .948 SV%. Their nearly identical SV%’s are the highest of any goaltenders still in the postseason.

Their head-to-head numbers during the regular season are nearly identical as well. Quick was 3-1-2 with a 1.79 GAA and .932 SV% with two shutouts in six starts. In five starts, Smith was 3-1-1 with a 1.76 GAA and .938 SV% with one shutout.

Quick is a first-time Vezina Trophy nominee coming off his third 35+ win season. To contrast, Mike Smith was on waivers last season and went unclaimed. Credit his reclamation to reuniting with Dave Tippett, his former head coach in Dallas, and his system? Credit to working with Los Angeles Kings Legend/Coyotes Goalie Coach Sean Burke?

Mike Smith has been great this season just not "Jonathan Quick great."
It’s no secret that Phoenix gives up a lot of shots. They’re giving up 36.4 shots per game to their opponents in the playoffs, dead last. They gave up 31.6 (28th) in the regular season. But to get a real understanding of just how much of an impact Smith and Quick are having on their teams; we have to look at the number of scoring chances each team is giving up and how frequently both goaltenders are saving those chances.

Both goalies are on top of their games but Quick gets the slight edge. The proof is in their SV% on scoring chances. Scoring chances are loosely defined as shots coming from the area from the top of the faceoff circles inside the faceoff dots to the goal line.

Jonathan Quick stopped 53 of 57 scoring chances for a .930 SV% against Vancouver. Mike Smith stopped 92 of 100 chances (.920 SV%) against Chicago. In Round Two, Quick stopped 53 of 58 chances for a .914 SV% against St. Louis. Mike Smith stopped 53 of 60 chances (.883 SV%) against Nashville.
Mike Smith absolutely stole Round One against Chicago. Only Ottawa gave up more quality scoring chances (103). His .883 SV% against Nashville is still well above-average but not nearly as impressive as his first round performance.

Thru the first two-rounds: Quick has stopped 106 of 115 scoring chances (.922 SV%). Smith has stopped 145 of 165 chances (.906 SV%). Mike Smith has had to make 379 saves thru 11 games. Quick has made 260 saves thru 9 games. All those saves are adding up quickly for Smith and should start to take their toll vs. Los Angeles.

The Coyotes are allowing 36.4 shots per game while registering only 26.8 shots on net for a difference of -9.6 shots in the playoffs (vs. Chicago: -13.7; vs. Nashville: -4.6). Recent history suggests the Coyotes can’t keep playing this way and expect to advance onto the Stanley Cup Finals. Looking at every Finals matchup since the lockout, only the 2006 Edmonton Oilers gave up at least two more shots than they took (-4.4). So while there’s no denying that Mike Smith is the Coyotes’ MVP, Phoenix will need to become more aggressive on offense and tighten up defensively if they expect to make it past Los Angeles in the Conference Finals.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Kings-Blues Playoff Preview

The Kings and Blues are the same team.  Terrific defensively.  Struggle offensively.  Fantastic goaltending.  Mid-season coaching changes that turned their seasons around.  Rosters built through the draft.  The comparisons can go on forever.  So here are three reasons to be worried and three reasons to be confident going into tonight...

REASONS TO BE WORRIED...

Jeff Carter

1.  JEFF CARTER.  After his epic pass of the skate to Dustin Penner on the Kings game-winning goal, Carter disappeared of the scoresheet. It’s easy to speculate that his ankle is still bothering him. Hopefully, the week off helped his rehab along a bit more because the Kings will need Carter to contribute in the goal column vs. St. Louis.

2.  GIVEAWAYS. Obviously the statistic varies from arena to arena but the Kings had 58 giveaways to 36 takeaways. There were times in the series where the defense was unable to clear the zone that lead to scoring opportunities for Vancouver. St. Louis is relentless on the forecheck and creates a lot of offense on takeaways. Slava Voynov struggled at times in Round 1; don’t think that Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock didn’t notice.

3.  SCORING CHANCES. The Kings defensive system is great. The Blues defensive system might be even better. The same system that turned the duo of Roman Cechmanek and Robert Esche into Jennings Trophy winners in Philadelphia has transformed Brian Elliot, statistically the worst goaltender in the NHL last year into one of the ‘elite.’ Anyone that was at Staples Center to watch their last regular season matchup saw a first period where the Kings struggled to even get a shot on goal. They finished the period with three. With that said, adjustments were made at the Kings outshot the Blues 37-35 in a 1-0 shootout victory.  The Blues don't allow their opponent many chances (26.7 shots, 1st in regular season) so the Kings will have to continue to stay the course and stay aggressive.  Pressure their defense into turnovers when possible on the forecheck.  Looking at you Trevor Lewis!

Key Matchup: Mike Richards v. Patrik Berglund
It’ll be fun to see Dustin Brown and David Backes match each other hit for hit but the matchup that intrigues me the most is the #2 center position.  The Kings finally have their #2 center after years of searching; the Blues think their #2 has finally arrived too. 

Mike Richards dominated in Game 1 vs. Vancouver.  A goal and two assists and four hits including a bone crushing hit on Alex Burrows that set the tone for the series.  After that, he was held off the scoresheet.  The Kings are going to need more from offense from Mike Richards.  Whether he looks for his own shot or looks to get Jeff Carter going; the Kings need more.  He’ll also need to carry over his 52% faceoff percentage into the second round.

Patrik Berglund

Patrik Berglund is a curious case.  At 6’4, he’s got all the tools to be a dominant forward with his size and skill.  His regular season production regressed from 52 points to 38 points this past season but he dominated the Sharks in Round One with three goals and four assists.  He was a key component to the Blues success on the power play (2 G, 1 A).  Berglund will sit himself at the top of the goalie’s crease and screen the goaltender while looking for deflections and rebounds.  Berglund struggled in the faceoff circle in the first round, only winning 35.9% of his draws.

REASONS TO BE EXCITED!

1.  JONATHAN QUICK. The Vezina Trophy nominee posted the second best save percentage in the first round (.953). In addition, Quick managed led the league in even-strength save percentage (.963) by stopping 129 of 134 shots. Quick answered his critics who questioned whether he could succeed in the playoffs after posting .884% and .913% save percentages over the last two years.

Jarret Stoll

2.  KINGS THIRD LINE. The third line of Jarret Stoll, Trevor Lewis, and Dustin Penner combined for four goals and two assists in their opening-round series. They held Vancouver’s third-line of Hansen-Pahlsson-Higgins to just two goals in the series after the trio had combined for 38 goals during the regular season. It looks like Penner will skate with Richards and Carter to start the series but the Kings top three lines all made huge contributions in Round One.

3.  PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE. The Kings have eight players that have appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals. They have four Cup winners. The Blues have three players that have appeared in the Finals; all of them won Cups. The Kings lineup has appeared in 455 playoff games. The Blues have appeared in 433 games. Pretty close right? Remove veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, who have combined for 252 NHL playoff games and three Stanley Cups. Both well-respected players around the league but both are bottom-six forwards at this point in their career. The rest of the Blues lineup has only appeared in 181 postseason games. Twelve players on their roster have appeared in five games or less entering this postseason. In a series where defense will be key. The Kings top-6 blueline has played in 160 postseason games. The Blues top-6? 23 games.


CONCLUSION...
I thought the Kings-Canucks series was too close to call. This series is going to be even tougher to predict. I expect it to go a minimum of 6 or 7 games with at least a couple OT games thrown-in. It’s going to be a low-scoring, grind it out, physical series, highlighted by two fantastic goaltenders. The series will most likely be decided by who gets a bounce or two their way.

The goaltending is even. The special teams are even. The defense is even but the Kings experience on the blueline trumps the Blues’ backend. The Kings top-six has more experience and more potential to breakout in the series. Kings in Seven Games. Mike Richards with the game-winner in 2OT.

Mike Richards SO Goal

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kings-Canucks Playoff Preview Part IV: Predictions!

Handshakes
Los Angeles: Upset City?
Despite the Canucks capturing their second consecutive President’s Trophy; they play in the worst division in the NHL.  The Northwest Division is the only division in hockey featuring one playoff team.  With Daniel Sedin unlikely to play Game 1, the Canucks potent offense doesn’t look nearly as impressive.  Canucks fans will turn to the final nine games of the season in which Vancouver went 8-1 without Daniel to prove that they’ve got enough depth.  I’d argue that eight of those nine games came against non-playoff opponents.  The only playoff opponent? A 1-0 victory over Los Angeles where Luongo stood on his head and stopped 40 shots.

Make no mistake about it: the Kings offense has struggled to score all season long up until the last month of the season.  The Kings believe they have a real shot to upset Vancouver.  And they should be confident that they’ve got a chance to take down the top team in the regular season.

The Kings and Canucks battled each other as close as two teams could during the regular season.  Two one-goal games and another decided by a shootout.  Quick & Luongo were both spectacular in net; both with save percentages hovering around .940.  The difference in this series will be the little things: faceoffs, matchups, special teams, etc.

In four games, the Kings and Canucks split faceoffs right down the middle.  L.A. won 49.8% of the draws while Vancouver won 50.2%.  Kesler was absolute dynamite winning 67% of his faceoffs (51/29) while Henrik Sedin wasn’t nearly as impressive at 43.7% (28/36).  Kopitar performed well at 57.7% (44/35) while Richards struggled for L.A. 44.7% (21/26).

A key matchup to keep an eye on will be how often Alain Vigneault is able to get his checking line of Higgins-Pahlsson-Hansen out against the Kings top two lines.  If that line is effective, it could take some pressure off Ryan Kesler’s second line and open the ice up to create offense.

Finally, special teams.  The Kings took 327 minor penalties this year, 6th most in the NHL.  Vancouver took 325, 8th most.  Vancouver took 41 major penalties (not including fighting majors).  The Kings took 35.  Vancouver’s PP was impressive for most of the season, scoring on 19.8% of their chances (4th).  But without Daniel Sedin, the PP has struggled.  They’re 2-for-35 in their past nine games.  The Kings still can not afford to give Vancouver opportunities to get their PP back on track.

Los Angeles was successful at a 16.9% clip(17th).  Both teams were equally impressive on the penalty kill.  L.A. at 87% (4th) while Vancouver was at 86% (6th).  Six of the 15 goals scored between the two teams in four matchups were on the man-advantage; three goals each.  Neither team can afford to be short-handed.

Finally.  If I haven’t tried to convince you that these teams are a lot closer than people think.  ESPN has developed a Playoff Power Meter formula.  A formula that helps: “find teams that most resemble Stanley Cup champions” based on important stats, benchmarks, and point system.  It basically looks at eight different statistical categories: record vs. playoff teams, goals scored, shots allowed, etc. and assigns benchmarks and different point values to each of the eight categories.  Both the Kings & Canucks finished 4th and 5th in the rankings with 29 points (Detroit led with 37). Vancouver played the least amount of games against playoff opponents than anyone. 

One last stat: The Kings record vs. other Western Conference playoff teams: 20-10-6 (.555 winning%).  The Canucks record vs. other Western Conference playoff teams: 16-8-5 (.552%).  Their record against each other in the regular season: 2-2.  Goaltending.  Even.  Forwards.  Even.  Defense.  Even.  I’d be shocked if this series doesn’t go the distance.  Tipping point: Is it Sedin or Carter that come back sooner and closer to 100%?  KINGS IN SEVEN.

Roberto Luongo & Jonathan Quick
Bobby Lu to Quick: "Great series, Jon.  Best of luck in round 2."
Quick to Bobby Lu: "Thanks.  If you hurry...you can still play for Canada at the World Championships."

Kings-Canucks Playoff Preview Part III: Defense

Drew Doughty
Doughty could win or lose this series for the Kings.
Most Kings fans would immediately give the advantage to Los Angeles here.  The Kings allowed 2.07 goals per game, 2nd best in the league but Vancouver wasn’t far behind allowing 2.22 goals, 5th best.

Both teams  showcase two of the brightest young blueliners in the NHL.  The Kings are led by 22-year old Drew Doughty, who burst onto the scene as one of Canada's best defenseman in the 2010 Olympics.  The past two seasons have been filled with inconsistencies and a contract dispute but make no mistake he's still been the Kings most valuable blueliner.  With the departure of Christian Ehrhoff to Buffalo via free agency, 25-year-old Swede Alexander Edler made sure the Canucks didn’t miss a beat and had by far the most productive season of his young career.

The Kings and Canucks bluelines are built differently.  The Kings have three puck-moving defenseman featuring Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Alec Martinez.  Each are paired with a stay-at-home partner: Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell, and Matt Greene.  The Canucks blueline features more two-way hybrid defenseman in Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, and Sami Salo.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Kings-Canucks Playoff Preview Part II: Forwards

Anze Kopitar
The Kings can score now.

Each team relies on their top-line to lead the way offensively.  The line of Kopitar-Brown-Williams were the Kings' top three point producers this season.  Vancouver's top line of the Sedins and Burrows also led the way for the Canucks.  Both lines have produced at a similar pace this season.  L.A.'s top trio has combined for 69 goals while Vancouver's has combined for 72 goals.  Both lines led their respective teams during their four regular season matchups this season.  For Los Angeles, Anze Kopitar (goal, 3 assists) and Justin Williams (2 goals, 1 assist) led the way.  Vancouver was led by the NHL’s favorite Swedish twins, Daniel (goal, 3 assists) and Henrik Sedin (2 assists). 

The Kings offensive struggles have been well-documented.  They were shutout a league-high 10 times this season.  With that said, the Kings have only been shutout once since the acquisition of Jeff Carter (vs. Vancouver 1-0).  The Kings have actually averaged three goals per game over the past month which is a far cry from their 2.29 (29th) goals per game season average.

While the Canucks goals per game is down from a year ago (3.15 GF/G).  Their 2.94 goals per game was still good enough for 5th best in the NHL.  But coming into the series, it’s actually Vancouver’s offense that has sputtered a bit, averaging 2.44 goals per game over the last month of the regular season.

The key for both teams will be finding secondary scoring.  The Canucks have six players outside their top line who reached double-digit goal totals.  Ryan Kesler (22 goals), Chris Higgins (18), David Booth (16), Jannik Hansen (16), Alex Edler (11), and Mason Raymond (10) will all be looked upon to provide offense.

For Los Angeles, only three players outside their top-line reached the 10-goal plateau: Jeff Carter (21 goals), Mike Richards (18), and defenseman Drew Doughty (10).