The second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs are almost over and we have yet to have a single game pitting an East Conference team against a West Conference team. The first time this season they play against one another will be the Stanley Cup finals. Effectively we have two different hockey leagues in North America this year who will only meet in the championship.
There are some clear differences between the leagues that we are seeing clearly in the playoffs. The top seven scorers in the playoffs all play in the East Conference. They are David Krejci, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby, Nathan Horton, Jarome Iginla and Derick Brassard. The top scorer in the west is Logan Couture. It is easier to score in the East Conference. The top three highest scoring teams in terms of goals per game are all there (Pittsburgh, Boston and Ottawa). It is harder to score in the west. The four teams that have allowed the fewest goals per game in the playoffs are Los Angeles, Chicago, San Jose and St Louis.
The West Conference has historically been the better conference. We have no games to show that this year but they have had the better record annually for well over a decade. Low scoring hockey tends to be better hockey than high scoring hockey. It takes skills to prevent goals. Many goals are scored as a result of mistakes. The NHL is always lower scoring than the AHL, which is always lower scoring than the ECHL, which is lower scoring than any pick-up games I play.
The Memorial Cup was completed yesterday in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Four teams participate. The Western Hockey League champion Portland Winter Hawks, Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Halifax Mooseheads and the host Saskatoon Blades. Saskatoon was a first round playoff loser in the WHL and as a result might be overmatched in the tournament.
The four teams played a round robin with little solved. Portland and Halifax had 2-1 records and London and Saskatoon had 1-2 records. Halifax won the tie-breaker with Portland by having a better +/- in part because Halifax had a dominant win - 9-2 against London. This placed Halifax in the final. Portland in the semi-final and Saskatoon played London in a tie-breaker to get to the semi-final. London dominated against Saskatoon in the tie-breaker with a 6-1 win. Portland squeaked out a 2-1 win in the semi-final. Halifax led all the way in the final and won 6-4 with Nathan MacKinnon (2013 draft eligible) scoring a hat trick and adding two assists.
Here is a closer look at all the teams in the tournament:
Brandon Saad is a Calder Trophy nominee this year. I argue that he is the worst choice for an award nominee this season and I think his playoffs are going a long way toward verifying that. In the playoffs this season he has been a non-factor. He has posted only one point and a +/- of zero in over 16 minutes per game.
The narrative for Saad's nomination was that he must be a very good player to have got to play a first line role on a team as good as the first place Chicago Blackhawks. Looking at statistics it is hard not to notice that he led all the rookies in the league with a +17 +/- rating and his 27 points were four back of the rookie lead.
What is missing from that narrative is an understanding of how Saad "earned" his role as the first line left wing in Chicago. Chicago has one front line quality left wing in Patrick Sharp. He missed significant time in the 2012/13 season due to injury and when he played he usually played with Marian Hossa and not with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the nominal first line. Chicago had been auditioning players to fill their first line left wing role. Bryan Bickell and Andrew Brunette were among the players who were given a chance in 2011/12, but neither was impressive in their role. The Blackhawks gave an OHL graduate in Brandon Saad a shot and he didn't look out of place. He wasn't the guy who made the line work. In fact, he was largely along for the ride, but to his credit he was skilled enough to handle that role for the most part. When given a tougher job in the playoffs he hasn't been able to keep up.
Conventional wisdom is that you try to have a playoff run with the team you had at the end of the season. It is not the time to audition new players. The Boston Bruins are not listening to that wisdom on defence and thus far it is working. Two of the players who have been playing big roles on the Bruins defence in the 2013 playoffs have been Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski. These are both players who spent most of the season playing outside the NHL. Bartkowski began the playoffs playing for Providence in the AHL. He was called up during Providence's AHL playoff run that ended this week. In fact, it is likely true that Providence was eliminated 4-3 in a second round series against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton because of their depleted defence without him. Krug has turned pro after finishing his season in the NCAA with Michigan State.
Krug has four points in four playoff games so far. He has played only three regular season games over two years with two points. That offensive record is impressive in limited play and likely won't be kept up longterm. If Krug wasn't a point per game player in the NCAA, why would he be one in the NHL? Bartkowski has not scored as well as Krug. He has two points in six playoff games, but he has handled more ice time than Krug has. Bartkowski has averaged almost 20 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Part of Boston's playoff success has come from their addition of two new defencemen during their playoff run. Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug have played well. Their lack of NHL experience has not hurt Boston during their playoff run. This is somewhat impressive given the timing of when it is occurring.
The Los Angeles Kings are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They had a strong playoff run with a 16-4 record en route to the Stanley Cup. This year they are trying to repeat but it is a tough road. They are currently up three games to two against the San Jose Sharks. They have a 7-4 record overall in the playoffs this year. In order to match last season, they have to go undefeated through the rest of the playoffs. That is an unlikely result. To be fair their Stanley Cup run was also an unlikely result and one they are very unlikely to repeat.
The biggest change between the 2012 Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs and the 2013 Kings is offence. The 2012 Kings had one and the 2013 Kings don't. The 2012 Kings had the third best goals per game in the playoffs at 2.85. They were behind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia who played a defenceless with 56 total goals in their six game first round series. The 2013 Kings have lost almost a goal per game. Their 2.09 goals per game is the lowest of all the teams that remain in the playoffs.
The Kings goals against remains about the same. Jonathan Quick is having another very good playoff. In 2012 he posted a .946 saves percentage and a 1.41 GAA. This season he has a .948 saves percentage and a 1.50 GAA. This is largely unchanged.
The second round of the AHL playoffs completed yesterday. My first round coverage was here. Here are the results from the second round:
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defeat Providence Bruins four games to three. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the Pittsburgh Penguins farm team and Providence belongs to the Boston Bruins. Providence had a 3-0 lead in this series and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fought their way back to win the series with four straight wins. Trevor Smith and Chad Kolarik were the top scorers for the Penguins. Brian Dumoulin led their defence. Brad Thiessen played very well in their goal. Chris Bourque and Carter Camper led the Providence offence. Matt Bartowski had been their top defenceman until he got called up in the playoffs. This may be an excuse for the Providence loss. Niklas Svedberg was their goaltender.
Over the last couple of weeks the NHL has announced the nominees for the year end awards. Earlier I posted the people that I would vote for if I had an award ballot. That is not my predictions about who will get nominated, but rather who I think is deserving. Now that we have seen the nominees, I want to comment upon who I think should win the award and what the nominations mean. Given our shortened season, there has been less time for players to distinguish themselves as likely award winners, so I think some of these award races are more uncertain than they usually are.
Calder Trophy - Brendan Gallagher Montreal Canadiens, Jonathan Huberdeau Florida Panthers, Brandon Saad Chicago Blackhawks. The only nominee of this bunch I would have voted for was Huberdeau and I think he will win it. While there are narratives that lead to all three winning, I don't buy into the cases for Gallagher and Saad. Gallagher is a very hard working player in a big market in Montreal. This makes him a popular player but he cannot do the things that Nail Yakupov does easily and makes look effortless (and sometimes makes it look like he isn't trying even when he succeeds). Yakupov also outscored Gallagher in a lower scoring conference (which was effectively a different league given no cross-over games). I think he would have been a better nominee. Saad is given a lot of credit for cracking a tough Chicago Blackhawk lineup and getting some first line minutes. What is rarely mentioned is how Chicago was in need of a first line left winger and he got auditioned along with some other players and given Chicago's talent none looked out of place. This shows he is an NHL player, but also one who is benefiting from the circumstances in which he plays. I think Jonas Brodin was a better nominee as he played a much bigger role in Minnesota with much more icetime than Saad. He was a far more important player to Minnesota than Saad has been in Chicago.
The preliminary round of the World Hockey Championships concluded yesterday. Ilya Kovalchuk of Russia leads the tournament with 13 points. In second in scoring is Petri Kontiola of Finland. He has 12 points. This is a bit of a surprise since Kontiola is not an established NHL player.
Kontiola was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2004. He was 19 years old at the time. In 2007 he decided to leave Finland to play in North America. He spent two years in North America and spent most of his time in the AHL. He played well in the AHL and was an all star in that league. Despite that he wasn't given much of a shot to make the NHL. He was given 12 games played with the Blackhawks in 2007/08, where he scored five points. He was kept in the minors for the entire next season. His entry level contract had ended and instead of staying in North America where he would likely make AHL money and ride the busses, he opted for a pay raise to play in the KHL.
The World Hockey Championships are underway in Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland. The preliminary round has completed earlier today in Europe. An eight team group played in Helsinki and another one played in Stockholm. Here are the results:
1. Finland. The host team won six and lost one. Tw of their wins were in overtime. In the World Championships point scheme this is 16 points - three points for a regulation win and two for an overtime win. Petri Kontiola led the Finns in scoring with 12 points. Juhamatti Aaltonen and Janne Pesonen provided some scoring depth. Antti Raanta was their top goalie.
2. Russia. They were probably the most dominant team in this group. They had five wins and two losses and looked more dominant in their wins than Finland. Ilya Kovalchuk has been the highest scorer in the tournament so far. Alexander Radulov also was a top scorer. Yevgeni Medvedev led their defence. Ilya Bryzgalov has been their most successful goalie. Surprisingly, Sergei Bobrovsky was not added to the team.
The first round of the playoffs is over with two series playing back-to-back games six and seven in the last two days and the second round set to start on the next day. The NHL's "hurry up" season due to the lockout continues into the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if this increased rate of games will make a difference as the playoffs continue. Should I be picking against teams that go to game sevens in the future?
My first round predictions went pretty well. I picked six right and missed two. The series i missed are the first and last to complete. I picked Vancouver and Washington to win in the first round. I think that a 6-2 result in the first round is about as good as can be expected. Anyone doing better than that (and that includes me in earlier years) required some good luck as well as good predictions.
Here are my second round predictions:
About The Puck Stops Here
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