You can find the Eastern Conference Playoff Primer here.
After a long, exciting NHL season, we have finally reached the pinnacle of the hockey season, playoff time, where every game matters, intensity increases tenfold, and margin for error ceases to exist. Conventional wisdom might tell you that “defense wins championships” or “the refs swallow their whistles” come the post-season, but these rules of thumb have time and time again been disproven, as have many other lazy generalities about the playoffs.
Regardless of what “hockey folks” have to say, it is pretty simple: the best teams win the Stanley Cup. If they don’t, odds are they ran into a hot goalie, had some bad injury luck, or some questionable calls didn’t go their way. If you’re the 2010 Washington Capitals, who many point to as the rationale for the Dallas Stars and (to a lesser extent) this year’s version of the Capitals to crash and burn in this year’s playoffs, you ran into all three things. Even though nobody likes hearing these sort of things, an 82-game regular season, based off of wins and losses (and don’t forget the also-losses that are half a win!), can only tell us so much about what a team is made of, and what they have in their arsenal.
So let’s get out our shovels, scouting reports, and calculators and dig into each matchup, trying to determine where the mismatches are, and how a team will exploit them. Doing this then allows us to apply this knowledge to a DFS environment, where the edge helps to differentiate yourself from the masses.
Matchup will be listed with home-ice advantage second (playing at home in games 1, 2, 5, and 7), with each team designated with how they qualified (Wild Card or Division) and their rank. Remember, the top 3 from each division make the playoffs, along with two wild cards per conference. The worst WC plays the best division winner, and the better WC plays the other division winner, with each divisions’ #2 and #3 facing off.
Table Definitions: GF/60 = Goals For per 60, GA/60 = Goals Against per 60, xGF = Expected Goals For (per Corsica.Hockey, score adjusted) xGA = Expected Goals Against, CF/60 = Corsi (shot attempts) For per 60, CA/60 = Corsi Against per 60.
Next to each stat will be their rank amongst playoff qualifiers. All stats in the table are taken at 5v5, as the special teams battle is covered in a separate paragraph. Stats are taken from Corsica.Hockey and are through Saturday, April 9th.
Unfortunately, the last games between WSH-ANA and NYI-PHI are not included in the data set.
Data is taken from Corsica.Hockey, HockeyViz.com, DailyFaceoff.com, LeftWingLock.com, and NHL.com
WC2 Minnesota v. C1 Dallas
How We Got Here: Dallas has played like a Cup Contender all season, locking up home-ice through the first 3 rounds of the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference. Jamie Benn made a run at catching Patrick Kane in defense of his Art Ross trophy, but instead finished in 2nd with 89 points, an improvement over his league-leading 87 last year. Minnesota beat out Colorado for the last wild card spot, and has had a tumultuous season, with their highest –paid players getting benched by two different coaches this season, as Mike Yeo was fired in mid-February in the midst of stretch in which the Wild gathered 10 points in 19 games. John Torchetti came aboard and steadied the ship, somewhat, as the Wild finished the season 15-11-1 under Torchetti’s command and made the playoffs by 5 points over the Avalanche. This season, the Stars went 4-1-0 and the Wild 1-1-3 in their five head-to-head contests.
In This Corner: Dallas is led by the outstanding duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the latter of whom is questionable to play in Game 1 of the playoffs after suffering a gruesome Achilles injury just a few weeks ago. They have two very strong lines when at full strength, as Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp are paired up to create two potent offensive lines. Their defense is better than you might suspect, with John Klingberg making a giant step this season into legitimate top 2 defender territory, and Alex Goligoski, Kris Russell, Jason Demers, Jordie Benn and Johnny Oduya would all be solid or fringe top 4 options on most teams’ backends. While they give up a lot of opportunities against, and haven’t been able to get consistent goaltending from either Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen, they still create tons more opportunities than they allow, and score more goals than their opposition, as shown by the stats table for the series. While a meltdown from their goaltending will obviously sink them, they can get by on below-average goaltending, as they have shown this season.
And Over There: The Wild snuck into the playoffs but really aren’t a playoff caliber team. On paper, they have three solid lines and two good d-pairs, but it hasn’t worked out this season. Guys such as Thomas Vanek, Matt Dumba, and even Jason Pominville have seen themselves healthy-scratched in recent games as Torchetti tries to light a fire under his team. To start the series, the statuses of Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek, and Erik Haula are all in doubt, posing a huge threat to undermine what little chance they had at an upset of the high-powered Stars. Their solid GA figures help to mask an ugly CF%, the worst of all participants and making them the only team in the West to have a sub-50 CF%. Parise and Mikko Koivu were very good in the last few weeks of the season, but it was more positive regression than a breakout stretch, as Parise had gone nearly 20 games between goals before then. Ryan Suter is a fabulous hockey player, but even skating 31 minutes a night he isn’t really capable of winning games for the Wild, especially come playoff time. It’ll take a Herculean effort from Devan Dubnyk to keep the Stars off the board, and Torchetti needs to hope that his snipers like Parise, Nino Niederreiter, and Thomas Vanek can fire enough shots at the Stars net to beat their goalies and keep the games close.
Special Teams Battle: Avert your eyes, kids. The Wild have the 3rd worst PK% in the NHL, and the Stars have the 5th best PP%. Their corresponding units are both average, but Minnesota is trending downwards, with Torchetti on the record complaining about their lack of net presence on the man advantage, which will make things easier for Lehtonen and Niemi in net. The Stars have a supremely talented PP1 of Benn-Seguin-Sharp-Spezza-Klingberg, and it will be fun to watch them go to work in crunch-time situations.
DFS Ramifications: Lindy Ruff is notoriously finicky with his lines, apt to change them at any moment. However, he tends to go power on power, and as such Benn-Seguin should see a lot of Suter and Parise at home, while on the road the Wild have made it clear that Haula, along with Niederreiter and Pominville, will be charged with helping Suter contain the two studs. This usually would mean a slight knock on their expectation, as Suter is a bonafide shutdown D-man, however three factors that will have me virtually ignoring the matchup are as follows: 1) On the season, Benn and Seguin have combined for 16 points in the 5 head-to-head matchups. That’s pretty good. 2) The Stars PP is elite enough that even on an off-night, there is the potential for multiple points, especially with how bad the Wild kill has been. 3) All season Benn and Seguin have faced the best the opposition has to offer, even at home, so their point-per-game production over the last 2 seasons projects virtually the same into the playoffs and the tougher matchups. On the Minnesota side, taking anyone on a +/- site is playing with fire, however taking their frequent shooters such as Niederreiter, Parise, or even Suter (with his elite floor of blocks+shots) as a one-off is a solid option in what should be a high-event series. Any goalie that even considers taking the net in this series is completely out of play.
My Prediction: Stars in 4. Also, the Stars will win the West. Get on the bandwagon now while there’s still time!
WC1 Nashville v. P1 Anaheim
How We Got Here: The Ducks capped their amazing 2016 by clinching the division title on Sunday night, the cherry on top of a roller-coaster season which saw them as the worst team in the league for a long stretch, followed by a 31-10-4 2016 calendar year. Most of this can be accredited to an insanely low 6.3 Sh% in 2015, followed by a sky-high 10.4 Sh% in 2016, 30th and 1st in the league over those respective time spans. Nashville rode a similar downward wave in the early stages, but most of it had to do with Pekka Rinne in net, who dragged the team down to a bottom 5 Sv% in 2015. Unfortunately for them, the regression Rinne experienced in the middle of the season came to an end, as they only ascended to the 10th worst Sv% in 2016. In three head-to-head matchups (all in the first month of the season) the Predators went 2-1-0 and the Ducks went 1-2-0.
In This Corner: The Anaheim Ducks are playing like the league’s 2nd best, if not best (behind the Pens) team going into the playoffs. They have a solid duo in net in John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, four vaunted young defensemen in Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Shea Theodore, and a mind-bogglingly solid three lines, with Kesler-Silfverberg-Cogliano comprising of the premier shut-down line in hockey, McGinn-Rakell-Perry providing some offensive firepower mixed with grit, and Getzlaf-Perron-Homeless Guy Off The Street housing one of the best things to come of this season, the instant chemistry between Perron and Getzlaf, allowing Bruce Boudreau to break up the Getzlaf-Perry line that has done so well over the years, but also now spreads the Ducks scoring to multiple lines. Unfortunately, not all of these players are good to go for the playoffs. The series doesn’t start until Friday, so there is still time to recover, but at the moment there are injury concerns regarding David Perron, who is likely out with a shoulder injury, Sami Vatanen, Rickard Rakell, and perhaps Ryan Kesler and John Gibson, who were sent home early last Saturday rather than flying to Washington for Sunday’s game, however those were presumably illness-related and nothing long term. Keep an eye on injury news out of Anaheim, as every player that they get back makes them that much more likely to advance out of round one.
And Over There: We’ve covered Nashville’s goaltending issues, but Rinne has from time to time in his career looked like an elite goalie, even winning a Vezina, so they’ll need him to step up in a big way and find that level in his game. Around him, however, Nashville has a fantastic team, with only one glaring hole. That, of course, would be first line left wing, as Ryan Johansen and James Neal play with Calle Jarnkrok at the moment, a nice little player but certainly not one who will contribute in a big way to any sort of upset bid. And if you follow the news, the Predators had the best player in college hockey, Jimmy Vesey, fresh off a Hobey Baker award and primed to make a splash in his first season with a newly reinforced and very dangerous Nashville squad. Vesey, a Harvard graduate, then spurned the guarantee of burning a year off of his Entry-Level Contract playing in the NHL playoffs alongside James Neal and Ryan Johansen for the opportunity to play for either (according to sources) the bottom-feeder Toronto Maple Leafs or the fresh-off-a-predictable-late-season-chokejob Boston Bruins. Huh. How’s that for a quality education? But my personal vendetta aside, the Preds have an elite top 4 defensively, with Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm making huge leaps this season to fill the void left by Seth Jones and relieve Roman Josi and Shea Weber of some pressure. Filip Forsberg on the 2nd line had a superb season, leading the team with 33 goals and 64 points. They have the talent to take the Ducks to the brink, but need a lot to go right for them, and as we will cover next, we haven’t even gotten to the good part of Anaheim’s outlook.
Special Teams Battle: The Ducks lead the league in both PP% and PK%, and the Preds are 10th and 16th in those respective categories. I don’t see Weber’s bomb from the point being a problem, as the Ducks have consistently made life impossible for their opposition, allowing goals on less than 13% of PP attempts. They are amazing at closing passing lanes, and will block shots or clear the path for their goalie to see the puck, regardless of how many Ducks are on the (frozen) pond. There is not much analysis to be done here, as I just don’t see much of a way Nashville can get much done on special teams, and will have to rely on Rinne to keep them in games.
DFS Ramifications: The Ducks will throw out Kesler’s line against one of the top 2 Nashville lines and Getzlaf against the other, home or away. It’s tough to judge which line Anaheim will find more dangerous, but whichever line finds themselves on Johansen-Neal I like slightly more than Forsberg’s opposition, as Forsberg’s line has been quite a bit better defensively in the past two month, registering a 62% xGF% (and a 63% GF%). Perry will be in play regardless of location, and the ANA D are very affordable across the industry, making them a nice stacking option. If you play Kesler’s line, Lindholm is your preferred D, as he skates at 5v5 as a part of that shutdown unit and on the PP2 with Kesler and Silfverberg, and if you are playing Getzlaf-Perry, then I recommend Vatanen and/or Fowler alongside them, as they make up the lethal PP1 unit. Anaheim’s goalies will be in play for the entirety of the series, but if any of their injuries roll over into the playoffs, Anaheim’s depth may become an issue for the Predators to exploit.
My Prediction: Ducks in 6.
P3 San Jose v. P2 Los Angeles
How We Got Here: The Kings looked like they had the division all but wrapped up by the New Year, as they staked an 11 point lead on their nearest division rivals, the Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks going into January 1st. Wait, what? Yeah, it was a weird season for the Pacific Division, as right around January the Sharks and Ducks switched it into gear, and left their competitors in the dust. They made the Kings sweat their home ice advantage (through the first two rounds), and the Ducks finally passed the Kings on the last day of the season, forcing the Kings and Sharks to play in what looks to be the most intense first round series in the league. In their five head-to-head matchups, the Kings went 2-3-0 and the Sharks went 3-1-1.
In This Corner: The Los Angeles Kings are the best Corsi team in the league by a country mile, their 57% CF% on the season is the best on record. They play a system, and they play it to perfection, with a top-line center in Anze Kopitar who is just perfect for his role in the system. The two-time Selke Trophy Finalist has had another exceptional season, posting 74 points in 81 games while playing his team’s toughest minutes, in all situations. If the Kings want to beat San Jose, Kopitar will need to be a major part of it, as his unique blend of offensive skill and defensive acumen help to drive play every time he steps on the ice. The emergence of Jake Muzzin has taken some of the heat off of Drew Doughty at both ends of the ice, as he is in the Kings’ top 5 in both shots and blocked shots, and his 40 points places him 6th on the team. The Kings depth players are mostly big guys who can skate and hit, so their main goal is to kill time while playing a simple game, so their depth scoring is not great, but it is also quite rare to see any Kings line give up many scoring chances in a game. Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli make up the 2nd line, and they’ve each been able to shake off a brief cold spell with a strong finish, playing as point-per-game players over the Kings’ last 10 games.
And Over There: The Sharks are a really solid team in their own right, and they might have the right lineup construction to best the Kings at their own game. The Sharks are a heavy hockey team as well, as should any team that features two players lovingly nicknamed “Jumbo Joe” (Thornton) and “Chewbacca” (Brent Burns), and they roll out three offensively capable lines, as Thornton, Thomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski make up the 1st line, and Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau are spread out on the 2nd and 3rd lines to take advantage of matchup inefficiencies. Couture and Thornton’s lines in particular are flat out amazing, with their season-long xGF% both coming out at 60%, which is actually higher than Kopitar’s 56%. With Brent Burns, who has scored more goals this year than any defenseman in the last 5 seasons, playing rover for 27 or so minutes a night, and a solid two-way defensive corps surrounding him, the Sharks are always one pass away from a scoring chance, and manage to take advantage of their opportunities without leaving themselves exposed defensively.
Special Teams Battle: You might suspect that two teams who play such dominant offensive systems can use that manpower and coachability to excel on special teams as well. If you agree, you’re half right. Both teams come in as top ten PP units, cashing in on over 20% of their opportunities, but are also in the bottom-half of the league in PK% and xGA/60 (while short-handed). As good as these two teams are at even-strength, it might all come down to special teams in this series, as both PP’s need to take advantage of every single opportunity they get against inferior PK units.
DFS Ramifications: The matchups here look to be quite cut and dry, I say now before I suffer through the entire series completely wrong about the matchups. Both in L.A and in San Jose, Thornton and Kopitar are poised to be matched up against one another, effectively cancelling each other out at 5v5. Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli will be in play at home, where Darryl Sutter can deploy them away from Logan Couture, who is underrated as a shutdown center in this league and should be able to stifle them in San Jose. This leaves Patrick Marleau as a solid play, but I would hesitate to stack his line, as besides him they hardly get any PP time. But where I think this series will be won is the battle between Drew Doughty and Brent Burns, two unbelievable two-way defensemen. I expect both to step up offensively whenever they can in order to spark some offense at even-strength, and for them to continue to run their PP1 units effectively, as they have all season. In the time of year where defensemen typically stay at home more and play safer, spending up to get one or both of these guys will be the key to some big scores in your DFS contests. Both goalies also make for interesting GPP plays at home, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with them in cash games due to the projected low shot totals and PK ineptitude of each team.
My Prediction: Flip a coin. Grab some popcorn. Kings in 7.
C3 Chicago v. C2 St. Louis
How We Got Here: This slugfest brought to you by the 2015-16 Central Division actually features two of the top 5 teams in the league using points. It’s an unintended byproduct of the NHL’s… interesting… playoff format to eliminate a true cup contender so early on, but you can only play who’s on your schedule. St. Louis battled injuries all season without much of a dip in production, and are only now rounding into top form with a full squad. The Blackhawks battled the salary cap last offseason, and it looks to have weakened their team, as they only finished 3rd in their division while icing the Art Ross and (likely) Calder Trophy winners, all the while getting 72+ games from all of their main contributors besides Duncan Keith, who would have reached that mark had he not been suspended late in the season. As you might expect from the underwhelming numbers above, both teams received outstanding goaltending, which certainly boosted their point totals relative to their underlying metrics. In their 5 head-to-head matchups this season, the Blues went 3-2-0 while the Blackhawks went 2-0-3.
In This Corner: As I mentioned earlier, the Blues have been devastated by injuries, but things look good now in St. Louis, as all of their top injured players will in fact be in the lineup this week. Jaden Schwartz (33 GP), Alexander Steen (67), Paul Stastny (64), Patrik Berglund (42), Kevin Shattenkirk (72), Robby Fabbri (72), and both goalies, Jake Allen and Brian Elliott (though never at the same time, amazingly) all missed significant portions of the season, yet all (besides Allen, who is questionable) are good to go for round one. With 3 rock solid lines, seeing Vladimir Tarasenko, Stastny, and David Backes all anchoring different lines with good linemates is a very scary proposition for any opponent. Alex Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the NHL, having won Gold Medals numerous times on an international stage, but he was actually outplayed by rookie Colton Parayko, who quietly put up one of the better rookie campaigns for a defenseman in recent memory, putting up 33 points in 78 games, and more impressively posting a +28 rating on a 55% Corsi For%, leading the team in both figures. The Blues from top to bottom are a very deep team that can attack you with all 3 of their top even strength units, and seeing how they battled through injuries this season shows just how dangerous they are in a 2-month marathon such as the NHL playoffs.
And Over There: The defending champs (and modern-day dynasty) don’t look like a true contender, and the stats above help to confirm that. We have said this same thing before about previous recent Cup champs, and there is something to be said for “having been there before,” but I just don’t see the two (admittedly very good) lines and one D-pairing carrying the Hawks through this conference, as tough as it is. Panarin and Kane have been beyond excellent this season, with a combined 98 points at 5v5, the best mark amongst a pair of teammates in the NHL. This, of course, pales in comparison to their ridiculous PP output, which we will get to in a bit, but it goes to show that these two are more than just PP wizards, they are dangerous in all situations. Outside of these two though, well it’s not pretty. Adjusted for his consistently high level of competition, Jonathan Toews had a certifiably good season, but injuries and roster moves kept him from creating any sort of chemistry like Kane and Panarin’s. Toews’ line, with Andrew Ladd and Marian Hossa, only got to play 80 minutes together at 5v5 (Kane-Pararin-Anisimov managed 800 on the season) but had a dreadful 28.57% Goals For% in their time together, and an xGF% (which gets us a more usable sample size less subject to variance) of 47%, both of which don’t scream “Shutdown Line in the Playoffs.” In net, Corey Crawford has missed nearly an entire month with an injury after playing brilliantly all season, and his one game tune-up didn’t go well, giving up 5 goals on 25 shots in their season finale versus the Columbus Blue Jackets. With their complete lack of depth at both the forward and defensive positions, and their poor metrics throughout the season, it is safe to say I don’t like the Hawks’ chances to defend their title.
Special Teams Battle: Both teams were exceptional with the man-advantage, finishing the season 2nd (CHI) and 6th (STL) in the NHL, which is not surprising when you consider Kane and Tarasenko are leading the charge for their teams. On the PK, however, the Blues are still great, ranking 3rd in the NHL, but the Hawks really struggled, closing out the season as a bottom 10 team on the PK. Toews and Kane are asked to do everything for the current edition of this team, and while they are immense contributors all over the ice, they can’t do everything for this team, and it’s made obvious yet again when figuring out why their PK is so bad. On the season, 8 Blackhawks have logged 100 minutes on the PK, and of those players, Toews has by far the greatest impact defensively, as you might expect. His xGA/60 and GA/60 are both outstanding, 5.38 and 3.98, respectively. The other 7 players have combined figures of 6.98 and 6.17 in those areas. And that is without excluding the time Toews spends on the ice with those players, meaning that without Toews on the ice, the CHI PK is absolutely worthless. STL managed to convert at a 25% clip (4/16) against the Hawks this season, and it’s safe to assume they will carry their strong special teams into the postseason.
DFS Ramifications: I am obviously bullish on the Blues in this series, but I think I have shown why this team is primed to take revenge on their long-time nemesis. In their most recent game, on April 7th, the home Hawks got to choose their matchups, and predictably set Toews out on Tarasenko’s line (1v1) and Kane out on Stastny’s line (2v2). You can expect this to continue into the three home games Chicago has (if necessary, says the foreshadowing narrator), making Stastny-Fabbri-Brouwer (along with Kane and Panarin, who will still get theirs even in if Chicago loses) a great GPP line stack in games 3,4 and 6, as both Stastny and Kane play at a much higher pace than the other lines. In the other games, Ken Hitchcock hasn’t shown to be overly concerned with line matching, but if a pattern starts to emerge, the line amongst the top three which matches up with Teravainen and the 3rd line becomes a very good play, as does Tarasenko’s line in any situation, as I believe he can produce against any line CHI throws at him. In fact, in that April 7th matchup, would you care to guess who scored both goals in a 2-1 STL win? Mr. Tarasenko fought off Toews and friends and won his team the game that clinched their home ice advantage in this series. I will be riding Tarasenko and his linemates in every game that I can, and rostering Brian Elliott at home, as he has been the NHL’s best goaltender this season (his league leading .930 Sv% is 4 percentage points better than the next qualified goalie, Ben Bishop), and counting on the Blues to make light work of a team that they should beat. The ghosts of eliminations past still haunt this team, but I think the Blues get it done, both on the ice and in our DFS games.
My Prediction: Blues in 5.