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NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Primer

You can find the Western 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.

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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 table are taken at 5v5, as the special teams battle is covered in a separate paragraph. Stats 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

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WC2 Philadelphia v. M1 Washington


Team Record GF/60 GA/60 xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% CF/60 CA/60 CF%
WSH 56-18-8 (120) 2.57 (1st) 1.98 (5th) 2.47 (8th) 2.26 (8th) 52.22 (9th) 58.11 (6th) 54.43 (6th) 51.63 (10th)
PHI 41-27-14 (96) 2.11 (13th) 2.03 (9th) 2.37 (11th) 2.49 (13th) 48.74 (14th) 58.17 (4th) 58.26 (16th) 49.96 (12th)


How We Got Here: The first series on the docket features the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals, who have been coasting to the playoffs for weeks now. They faceoff with the Philadelphia Flyers, who clinched their berth on Saturday thanks to the stretch-run collapse of the Boston Bruins, who missed the playoffs after leading the Atlantic for part of the season. All but left for dead in February, sitting 6 points back of the Red Wings and 7 of the Bruins on March 1st, needing to pass one of them for the last WC spot in the East, the Flyers went 10-3-2 in the next 15 games, putting them in the driver’s seat, needing just 3 points in their last 5 games to clinch a playoff spot. In the season series, the Capitals went 2-0-2 and the Flyers 2-2-0 in their head-to-head matchups.

In This Corner: With the Capitals essentially on auto-pilot for the last month-plus, it is really difficult to gather much from their recent form, which has actually been quite solid. The Flyers seem to be fighting an uphill battle here, and I don’t expect them to give the Capitals too much trouble. One of my main contentions with using xG metrics is prevalent with the Capitals, as it normalizes team output without factoring in team talent. As you can see from the table, the Caps have the best 5v5 offense, and a top 5 defense, but they’ve vastly outperformed their expectations this season, which put them in the middle of the pack. But when you have shooters such as Alex Ovechkin, and playmakers like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, you’re going to have a better shooting % (the source of their high GF) than most teams. And with Braden Holtby, perennially underrated (he’s been above a .928 Sv% at 5v5 for his entire career) as he is, you are going to stop more pucks than the average team. Make no mistake, the Capitals are an outstanding hockey team, with no holes to speak of up and down their roster.

And Over There: The Flyers have an outstanding blend of top 6 talent, with Claude Giroux’s line carrying them offensively, and Sean Couturier’s line shutting down the opposition’s top threats night in and night out. With this ability to match lines, it is no surprise the Flyers only lost 10 games in regulation at home this season, going 23-10-8 vs. their 17-17-7 record on the road. Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, called up with 3 quarters of the season to go, is an outstanding offensive threat, but leaves much to be desired in his own end. Such is the case with most of the Flyers backend, which goes a long way in explaining their struggle to keep shots away from their netminders, who have been fantastic for the Flyers this season.

Special Teams Battle: The Capitals were top 5 in the league this season both in PP% and PK%, while the Flyers were in the bottom half of the league in both categories, although their PP% was so miserable in the first two months of the season that for it to recover as far as it did (17th) is very impressive. However, the Ovechkin-led PP should be able to have their way with the Flyers, and even in a small sample size this season went 3/10 across their 4 games. The Flyers only chance to stay in games on the road is to get multiple goals from their PP1 unit, while staying out of the box themselves.

DFS Ramifications: On the road, Ovechkin may struggle to generate offensively, as Couturier slows the game down more than almost any other center in the league, and is truly a shut-down center. However, at home, Ovechkin should have free reign on the ice, matched up against Giroux’s line, which plays an extremely high-paced game. I will have Ovechkin in my lineup every night he plays, due to his PP dominance and elite shooting rates, but at home Ovi and his line is practically a must play. Kuznetsov and the 2nd line will make for an interesting contrarian play on the road, as they should be the beneficiary of the Giroux-line pace bump. On the Flyers end, their first line and Gostisbehere are the only playable options, as they have no depth to speak of. I would stay away except for the full-on stack in GPPs, as they should be pretty high-owned due to how well they played down the stretch, and are without a whole lot of upside against Washington, as I described above.

My Prediction: Caps in 5, and the Caps breeze through the Eastern Conference, never playing a game 7 until the Stanley Cup Finals, where of course Justin Williams scores.


WC1 NY Islanders v. A1 Florida


Team Record GF/60 GA/60 xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% CF/60 CA/60 CF%
FLA 47-26-9 (103) 2.53 (3rd) 1.98 (6th) 2.24 (15th) 2.27 (9th) 49.71 (12th) 49.91 (16th) 50.96 (3rd) 49.48 (14th)


45-27-10 (100) 2.33 (7th) 2.21 (15th) 2.48 (7th) 2.62 (15th) 48.64 (15th) 56.38 (12th) 56.9 (14th) 49.77 (13th)


How We Got Here: The Florida Panthers won the Atlantic rather handily, their six-point margin of victory the 2nd largest, behind the Capitals. After a long struggle, one that led to the selection of studs such as Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers made the playoffs for the 2nd time since 2000, and have the opportunity to win their first playoff series since they lost in the Finals in 1996. The New York Islanders, meanwhile, lost a hotly contested Sunday contest to clinch 4th in the Metropolitan division, while the idle NY Rangers stayed in 3rd, hence earning a matchup with the white-hot Pittsburgh Penguins. This playoff system is weird. In their three head-to-head matchups, the Panthers were 2-1-0 and the Islanders went 1-1-1.

In This Corner: The Panthers quietly have one of the best, youngest cores in all the league and one of the best veteran groups in the NHL. Look at their top 8 players, Barkov (20), Nick Bjugstad (23), Jonathan Huberdeau (22), Vincent Trocheck (22), Ekblad (20), vs. Jaromir JagrBot (44!), Brian Campbell (36), Roberto Luongo (37) make up the back bone of one of the most interesting roster constructions in the entire league, and this year it has absolutely paid off. Age aside, this team has vastly outplayed their peripherals at 5v5, mostly due to Luongo’s excellence in net and their slow pace. Their goal-scoring at 5v5 is what blew me away about this team, and it can be explained by their 2nd best Sh% at even strength, something that might not be sustainable in these playoffs, talent aside. But they do have the talent level to scare some of the best teams in the playoffs, as they have six players who broke the 50 point mark, led by the immortal Jagr with 66 points while playing in 79 games, and they have the goaltending to make a deep run, as Roberto Luongo has continued to turn back the clock on his career, garnering some (very limited) Vezina consideration with his .922 Sv% for a team that took a giant leap forward this season.

And Over There: The Islanders are another team that had a rather quiet season, never playing their way into cup contender status but also never in serious doubt of missing the playoffs. They are led by John Tavares, who hit 70 points on the season and has 7 seasons of 24+ goals to begin his career, one of 6 players to accomplish that feat since 1990. That list includes Jagr, Eric Lindros, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, and (surprisingly) Thomas Vanek, certainly some elite company to keep, especially with how the game has changed. Around Tavares though, the team really struggles to score, as only two other players on the Isles have scored more than .5 points per game this season. On defense, the Islanders could benefit greatly if Travis Hamonic is ready to return from injury, as he is stuck in the shadows of PP-QB Nick Leddy and heavy-hitting Johnny Boychuk, but is one of the better two-way defensemen in the Eastern Conference.

Special Teams Battle: As good as the Panthers have been at 5v5, their special teams have been much worse, as their PP is the 2nd worst of all playoff teams, and the PK is 3rd worst. The Islanders have had a fantastic PK squad, 4th best in the league, but also struggle to score on the PP. If the Islanders want to advance out of the first round, they will need to do better than 18% on the PP in this series, and they should with Tavares running the show. But if they haven’t figured it out at this point in the season, I don’t know if they ever will.

DFS Ramifications: If Trocheck is out for the first couple of games (he is currently questionable), then the Panthers will not have available a key component of their de-facto shutdown line, and won’t be able to blanket Tavares-Okposo-Nielsen, a brand new line the Islanders are rolling out, whereas before they left Tavares to his own devices and tried to spread their talent throughout 2 or even 3 lines at times. If Trocheck is out, this will put Barkov’s line in a more defensive role against this new NYI line, and I would actually favor Tavares’ line over Barkov’s. If Trocheck ends up in the lineup, then Barkov’s line will be left to pick at Kulemin-Nelson-Bailey or Prince-Strome-Bernier, neither of which give me any hesitation in targeting. At home, NYI will likely throw out their top line at Barkov, leaving the Trocheck line (and even the 3rd line, which was reinforced at the trade deadline and has some nice talent) the juicier matchups. Although none of the defensemen in this series excite me, one development I will be closely following is the usage of Ryan Pulock, a top defensive prospect in the NHL who has an absolute cannon from the point. He is also a righty (current PP1 D Nick Leddy is a lefty) and sets up better for one-timer opportunities from John Tavares. If the PP struggles in the early games, keep an eye on Pulock to join that unit at a super low price point. I like both goalies just fine in this series, but they are both quite expensive across the industry and I don’t foresee enough shot volume (or any shutouts) to make them worthwhile plays.

My Prediction: Panthers in 7.


A3 Detroit v. A2 Tampa Bay

Team Record GF/60 GA/60 xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% CF/60 CA/60 CF%
T.B 46-31-5 (97) 2.38 (6th) 2.00 (7th) 2.28 (14th) 2.08


52.27 (8th) 57.25 (9th) 51.46 (5th) 52.66 (6th)
DET 41-30-11 (93) 2.07 (14th) 2.19 (14th) 2.47 (9th) 2.45 (12th) 50.22 (11th) 54.19 (13th) 50.38 (2nd) 51.82 (9th)


How We Got Here: Both teams struggled down the stretch, both on and off the ice, going 5-5 in their last 10 and fighting through key injuries and some bad news to boot. First off, the Lightning were on the outside looking in when the New Year hit, a surprise from the reigning Eastern Conference Champion and popular pick to repeat that feat, and bring home the Stanley Cup. They then picked their game up, breezing into the playoffs on the back of a strong finish. But in the last couple of weeks, the Lightning have been thrown for a loop, losing Anton Stralman to a fractured fibula that has him doubtful to return this Spring and Steven Stamkos due to a scary blood clot situation that could end his Lightning career, pending his UFA decision and how deep the team advances, as no one knows his recovery timetable. The Red Wings, on the other hand, have lost Petr Mrazek, a Vezina candidate as recently as the All-Star Break, not due to injury, but to a complete breakdown of his game. Jimmy Howard has been able to steady the ship in Mrazek’s absence, but the Red Wings would be much better served to make a run in Pavel Datsyuk’s final NHL season with Mrazek in the same form he was in just a short time ago. Oh, did I say Datsyuk’s last season? Yes I did. With Datsyuk’s hefty cap number set to stay on the Wings’ budget next season, their window of competitiveness will effectively slam shut after their final game of the 2015-16 season. In 4 head-to-head matchups, each team went 2-2-0, with the Lightning outscoring Detroit 11-8 in the series.

In This Corner: The Lightning are a solid hockey team up and down, as exemplified during last season’s fantastic run to the Finals. Losing Stamkos and Stralman, however, would be a tough task for even the league’s best teams to overcome, and this season showed that maybe Tampa isn’t quite on the same tier as Los Angeles or Washington. With all of the young, dynamic talent the Lightning possess (the Triplets, Kucherov, Palat, and Johnson were the darlings of last season’s playoffs) they weren’t all that impressive offensively, and even worse when you count on xG vs. their actual output. The key to the Lightning’s success has been, and will be, their good defense and great goaltending. Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy are one of the best goalie tandems in the NHL, and are capable of carrying this team on any night. Led by Victor Hedman, a breakout player in last year’s playoffs, Tampa’s d-corps will have to get quality minutes from rookies such as Nikita Nesterov and Slater Koekkoek or Matt Taormina, who have little NHL experience to date. And one of the biggest stories to keep an eye on this postseason is Jonathan Drouin, a former #3 overall pick who spent the last couple of months or so in a holdout, after walking out on Tampa and refusing to play in the NHL. He returned to the NHL team in April out of necessity, and in his only NHL game in 2016, well, he scored, because he is a super-talented player who should never have been in the AHL to begin with. If Jon Cooper can swallow his pride and give Drouin the top-6 minutes he warrants throughout the series, the Lightning may not end up missing Steven Stamkos too much, as crazy as that may sound.

And Over There: Detroit has a stable of battle-tested veterans, with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Green, and Niklas Kronwall leading the charge, a stark contrast to Tampa Bay’s roster makeup. Rookie Dylan Larkin garnered some Calder Trophy buzz, but outside of him, virtually every Detroit contributor is over the age of 30. At 5v5, the Red Wings played at an incredibly slow pace, the slowest of every playoff qualifier in terms of Corsi pace per 60. The Red Wings play the stereotypical old man’s game, with Datsyuk and Zetterberg working their magic down low and in the corners to stickhandle out of trouble and set up preferred wing-men Brad Richards and Justin Abdelkader in the slot. On defense, Detroit is quite weak, lacking a true top 2 defenseman. Green has played like their best defenseman, which is a horrible sign for the future when their top 2 D by salary, Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, are signed through 2019 at a combined $9 million. Even with their slow pace, the Red Wings still place 3rd worst in xGA/60, showing both how good Mrazek was early on in the season and how bad the Red Wings are in their own end.

Special Teams Battle: Detroit is an average team on both ends, but split their PP time equally between Zetterberg and Datsyuk’s units for most of the season. In Monday’s practice, Blashill moved Datsyuk up to the top unit, which is optimal usage of their best offensive players, something that is rarer than it should be in the NHL.  Tampa, on the other hand, excels on the PK, ranking 7th in the league, and has been dreadful on the PP despite their talent, converting at less than a 16% rate and tied for the 3rd worst in the entire league. Now without Stamkos and Stralman, fixtures on their top unit, I don’t expect Tampa’s PP to carry them, nor does it have to.

DFS Ramifications: There is not much to like in this series from a DFS perspective, as I project it to be the lowest pace series on the docket, and the four head-to-head matchups this season yielded less than 4 goals per game to boot. Ben Bishop, on the other hand, should have a shutout or two throughout the series, and will be a cash consideration every time he starts for the Bolts. Drouin and Nesterov are poised to step into larger roles come playoff time, and should be extremely cheap across the industry. That will likely be the extent to which I target any of these teams outside of GPPs, where a stack of DET PP1 unit and of Kucherov’s line with Hedman are prime targets.

My Prediction: Lightning in 6.


M3 NY Rangers v. M2 Pittsburgh


Team Record GF/60 GA/60 xGF/60 xGA/60 xGF% CF/60 CA/60 CF%
PIT 48-26-8 (104) 2.48 (4th) 2.02 (8th) 2.76 (2nd) 2.18 (4th) 55.81 (1st) 59.31 (3rd) 52.81 (9th) 52.9 (3rd)
NYR 46-27-9 (101) 2.48


1.96 (4th) 2.42 (10th) 2.70 (16th) 47.27 (16th) 52.92 (14th) 57.06 (15th) 48.12 (15th)


How We Got Here: We were this close to a Rangers-Islanders 1st round showdown, and then the Penguins had to crash our party. Under Mike Sullivan, the Pens have gone 33-16-5, and have closed the season out going 24-9-1 from February onwards. Sidney Crosby went from “Is he done?” to “Is he the MVP” in just over half a season, and Kris Letang barged his way into Norris consideration with a fantastic season in lock-step with Crosby. Meanwhile, the Rangers rode Henrik Lundqvist to a playoff berth, as they have been consistently one of the worst puck possession teams in the league, but use their elite goaltending and quick-strike offensive capabilities to put up solid seasons year after year. In 4 head-to-head matchups, the Penguins are 3-1-0 and the Rangers are 1-2-1.

In This Corner: The story of the Penguins’ season begins and ends with #87 and #58. On December 31st, the Penguins were on the outside looking in of the playoffs, and Crosby and Letang each scored that night, their 9th and 3rd goal, and had 46 points in a combined 64 games played. From that day on, they racked up an absurd 110 points in 89 GP, pushing Crosby all the way to 3rd in the Art Ross race. They went from a hesitant, slow style of play to a blazing fast, confident style under Sullivan, and haven’t looked back, decimating opponent after opponent down the stretch. And most of this carnage was done without Evgeni Malkin, whose return in the playoffs makes them the scariest team in all of hockey offensively. Where the Penguins start to lose their luster, however, is in net, where the statuses of both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray are in doubt after two late-season injuries. One, or both, should be ready to play, but it is tough to know whether they will be at 100%. If they cannot go, then Jeff Zatkoff, career AHL journeyman with 35 NHL games on his resume in 8 professional seasons, will be tasked with backstopping the hottest team in hockey.

And Over There: The Rangers probably don’t get enough credit (from myself included) for being a very good hockey team, because it is easy to see their peripherals and start screaming “REGRESSION! REGRESSION!” but it’s tough to argue with results, along with the eye test. Rolling out three excellent lines and with Henrik Lundqvist in net, they can afford to be hemmed in their zone for long stretches of play. I think the most infuriating part about the Rangers squad is their refusal to put Dan Girardi out to pasture, instead throwing him to the wolves for over 20 minutes a night. He brings absolutely nothing to the table offensively, and rarely can complete passes to get the puck out of his own end, shown in his 43% Corsi For % this season. Without Girardi on the ice, the Rangers are actually a 51.1% possession team, which is just ludicrous when you consider that they go from the worst team in this year’s EC playoffs to tied for 3rd best when you remove one player from the equation. So you might be able to guess where their weakness is that I am looking to expose.

Special Teams Battle: With nearly identical PP stats (14th and 16th in the NHL), the Penguins have a top 5 PK while the Rangers have a bottom 5 PK. I’ll give you one guess as to who received the most minutes on the PK for the Pens and Rangers this season. You got it! Kris Letang saw 170 minutes total on the PK this season, while Girardi saw 205 minutes, both team-high figures. Not saying that this is the only reason for the gulf between the two teams, but with a sharper utilization of their talent (perhaps, maybe playing confirmed good hockey player Ryan McDonagh (who might actually miss part of this series) more on the PK than Dan freaking Girardi), the Rangers could be poised to upset the Pens.

DFS Ramifications: At home, the Pens have consistently targeted Girardi with Crosby and his linemates, something that I expect to continue, and something that makes me giddy about this post-season, as Crosby is playing like a man on a mission to destroy his opponents, and Girardi doesn’t have much of a chance to stop him. At MSG, I would venture that if McDonagh is back, then he will see all of Crosby that he can handle, leaving Girardi to matchup with Kessel’s line, an under-mentioned component in the Pens late season dash. The Penguins haven’t confirmed what exactly they will do with their PP to start the series, however I suspect that once Evgeni Malkin returns from injury (which could happen during this series) the Pens will go back to Crosby-Malkin-Kessel-Hornqvist-Letang as a PP1 unit, which is downright lethal. Until then, I will be sticking to targeting full 5v5 lines against Girardi along with Letang. If Matt Murray is able to return to the net and MAF is not, Murray has been exceptionally cheap (MAF and Zatkoff are both priced up significantly most places) and will make for an outstanding play in all formats. On the Rangers side, they actually roll three solid lines, and as such might be able to sneak in a few goals against the Pens’ depth players. Eric Staal and Rick Nash are two players who I think can excel against the small depth players of Pittsburgh, and actually are together on the PP2 unit, but are currently skating separate of one another at 5v5, making them a GPP stack only. Lundqvist is always a viable GPP option, as he can post a 40 save shutout on any night, and has done so in the past.

My Prediction: Penguins in 6.

Featured Image Credit: By Elliot from Castro Valley, California, USA (Sidney Crosby) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons