Crosby Has Red-Hot Penguins Eyeing Cup: A Guide to the NHL Playoffs
Can Kane lead the Hawks back to the Cup? Will the Caps finally prevail? Our comprehensive preview on everything you need to know about the playoffs.
Illustration by Ben Ruby/VICE
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
The 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us. They are the best. The regular season is just the worst but the playoffs, as long as you can look past the way officials employ Prison Rules at crucial junctures of games by only calling penalties that result in gushing blood and dismemberment, are everything.
The six-month, 82-game slog is not unlike a cross-country road trip with your family. You're excited to get in the car and make the trip but after a little while, you want out. You didn't truly appreciate how long the ride was. Your sister won't shut up. Your dad is playing his crappy music and your mom keeps yelling at you and isn't taking your request to pee seriously. Sure, there are a couple cool landmarks along the way but by the time you hit the Midwest you want to cover your dad's eyes and make him crash the car into a tree.
Then you remember why you make the trip every year as you push through the turnstiles for Disneyland. Or LEGOLAND. Or New York City's Museum of Sex. Wherever your family took you as a kid that's great, is the point.
But when it comes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the destination always looks a little different. Sure, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are right where they usually are, but there are all sorts of new attractions. What is this weird Florida Panthers exhibit? Why is the Boston Bruins ride closed for repairs again? And why does the park owner everyone hates insist on handing out the trophy for best ride on the night the park closes for the season?
And where are all the Canadian families we usually see at the park? You know the ones. They're always saying, "This is our park!" even though they haven't won a big prize there in like 25 years. It turns out with no Canadians taking part in the playoffs this year, this will be a full-blown American vacation experience (yes, with Canadian players making up a large chunk of every team, we get it).
This isn't a series-by-series breakdown—Sean McIndoe has you covered there. This is more of a general/specific/scattershot look at everything you need to know about the playoffs that touches on all 16 teams in some way. Hopefully these first five paragraphs are the literary version of that car ride.
The usual suspects
The past four Stanley Cup champions have been the Chicago Blackhawks (2013, 2015) and Los Angeles Kings (2012, 2014) with Chicago winning another in 2010. The Blackhawks compiled 103 points and the Kings earned 102, so it's safe to say they are again among the favorites to win it all again in 2016.
But how do the Blackhawks and Kings compare to their championship teams of the recent past?
Here are some key Blackhawks and Kings numbers, score-adjusted Fenwick and 5-on-5 goal-differential:
2015 Blackhawks: 53.4/+21
2013 Blackhawks: 56.2/+39
2016 Blackhawks: 50.8/-8
2014 Kings: 56.5/+28
2012 Kings: 53.7/-1
2016 Kings: 56.4/+20
The Blackhawks are far from the dynamic 5-on-5 team they were a year ago, when they had one fewer point. This year's team has thrived with a powerplay that has been historically mediocre, something that's difficult to replicate in the postseason when officials become more selective in what they do or do not call as penalties.
The Kings are stepping on throats at 5-on-5. They had that weird year in 2012 but that run was fueled by the acquisition of Jeff Carter at the trade deadline and Jonathan Quick selling his soul for a .940 save percentage in the postseason. The one thing that can offset so-so possession numbers is two months of hot goaltending—just ask Tim Thomas and the 2011 Bruins.
That means if the Blackhawks are to repeat, chances are, they will need Corey Crawford to play in the .940 range for two months. That's a lot to ask of a goaltender that has played one game in nearly a month and lost his job during the first round last season.
Here are the score-adjusted Fenwicks over the final 25 regular-season games of the past five Stanley Cup champions:
So what do we have here? Three dominant finishes and two OK ones. The Bruins rode a hot goaltender in 2011 and the Blackhawks caught fire after finding a way to circumvent the salary cap while Patrick Kane miraculously recovered from a 12-week injury in seven weeks and was ready for the first round of the playoffs. What an amazing clavicle!
It's impossible to guess which goaltender will carry his team for two months and since nobody is starting the postseason a few million bucks above the cap, here are the teams with the best score-adjusted Fenwicks since Feb. 14:
And here are the five worst playoff teams over that time:
These numbers tell us the Kings are poised to go deep again and there are red flags galore around the Blackhawks. It also tells us one of the top five possession teams (Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose) both down the stretch and over 82 games will be gone after one round.
You may think this sets up a Penguins pasting of the Rangers in the first round but with both teams besieged by injuries (more in this in a moment), it may not matter.
There are dozens of factors that go into a championship run but spending the regular season below 50 percent in score-adjusted Fenwick doesn't seem to be one of them.
Everybody is hurt sometimes
Maybe this is selective memory, but I don't remember a postseason that was set to begin with this many injuries to key players.
Here are some of the players that are likely to miss the first round and beyond or at least a portion of the first round: Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Marian Gaborik, Jaroslav Halak, David Perron, Vincent Trocheck, Thomas Vanek, Jake Allen, Matt Murray.
That doesn't include Tyler Seguin, Tyler Johnson, Travis Hamonic, Marian Hossa, Erik Gudbranson, Ryan McDonagh, Olli Maatta and Marc-Andre Fleury, who all have injuries and may or may not be ready for their teams' Game 1 this week.
For many teams, the first round will be their most difficult series. If the Lightning can find a way to vanquish the Red Wings, maybe they can get some of their stars back for the second round. The same can be said for the Penguins, who may be down to their third-string goaltender when they face the Rangers.
The only injury for the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals at the moment is Jay Beagle, who is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. That should bode well for the league's top team.
No, that's not the next movie after Valentine's Day and Mother's Day that will show the lives of six living Presidents as they learn and grow and love and whatever. It's a subhead that sets up a section where we talk about the Washington Capitals, who were barely mentioned in previous sections about good possession, bad possession and injuries.
So what's up with them?
They are very good. It seems unfair that they have drawn the Flyers, and we will get into that shortly, so how vulnerable are they to an upset?
The Capitals are eighth in score-adjusted Fenwick at 51.7 percent; over their last 25 games, they rank eighth in the same category at 52.2 percent; their 5-on-5 goal differential is plus-40.
The Flyers are 17th in score-adjusted Fenwick at 49.9 percent; over their last 25 games, they rank sixth in the same category at 53.5 percent; their 5-on-5 goal differential is plus-6.
So, maybe, sort of vulnerable? But not like, glaringly vulnerable. The Capitals are like the Death Star—sure, there's a puck-sized opening in their defense that maybe Claude Giroux can hit with a perfect shot but Braden Holtby will be standing in front of it.
As long as Holtby is good, the Caps should be the team that comes out of the East this year.
It's been a while
The Florida Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. It's been three years since they lost to the Devils in seven games in the first round, which made me wonder: Do teams that haven't been to the playoffs in three years ever win the Cup?
As far as I can tell, it's never happened. The 2003 Anaheim Ducks lost in the Cup Final to the Devils in seven games after missing the postseason for three straight years and the 2004 Flames lost in seven games to the Lightning after no postseason trips for seven years, but it doesn't seem like anyone in NHL history has ever won it under those circumstances.
And that's fine.
When teams win a Cup, it's almost always a slow build. Young teams get better, get bounced early for a while, then become champions. That may not sound attractive to Panthers fans (or a 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr) but this is the foundation-laying year for the Panthers. They are very good but not battle-tested, so losing in seven in the first round isn't the worst thing.
Is this the end?
For Pavel Datsyuk, he's suddenly on a farewell tour. He plans to retire after the postseason and stick the Red Wings with $7.5 million in dead cap space because the 38-year-old signed his contract when he was 36. Datsyuk, who once answered a question about gay marriage by pointing out that he's part of a homophobic religion, wants to return to his family in Russia. It's such a heart-warming story!
Could this be anyone else's final shot at a Cup?
Well, yeah, duh, maybe someone will never get to the playoffs again, Dave, so really, this could be Sidney Crosby's last chance if you think about it.
You know what I mean. Old people.
Dan Boyle of the Rangers and Matt Cullen of the Penguins turn 40 this year and don't have contracts for next season. Jagr is 44 and teammate Willie Mitchell turns 39 this month and both are free agents after the season.
There's no real story here that's going to pull at your heart strings, as Datsyuk, Jagr, Mitchell, Boyle and Cullen are all old guys with Cup rings already. If we could get Jarome Iginla off the worst-coached team in the NHL, maybe he can be that guy next year.
So cheer for Roberto Luongo, who is Cup-less, 37 years old and will play as long in this year's playoffs as Jagr.
So who wins the Cup?
What do the Kings and Blackhawks of the past four years have to say about who will be this year's champions?
Here are their average numbers in those Cup years:
Full-season score-adjusted Fenwick: 54.9
Final 25 games score-adjusted Fenwick: 56.3
5-on-5 goal differential: +20
No. 1 goaltender save percentage: .921
Powerplay ranking: 20
Penalty kill ranking: 7
So the team that is most likely to win the 2016 Stanley Cup is an elite possession club that was hot down the stretch, can outscore opponents at 5-on-5, doesn't need an elite powerplay, has a very good penalty kill and a .921 goaltender. Who fits this bill?
Six teams have No. 1 goaltenders with at least a .921 this season: St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh and Florida.
Of those six teams, no one has a full-season score-adjusted Fenwick of at least 54.9.
Therefore, nobody will win the Stanley Cup.
I'm told the NHL will still award the Stanley Cup despite this, so let's lower the bar a bit.
Of those six teams, only Pittsburgh (53.1) is in the top five of full-season score-adjusted Fenwick. We've already covered their final 25 games of 56.6 percent. Their 5-on-5 goal differential is plus-30. Their powerplay is ranked 16th and their penalty killing is ranked fifth.
Therefore, the smart choice to win the 2016 Stanley Cup is the... oh right, we don't know about Fleury. Here's an amazing sentence I never thought I'd type without irony: If Fleury is healthy to start the playoffs, the Penguins will win the Stanley Cup.
If he's not, however, and Matt Murray or Jeff Zatkoff start in net, that's going to be much more difficult.
So who will it be if not the Penguins?
The Kings have it all, but Jonathan Quick is at .918 (which is better than his .915 in 2014) but their penalty kill is ranked 15th. The Blues fall short in 5-on-5 goal differential (+15) but hit the rest of the notes. The Capitals have everything but their score-adjusted Fenwick over the final 25 games was 52.2. The Ducks are top-5 in both possession metrics but minus-6 in goal differential (partly because of their first month), something offset by a top-ranked powerplay and penalty kill.
Every true contender has something of a mild crack or flaw. But someone, as stated in the NHL collective-bargaining agreement, will win the Stanley Cup.
So who will it be?
I don't know. I'll take the Ducks over the Caps.
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