With the first round of the NHL postseason drawing to a close, three underdogs find themselves on the brink of elimination. The Flames, Hurricanes and Rangers will have gameplans unique to their opposition that will give them the best chance of advancing to the second round. The Flames must utilize their great offense, while their defense prevents a reasonable number of goals. The Hurricanes must rely on their defense, but score enough goals between Staal and Whitney to stay in games; The Rangers must get shutdown goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, while getting plenty of power play opportunities to score goals. If the Cinderalla story is to continue for any of these teams, they'll have to address certain concerns.
After the blockbuster deadline deal for former Coyote Olli Jokinen, Calgary had great expectations of their first Stanley Cup run since being ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. Between Jokinen, Iginla, Cammalleri, Conroy and Bourque, the Flames had the fourth best even strength GVT in hockey. Any chance of a “Red Mile” party in Calgary are slim after losing a critical game 5 contest on Saturday. Based on the results of Timo’s study today, it doesn’t appear that the offense is at fault. The offense has actually overachieved by one tenth of a goal. The usual suspects, a 17th ranked defense based on GVT and a 26th ranked goaltending GVT, are the reason why Alberta’s team finds itself a game away from elimination. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has drawn the ire of fans with his .893 save percentage play, which improves only the slightest to .906 at even strength. While he is underachieving, this is not terribly surprising considering that he contributed 1.7 goals below the marginal, replacement level goalie. While he is very durable, 73.6 games played, he still needs to be average to be a starting goaltender.
Luckily for Calgary, the series play has not been vastly different between the two teams. At even strength, the Blackhawks outscored the Flames 12-11 and, in total, 18 goals to 15. The 22nd ranked GVT power play unit has played slightly worse, going from scoring on 17 % of power plays in the regular season to scoring on 13.3% of power plays in the postseason. The main problem has been the collapse of the penalty killing squad, which has gone from a fourth best 83.4 % penalty killing efficiency to a horrendous 77.3 %, which would have qualified for 27th best in the regular season. The Flames haven’t taken a significant amount of more penalties over the postseason, 4.25 per game in the regular season as opposed to 4.4 per game in the postseason, so the key for the Flames over the next two games must be to tighten up their penalty killing defense. One of the biggest mistakes has been giving D Jordan Leopold the second most penalty killing time on ice, 16:42, who has the Flames second worst defensive GVT of – 0.7. Among forwards, only Olli Jokinen is worse on defense and he was brought onto the squad for his offense. It would be smarter to allow Cory Sarich to eat up some of Leopold’s penalty killing minutes if they expect to make it to the end of this week.
The Carolina Hurricanes are looking to win their first Stanley Cup since the spring of 2006. While Cam Ward and the Carolina defense have been superb, the 19th ranked GVT offense in the league is letting down this team again. If the Southeast runner-ups were going to upset the New Jersey Devils, Eric Staal (+ 11.1 Off. GVT) and Ray Whitney (+ 10.0 Off. GVT) were going to need offensive support. So far, the dual threats have scored 46 % of Carolina goals and 42 % of Hurricane points. Forwards Tuomo Ruutu (26 Goals, 16 ESG) and Matt Cullen (22 Goals, 16 ESG) who were among the top four offensive weapons during the regular season, have combined for 0 Goals and 2 Points in the postseason. If it weren’t for right winger Chad Larose’s 2 ESG and 5 round 1 Points, the Hurricanes might be swinging the golf clubs in Myrtle Beach.
While the Hurricane power play unit was mediocre during the regular season, 17th ranked GVT power play offense of – 0.9, they weren’t a liability. However, the Hurricane power play unit has gone from average to historically bad. Often at Puck Prospectus, we’ll mention a power play unit being “in a funk” after dipping from 19 % to 17.5 %. Though it has been 5 games, the Hurricanes have gone from converting on 18.7 % of power plays to converting on 5 % of power plays. No, there should not be a one in front of that five. That’s downright awful. Forwards Eric Staal and Jussi Jokinen have provided the only 2 Power Play Goals, PPG, in the series against New Jersey. Ray Whitney, 25:54 Power Play Time On Ice, has done absolutely nothing for Carolina when at least a man up, contributing no goals, assists or points. Tuomo Ruutu, 23:07 PPTOI, who has been a playoff disappointment to begin with, has done nothing on the power play as well. It would be one thing if the Devils had a stellar penalty killing unit, but they were below average with a penalty killing defense ranked 20th in GVT on the year. We might be overlooking one hockey player in all of this: Martin Brodeur. Marty has stopped 39 of 41 shots on the penalty kill for a very impressive .951 short-handed save percentage. While Brodeur is overrated in the historical sense, he’s not as good as Patrick Roy or Curtis Joseph, he’s still one of the best currently playing in the NHL. Carolina still has to do a better job on the power play in game 7 if the expect to pull off the upset. While Brodeur has been exceptional, the Hurricanes might have to face netminders Tim Thomas in round 2 and Roberto Luongo in the Stanley Cup finals. Even if Carolina pulls off the upset, don’t expect them go to far with poorly performing power play unit.
New York Rangers
The story of the Rangers season has not changed: It’s still about fixing their offense. Unfortunately for New York, a problem that lasts 82 games does not disappear when playoff hockey comes around. The reason the 25th ranked GVT offense was so effective in game 1 against Washington was because one of the NHL’s worst goaltenders, Jose Theodore, was in net. Theodore, who is a below replacement level goalie, stopped only 17 of 21 shots in the first contest of the series to post a .810 save percentage. If Washington had replaced Theodore in Game 1 with a league average goalie, or even slightly below league average, the Capitals might already have won this series 4 games to 2. With Simeon Varlamov, the Russian sensation, in net for Washington, New York will have to execute a nearly perfect game plan if they want to face the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
While there have been many key players in this series, Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau has probably been the most valuable, solely on the decision to replace Jose Theodore in the net for game 2 and beyond. Varlamov has helped to bring down the Rangers already below average power play unit (13.8 % power play efficiency) to an even worse 9.1 %. Scott Gomez, who leads the team in the first round with 28:27 PPTOI, and big time disappointment Wade Redden, 27:06 PPTOI, will have to be more effective in game 7 to push the Rangers past the Capitals. Combine these New York flaws with an average series from King Henrik, .924 ESSV%, .907 SV%, and the Rangers are in trouble. If they can turn around a season long problem, the offense, in one game and advance to the second round against a stud goaltender such as Simeon Varlamov, then to quote Al Michaels: “Is it a miracle? Yes!”
Andrew Rothstein is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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