Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Playoff preview and predictions

"We’ve got to roll four lines."

Expect to hear a lot of that in the next few weeks during the Stanley Cup playoffs, which open tonight. This time of year, every coach is overcome by an almost fanatical desire to roll four lines. And they’ll be quite happy to tell you all about it, even if that’s not the question you asked.

We figured that if it was good enough for the playoff teams, it should be good enough for a playoff preview. So for each series, we’re going to roll four lines, too — by using one sentence to break down the old-school narrative, the fancy stats indicators, the key question, and a player to watch. (And we even got some graphics help from Dan Gustafson of 16 Wins.)

Will we really be able to analyze complex playoff matchups using single sentences? Of course! Will we use cheap punctuation tricks to make that happen? Almost undoubtedly. Footnotes, too? Maybe.1

Let’s get started quickly, before the first night of games comes along and leaves all our predictions in ruins.

Central Division

The Central was probably the NHL’s best division, producing three of the league’s top seven teams. It was also the only division to send five teams to the playoffs; the Dallas Stars will temporarily shift over to the Pacific as a wild-card team.

No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Thursday night in St. Louis

Season series: The Blues took the first three meetings (two of them in shootouts), but the Blackhawks beat them twice in the season’s final weeks.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative

The Blues are in free fall,2 collapsing under the weight of their season-long status as Stanley Cup favorites, and now face a humiliating first-round exit at the hands of the defending champs.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …

The Blues’ losing streak has been driven largely by PDO, so it’s no great cause for concern — but a matchup with the Blackhawks and their excellent 55.2 percent Fenwick sure is.3

Line no. 3: The key question

How could a Blues team that was fourth in the league in goals scored on April 1 manage to score just seven times in its final eight games?

Line no. 4: One player to watch

It’s not a hard pick here: The Blues paid a ransom to acquire goalie Ryan Miller with the expectation that he’d be the final piece in their Stanley Cup puzzle, and now it looks like they’ll need him to win this series.

Prediction: Miller gets it done, the Blues win in six, and everyone goes back to considering them Cup favorites.

No. 1 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Thursday night in Colorado

Season series: Colorado took four of five, including all three that ended before the shootout.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative

The Avalanche were a young team drifting without direction until Patrick Roy showed up and sprayed a winning attitude all over the dressing room like a shaggy dog shaking off bathwater.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …

It’s hard to overstate how much the analytics crowd hates the Avalanche, a terrible possession team that’s spent the whole year riding unsustainable percentages and would have been eaten alive by the Blackhawks if the Blues hadn’t collapsed.4

Line no. 3: The key question

The Avalanche are an inexperienced team that’s spent most of the season having the breaks go their way, so how will they respond the first time they get punched in the mouth in the playoffs?

Line no. 4: One player to watch

Ryan Suter spent almost 200 more minutes on the ice than any other player in the league, and against the high-flying Avalanche he may play well more than 30 minutes every night.

Prediction: The Avs win in five, earning the right to have literally everyone on the planet pick them to lose their second-round matchup with the winner of the Blues-Hawks series.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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