Friday, May 29, 2015

Seven thoughts on a pair of game sevens

For the first time since 2000, hockey fans have a pair of Game 7s to look forward to in the conference finals. The Rangers will host the Lightning on Friday, with the Ducks welcoming the Blackhawks on Saturday, and by the time it’s all over we’ll have our Stanley Cup final matchup.

Game 7s tend to be just about impossible to figure out ahead of time, but that’s no reason not to at least try. So let’s take a look at seven factors that could help decide a Game 7 … or two.

1. Goaltending

It’s the goaltending. It’s always the goaltending. In fact, this seems like such an obvious category that I spent way too much time trying to figure out a way to get around including it at all. But I can’t, because it will be the biggest factor in both games, so we might as well start with it. Here’s the short version: The team with the better goaltender will probably win.

The slightly longer version is that both series feature battles between goalies who’ve taken turns looking both unbeatable and awful, often in the same game. That’s probably caused an ulcer or two on the coaching staffs, but it’s made for some fascinating hockey, where no shot is harmless and no lead is safe.

Let’s break down the numbers. As you’d expect, Henrik Lundqvist has been the best of the four remaining goalies, putting up a .928 save percentage. He’s also been the best in the third round at 5v5, where he’s at .934, although his poor .720 while shorthanded has dragged his overall numbers down. That gives him an edge over Ben Bishop, who’s at .917 overall and just .898 at 5v5. Both Bishop and Lundqvist have had awful games in what’s been a surprisingly high-scoring series, so nobody’s looking unbeatable, but Lundqvist has clearly been better.

Out west, Frederik Andersen and Corey Crawford have very similar numbers over the course of the playoffs. In this series, Andersen has been better 5v5 while Crawford’s numbers are slightly better overall, although we’re dealing with a six-game sample size, so we won’t read too much into small gaps. The eye test says both have looked shaky in recent games, but Andersen in particular has been fighting the puck over the past two games, including this stinker that almost certainly cost the Ducks Game 4.

2. The big stars

We like to think of a Game 7 as the time when the biggest stars shine brightest, and it’s certainly true that it works out that way sometimes. But just as often the stars go quiet, some random scrub plays the hero, and we all agree to never speak of it again.

Given all the star power spread out between these four teams, it seems likely that at least one big name will break through. That would bode well for Chicago, since its top guns are already hot. Jonathan Toews had those two late goals in Game 5, and Patrick Kane has scored in three of the past four. Meanwhile, Duncan Keith may be playing better than anyone else in the playoffs right now, which works out well since at this point he rarely leaves the ice.

By comparison, the Ducks’ big two of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry has had mixed results, combining for just two goals in the series. Getzlaf has been held scoreless but has chipped in seven assists, so he’s creating offense even if he’s started blaming himself for losses. Perry has been quieter, with two goals and no assists after racking up 15 points through the first nine games of the postseason.

In the East, the Lightning continue to get big production from the Triplets line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos has now heated up (bringing Alex Killorn along with him). They’ve been more consistent than the Rangers’ top stars, although both Rick Nash and Derick Brassard have posted huge games late in the series. Meanwhile, Martin St. Louis has remained mostly invisible, and now has just one opportunity left to haunt his former team.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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