Previewing the NHL Playoffs (04/11/17)

By Frank Brank @realfrankbrank

The Predictalator uses current rosters, along with strength-of-schedule and pace-adjusted team and player stats, to play, one shift at a time, every game 50,000 times before it's actually played. For this analysis, we are tracking how likely a team is to make it to any level of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Each Stanley Cup bracket is played individually, with the team that wins the series in each unique instance advancing.

Those simulations tell us that the Washington Capitals are the Stanley Cup Champions 25.6% of the time; more than double the chances of any other team in the league. The next closest teams are the Minnesota Wild (11.1%), Pittsburgh Penguins (8.3%), and Montreal Canadiens (7.5%). So is this the year the Capitals are finally going to make their run? Well, the chances of them not winning the Stanley Cup are still a whopping 74.4%. They may be the far and away favorites, but the odds are stacked against any single team winning four straight series against other quality opponents.

The Capitals are the favorites for good reason. They own the third highest Corsi For percentage this season, the highest shooting percentage of any team at 10.5%, and have received stellar goaltending. Braden Holtby has the second best save percentage of any starting goalie this season. Washington boasts a wealth of talent including a defense core that consists of Kevin Shattenkirk, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, and Dimitry Orlov; all of whom have played at an elite level this season.

However, the Eastern Conference comes with it's challenges for the Caps this season. Washington will have to go through the young, high-paced Toronto Maple Leafs, with a looming matchup against either the third-best team, the Penguins, or the sixth-best Blue Jackets (although Columbus has been dropping steadily for the past two months). Obviously, this is all taken into account within our simulation; hence, illustrating just how much better the Capitals are than everyone else entering the postseason.
Many people still remain unconvinced of Washington because of their past failures in the postseason; however, that is largely irrelevant, especially since this is the best Caps team in the Alexander Ovechkin era.

Out of the East, the Penguins have the next best chances to reach the Cup Finals, but their Stanley Cup expectancy has diminished down the stretch with injuries to top defenseman Kris Letang, as well as, forwards Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin. As long as the Pens have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin healthy, they'll always have a chance. This is still a very deep team, but without Letang in the lineup, Pittsburgh's defense just doesn't stack up with that of Washington.

The Ottawa Senators started off the season as the hottest team in the NHL. They held strong enough to keep the two seed in the Atlantic, but they also have the worst chances of winning the Stanley Cup. They'll be playing the Boston Bruins, who were the most unlucky team in the NHL for the first half of the season. Every advanced metric saw the Bruins as one of the best teams in the NHL for most of the season and they eventually turned it around after the All-Star Break (although their metrics post-ASB were actually worse than pre-ASB!). Even without home ice advantage, the Bruins have a 61.7% chance of advancing past the Ottawa Senators, and that number would be even larger if they had a healthy Torey Krug on defense.

This doesn't mean the Senators have no chance though. Their odds are precisely 1.3% of winning four straight series. That's the beauty of the NHL playoffs: Any team, once in the mix, can get hot enough with some puck luck to win the Cup. One hot goalie or a couple hot shooters can steal the entire tournament. There is enough randomness within the game of hockey to allow any team in the tournament to win. The Capitals may be a huge favorite relative to the field, but the odds are still stacked against them and every other team.

The Wild have the best shot out of the Western conference to win the Stanley Cup, which will probably come as a surprise to many people reading this. Minnesota faltered down the stretch, but there isn't a strong correlation between play down the stretch and success in the postseason. Just last year, Philadelphia was the trendy pick to upset Washington in their first round. Philadelphia rode into the playoffs on a hot streak, while Washington looked lackadaisical for a two month stretch, but the Caps handed it to the Flyers in the that series. It's important to try to dismiss recency bias. Recent play is a factor in our simulations, but it's not the lone factor.

Devan Dubnyk leads the way for the Wild. As one of the best goalies in the NHL over the last few years, Dubnyk sports a 93.1 even strength save percentage this season. Minnesota ranks as the second best defense in the NHL, per our power rankings, by limiting opponents to less than seven scoring chances per sixty minutes, the best in the NHL. The addition of Martin Hanzal at the Trade Deadline also gives the Wild another quality scorer, and three extremely potent forward lines.

Minnesota will face the Blues in the first round, where they have a 64.7% chance to win their series. You could say that the Wild caught a break with their recent cold streak because they dodged the Nashville Predators to open up the playoffs. St. Louis rode a hot streak down the stretch to vault up into third in the Central Division, but they were more lucky than good, facing a very easy schedule and getting outplayed in many of the games that they won. The Blues enter the playoffs with four replacement level defensemen according to our metrics, and that's simply a recipe for disaster against a deep Wild team.

The top-seeded Blackhawks unluckily draw the balanced Preds, and have just a 53.2% chance to win that series. Chicago is an enigma in that they should be worse than they are. The Blackhawks have an extremely talented team, but their advanced metrics leave much to be desired. Chicago is right around league average in Corsi, Scoring Chances, and Expected Goals, yet they finished in the top spot in the West. Make no mistake, this is not the same Blackhawks team that we've seen in years past, and they are definitely vulnerable in the first round.

The San Jose Sharks, ranked fifth overall in our rankings, have the next best odds in the West. They will benefit from playing against Edmonton (#9), Anaheim (#13), and Calgary (#16) within the Pacific portion of the bracket. Even though they'll be playing on the road against Edmonton, the Sharks are a slightly better team, especially with the returns of Joe Thornton and Logan Couture to the lineup. Without home ice advantage, San Jose still is favored to move past the Oilers in the first round with a 52.3% probability, but this one is very close to a coin flip.

The NHL playoffs are one of the most exciting--if not the most exciting--in pro sports because there is a true "anything can happen" vibe. Every fan base will feel like their team can legitimately win the championship, unlike the NBA or NFL. This year is no different. The Caps are the obvious favorites but this is a wide open field, and it wouldn't be a shock to see anyone hoist the Cup this summer.