North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

What went wrong – NHL playoff picks and first round recaps (Eastern Conference)

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With the second round of the NHL playoffs kicking off tonight, this seems like a pretty good time to make my picks for the second round.

But before I do, I’m going to take minute or two and go over my first round picks and why I was right or wrong, at least for the Eastern Conference (I’ll have my Western recap and picks up in the next little while).

What I predicted: Washington over Montreal

What actually happened: Montreal won in seven

Well, if I can be so bold, this was a massive upset. Going by point differential, the second biggest upset in playoffs ever. It’s certainly the biggest upset since Edmonton beat the Red Wings in 2006.

So, what happened? I took the Capitals because I bought into their hype. I still would, if the series were being played again starting tomorrow. By almost every stretch I can think of, the Capitals were the better team:

  • The Capitals had 54 wins and 121 points on the season; Montreal had 39 wins and 88 points.
  • The Capitals scored 318 goals to Montreal’s 217. Their goal differential was 85, Montreal’s was -6.
  • Washington’s SRS – a measure of strength and quality of wins –  was 0.90, Montreal’s was -0.14.
  • The Capitals had three players with 30 goals or more and four with 70+ points. Montreal didn’t have a single player who scored 30 goals and nobody with more then 70 points.

It wasn’t really hard to say to think that the Capitals were the better team. So, again, what happened?

Goaltending happened, especially for Montreal.

In the regular season, the Habs GAA was 2.57 and their Save percentage was .919. In the first round – against one of the best scoring teams in the NHL, no less – their GAA was 2.78, but their save percentage jumped to .931.

Jaroslav Halak made nearly 220 saves in the first round, far more then the number of shots both goalies for the Caps faced. He was more then impressive, he was stunning.

There was no better example of this then game six, when the Habs needed a win on home ice to force a game seven. He turned away over 50 shots in a 4-1 victory, stunning the Capitals. In a must-win game, Alexander Ovechkin was stopped eight times, Alexander Semin seven times, Joe Corvo ten times.

And remember, home ice was not friendly to the Habs in the playoffs. Games three and four, both played in Montreal, were blowout losses, 5-1 and 6-3, respectively.

Of course, it wasn’t just Halak who won the series. Washington did their part, too. Both goals in game seven for Montreal came off of bad defensive breaks for the Capitals. The first, a Montreal power play goal, came on a Marc-Andre Bergeron one-timer right after the puck was passed through Washington’s defenders – in a space right through three players.

The second was even weirder, coming from a long Montreal dump into the Capitals end and took a weird bounce from two players and ended up right on Domonic Moore’s stick, who scored stick-side and made it a 2-0 game. Again, this came off a defensive lapse on Washington – with three people in their own end, nobody was keeping a body on Moore; when the puck landed on his stick, he had a clear path to the net. It wasn’t Washington floating, but was something they should have avoided.

Those two goals were a microcosm of what went wrong for the Caps, especially in the later games: they spent so much time putting pressure on the offensive end, they were easily caught unguarded on breaks to the net on when shorthanded. It was an ugly, frustrating way for it to end for the President Trophy winners and it was one I certainly didn’t see coming.

What I predicted: New Jersey over Philadelphia

What happened: Philly won in five games

Another upset, although not one quite as staggering. The Devils had won 48 games, had 101 points and a SRS of 0.31; the Flyers only got into the playoffs on the last day of the season (thanks to a NY loss) and had 41 wins, 88 points and a SRS of 0.08, making them decidedly average.

So what happened this time? The first instinct is to say something along the lines of, “Oh Marty Brodeur is too old” or that he played too many minutes. Maybe if I were a lazier writer, I’d say the Flyers wanted it more or some other old warhorse cliche.

But honestly? I think was a fairly evenly matched series.

In the regular season, the Devils lost four games to the Flyers, three of them by just a goal. They only won once, a 4-1 victory in December. Same for the Flyers – only once did they beat the Devils by two or more goals.

So really, for two teams so far removed in the standings, you couldn’t have asked for a closer regular season series. It was a trend that repeated itself in the postseason. Two games were decided by a goal, and another was pretty close – two late goals by the Devils, including an empty netter, shoved it in their favor.

Still, in the final two games, the Devils were stymied by the Flyers and only scored once, losing 4-1 and 3-0. For a team that eight times in the first three games, it represents at least a dropoff and at worse, a major collapse. How much of this actually lies with their goaltending?

Well, it certainly played a big role: Brodeur’s GAA exploded from 2.24 in the regular season to 3.01 in the first round. His save percentage fell from .916 to .881. In both cases, they’re the worst in his career as a starting goaltender. But if Brodeur played such a role in the collapse, why did backup Yann Denis not play a single second in net?

I’d argue it was the Devils scoring that played as big a role in the collapse.

While the Devils were not a high-scoring team – with just 222 goals scored this season, they’re below the league average – in the last two games, they had a hell of a time scoring.

In the regular season, Zach Parise scored 38 goals for the Devils. Travis Zajac scored 25 in 82 games. Combined, they scored just two goals in the first round. Indeed, the only Devil who scored with regularity was Ilya Kovalchuk, who had been brought on board in February. In five games, he scored two goals – one of only two Devils to score more then once. Only six players for New Jersey had two or more points.

For contrast, the Flyers had six players with two or more goals.

Credit has to be given to Flyers goalie Brian Boucher. One of the three goalies that got regular starts with the Flyers, he shined in the postseason. His GAA went from 2.76 to 1.59 in the first round; his save percentage went from .899 to .940. He even posted a shutout in the first round, something he only did once in the regular season. I certainly didn’t see him playing this well.

What I said: Boston over Buffalo

What happened: Boston won in six games

Here’s one I got right. At the start of the playoffs, I thought the Bruins were an underrated team and I didn’t like Buffalo a whole lot. Sure the Sabres had won their division, but head to head with Boston?

They had won four of their six meetings, one in overtime and another in a shootout. In a vaccum, that makes them the better team.

What I didn’t see was just how intense their matches would be. The Bruins racked up over 100 penalty minutes, with Chara alone getting 25. The Sabres had 112, with winger Patrick Kaleta getting 22. For contrast, the Devils had 88 penalty minutes, the Sharks 44. This was a rough series.

Plus, it was a close one, too: all but one of the games were close affairs and one – game four – went into a second overtime. That was a pretty good game.

For one thing, goaltending for both sides – Ryan Miller for Buffalo, Tuukka Rask for the Bruins – stayed about the same in the series.

Scoring was weird, too. Boston had their scoring more spread around – six players had four or more points, to Buffalo’s two – but the Sabres had the only blowout win in the series, a 4-1 victory in game five.

Thusly, back to game four, the second OT. I think it was that too many men penalty, the one where the Bruins scored on the ensuing power play, that really tipped this series. Before it, it was anybody’s series; Boston led 2-1, but all three games were close. The next game was a big win for the Sabres, but they lost another close one in game six. This is where a cliche comes in handy since I’m not sure why Boston won without resorting to one like “they wanted it more.” Three of their wins were by a goal; the one where they won by two was punctuated by an empty net goal.

The one thing I’ll take away from this series is that they could pull out big wins when they had to, just like the Canadiens did against Washington.

What I said: Pittsburgh over Ottawa

What happened: Pittsburgh won in six

My prediction here may have been a bit biased, since I can’t stand the Senators and I kind of have a soft spot for Crosby. But I also liked the offensive presence of

Still, it was another good, close series. Two went to overtime, including a three-OT game, and a couple other that were close.

But it was the one that wasn’t close that defined the series for me. Game four, a 7-4 win for the Penguins on the road. In a wild second period, there were eight goals scored. After 40 minutes, it was a 6-3 lead for the Penguins and I felt they were clearly in control of the series. Why?

Be exploding like that in a must-win road game, they showed that they can be maybe the best pure scoring team in the Eastern Conference. It was an outburst of offense that no other team, including two teams that finished higher then them in the standings, were able to accomplish. The Penguins may not be the best defensive team in the playoffs, but they can sure score like nobody else.

And after winning game four, the Penguins took a big 3-1 series lead. Ottawa had to fight tooth and nail to win game five. In game six, they were playing with an amazing amount of will – they were hitting hard and often, throwing themselves into hard checks along the boards. They wanted that win and were pushing themselves as hard as any team I’ve seen. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t have it in them; a game seven between the two teams would have been electric.

 Anyway, that’s enough recap. Here’s my Eastern Conference picks:

– I like the Bruins over the Flyers. The Bruins have solid goaltending in Rask and while their season series is 2-2, the Bruins have won the last two meetings. It’ll be a rough, series, though.

– I like Pittsburgh over Montreal, but with reservations. As shown against the Capitals, the Canadiens are on a roll and can shut down high scoring teams. But the Penguins have won three of the four games between the two this season. Given that, and how the Penguins have had a few days to rest after their series, I like them.

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