And so begins a quest for the Stanley Cup like no other…
The NHL released the following statement on Monday afternoon:
This came on the back of the announcement that the Florida Marlins, of Major League Baseball, had around a dozen players and personnel test positive. The distinction here is that the NHL has been preparing for the better part of eight weeks for a two-city HUB. The plan is far from foolproof, however it is incredibly extensive.
For these series previews, I will be working with the assumption that all players are COVID-free and will remain so for the duration of the round. While we know some players have tested positive during the year, the specifics of which individuals is sometimes not disclosed.
The format for the playoffs will begin with a 16 team play-in. Eight teams in the East and eight in the West will play best-of-five series to determine which four in the respective conferences will meet the top four seeds. While those best-of-fives get underway, a round-robin will decide the order of the top four.
The part of the preparation I have struggled most with is which data and information is most critical to use for the circumstances. For this first round the quality could be closer to pre-season than post-season. Additionally the players on each and every team could see huge variety in form and conditioning coming in. Let’s breakdown the obvious differences first:
- Teams had a 120 day break between regular season and playoffs
- normally would be 1-3 days at most
- Three weeks training camp
- two to three weeks followed by a week of exhibition games after most pros already being on the ice or personal training sessions since a variety of dates in August
- Teams will be playing all games in a neutral environment but also be in the same vicinity as opponents
- in a regular season would feature two home games for the higher seed followed by two away games until alternating games 5/6/7
- normally visiting teams stay in a hotel and have no contact with opposition
- Qualifying round is best-of-five with playoff overtime rules, remaining four rounds will be best-of-seven
- the play-ins or qualifying round is only a feature this year
- Round-robin stage features the four teams playing three games each with regular season standings scoring in effect
- with no home ice, seeding is almost entirely irrelevant. Nothing quite says ‘this is not playoff hockey’ by playing 3v3 and then a shootout
- the presumption is that teams should be motivated by potentially playing a worse team if they attain a higher seed, but I am skeptical. My opinion is that it will be used far more as an exhibition in game-like conditions
- No crowd
- could help the nerves of some players, but also lower the intensity. This is one of those ‘create the narrative’ situations, still, we won’t know until the players actually comment on their experience with it and even then it will be subjective
- Rest vs rust
- I looked into each team and there is not a single one that would not benefit from the time needed for some of their players to recover. While some clubs had more important players to their ability to win out of the lineup, every team could benefit from the time off
- the contrary point is which teams had momentum, were in good form, were relatively healthy and playing better hockey in contrast to the field. Again there is no way to know whether this actually hurts anyone, but you can be sure that will be the tail that is spun
Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Rangers
Saturday, August 01, 2020 – 01:00 PM EDT
In one aspect the Hurricanes begin their 2020 playoffs in a similar manner to 2019 – they are facing an opponent from the Metropolitan who swept them during the regular season. This time however, against the New York Rangers, they are the small favorites. The Rangers doubled up the score of the Canes despite being incredibly outshot in three of those four games. This feeds somewhat into Carolina's greatest concern during the season, their goaltending (will get to that later).
The Hurricanes were once again the kings of Corsi at 55% and second in the league. This has been the case for this team with them finishing around 55 and top two in the NHL for the past three seasons. Corsi is a quality indicator for long term success; it measures which team has control of the puck in contrast to their opposition. However, it does not override other important categories by any means.
The Rangers were the most penalized team this year, but it didn't seem to matter too much as their snipers sang. They had a number of players post career highs in shooting percentage. Additionally, New York fans could not have dreamed that Panarin would be such a godsend. The Bread Man looked every bit as dangerous and game-breaking, if not more so, than he did in both Columbus and Chicago. Zibanejad may have been out for a dozen games or so, but he more than made up for it potting 41 goals in 57 games. Contrast this with his 30 goal season through 82 games in 2018/2019. The Rangers haven't had their top three point-getters (word check?) out-produce what just the duo of Panarin and Zibanejad did this year since Nash, Brassard, and Stepan back in 2015 and those three still only score four more goals AND it was over a full 82 game season. The Rangers haven't had a player break the 90 point threshold since one of the greatest of all time was with them back in 2007, Jaromir Jagr with 96 points in 82 games at the age of 34. Panarin is something special and being with a more free-flowing fast offense than he was in Columbus has allowed him to show it to the league.
The greatest trouble for the Hurricanes this year was getting off to a good start on the score sheet finishing in the bottom five. However if they did score first they were the best team at converting it into a win at 83%. This was followed up by an almost immaculate record when leading at intermission with 95%. The Rangers were also respectable in this category as are most of the 'playoff' teams this year (there is 24 afterall). However New York was tied with five others as giving up the most frequent losses when scoring first, 11. The only other playoff team at this number is Montreal. Yet to their credit, the Rangers did finish 8th in win percentage when allowing the first goal. The teams above them are an elite company as six of the seven are playing in the round-robin instead of the qualifying stage, the Penguins are the exception. [As an aside, because I am sure I will forget to mention it later – the Bruins were the only team to win more games than they lost when giving up the first tally.]
Through the same amount of games, Mrazek had worse save percentage and goals-against average this year. This drop can be measured by performance against league averages, which dropped nine points. Reimer on the other hand had his best numbers since his first season in Florida and finished in the top thirty in just about every category. He played fewer games than Mrazek, and at one point both were sidelined due to injury. Carolina was the team, afterall, that famously beat the Toronto Maple Leafs this year with beer league amateur who was the last minute callup for a big hockey night in Canada bout. However combined the Canes goaltenders had a poor start in about 20% of their games. One situation that is not infrequently witnessed in hockey games is the 'cold goalie'. A team starts incredibly fast, controlling the play and spending most of the time in the offensive zone. The opposition then on one of their initial few opportunities, after being outplayed through a respectable portion of the game, scores first thereby being more efficient but not necessarily correlated to the greater success in the long term. This is the ultimate x-factor, described by many as randomness of bounces, that allows for underdogs to win at such a respectable clip [topic for another day].
The Rangers were not without their own goaltending drama this year either. Henrik Lundqvist, the King, all but lost the starting gig for the first time since New York became home in 2005. Lundqvist started just 37% of the Rangers games – his lowest career starts including his rookie season at 23. It was the first time he had not been given more than 50% of the workload. For most of the past fifteen years the Rangers playoff hopes lived and died with Kinger. He is a multiple-time All-Star, Hart nominee, and Vezina nominee and winner. In 2012, the year he won the Vezina as the best goalie in the league, he posted a 1.97 GAA and 93 save percentage. However he is now 38, and over those eight years we have seen a steady decline to this season, his career-worst at 0.90 saves and 3.16 goals against. So it appears that due to Shesterkin's unsustainably hot numbers he will get the green light to start the qualifying round. This would truly be a mistake in most situations, however I understand the predicament the Rangers are in and we have not seen how King Henrik's conditioning has been during COVID.
The biggest news for the Hurricanes defense corps is the sidelining of Dougie Hamilton. Statistically their best D on both sides of the puck this season and playing 23 minutes a night. He had the highest point shares of any Carolina player this season. He only played in three games against the Rangers this season but walked away with a +1 rating despite the 12 goal team differential. However the injury problems don't end there for the D. Brett Pesce is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Pesce had less impact on the offensive side of things, but his numbers were still steady and he logged top four minutes. He did not fly with the team to Toronto, the Eastern hub city, but they have slotted him into the roster. This means that we could see a possible return if the Hurricanes go deep enough this year. That said, in the words of Brind'Amour, it is a 'long shot'.
This certainly sounds dire when two of your top four defensemen are already listed out, yet it isn't. The Canes prepared for this better than almost every team in the league. At the trade deadline the big blockbuster acquisition of Vincent Trocheck made the headlines, however there were two others picked up both the same day that flew a bit under the radar – Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei. Now neither will ever amount to the stud performance numbers of that is Dougie's skill ceiling, but this is also a long way away from needing a rookie call up from the farm. Vatanen and Skjei have a combined 700+ games of NHL experience and both have been part of playoff runs. These two have pretty dismal career numbers however, given what we have heard about Carolina leading the way for the analytics crowd in hockey, do we have a potential Moneyball situation?
Wrap It Up
The playoff experience factor goes heavily in favor of the Canes who are returning a dozen players from their Eastern Conference run a year ago. Justin Williams is a player whose influence cannot be measured, but that the young Rangers would undoubtedly love to have both on the ice and in the locker room. He is a player who loves this club and is equally adored. He sat out most of the season however returned for the final twenty games before the hiatus. Williams has been to the post-season 11 times posting 101 points during that time. He has been to the Cup finals three times, walking away with a ring on each occasion and even has some of the biggest goals for his respective clubs with 8 game-winners and several in overtime. The last time Williams played the Rangers in the playoffs was the 2014 Cup Finals against a certain Swedish King:
That's really here nor there, sometimes I get on a tangent and just follow it until I remember I had other things to talk about.
I think we are getting this price based a lot on the head-to-head this season. The Canes didn't have the same swagger that they brought into the 2019 playoffs (to be frank no one does due to the break), by being the little rebels of the league, however I don't think its necessarily a bad thing. They did well last year and went up against a true contender in the Bruins who are one of the most well-rounded, durable clubs in the league over the past decade. However the roster of this team from top to bottom, minus Hamilton, is actually better.
While New York's good run of form in the second half of the season was by no means a fluke, I think 'unsustainable' is apt. An 83% win percentage from Shesterkin? No comment. A 0.932 save percentage? That would tie him in the top 17 standout seasons of all time if he continued that to a 25 game sample. You know which goalies played a full season with that kind of number - Tim Thomas, Carey Price, Tony Esposito, Dominik Hasek, Jacques Plante...see where I am going with this. If you can call his performance a reliable sample, which the NHL record books do not, then you are saying he will be in this elite company of Hall of Famers and cup winners on this statistic alone.
The other issue for the Rangers pricing here is whether their snipers can maintain their career-best conversions. Like I mentioned earlier, the Rangers were a better club this year aided by some good transactions and a willingness to try out some alternatives in net. However of their top eight goal scorers, ignoring Kaapo Kakko as he is a rookie and would obviously fall into this, four had career highs in shooting percentage. We saw what happened to Vegas when their shooting percentage dipped after career highs for a number of players. While the perception is that Panarin and Zibby didn't play together, over the final quarter of the season they were on the powerplay for 70% of the time and same line about 10%, likely where they needed a goal. This team is top-heavy. The plus-minus without those two on the ice is staggeringly poor. Shesterkin's single game against the Canes was a sub 30 shots against. I would like him to repeat his numbers when there are 40+ going towards him which should occur in two games at the very least.
For this NHL pick, I am going with the Hurricanes even at their ~57% tag for what I don't see nearly as close to the coin flip many are expecting.