NHL Playoff Quick Hitters
Quick thoughts & stats on the playoffs
I’ve been doing a lot of data tracking work for the playoffs, including some new stats subscribers asked me to track. This is me making sure it doesn’t get lost in the void without spouting off a bunch of numbers that only a handful of people will understand.
Let’s start off with Carolina’s bewildering home & road problem. As a Hurricanes fan for over a decade, I could have told you this would happen. Some of the worst games in franchise history were played at MSG and I’m not exaggerating this. Anyone is a fan of this team knows the horrors of playing in that building. They remember getting stonewalled by one of Lundqvist’s dozens of back-ups (including the one currently manning the crease for the Hurricanes). They remember outshooting the Rangers 15-4 in the first period and losing 2-0 because Mats Zuccarello would make their stingy defense look like an AHL team for two shifts, which was all they would need to win the game. They found ways to lose in this building.
There was reason to believe this year would be different, though. They won two games on the Rangers ice late in the season, one of which clinched the division & home ice for this series. That success has not carried over to the playoffs while it’s been predictable & frustrating to watch as a fan, the home/road dynamic of this team has been confusing from an objective point of view.
Carolina at Home vs. Road
There’s a few big differences in these games, but the biggest factor is the pace. Carolina is averaging more shots and zone entries at home but the games have been played more on their terms. They’re dumping the puck in more, forechecking and hemming the Rangers into their own zone. On the road, the games are more of a track meet. Carolina has to play more off the rush, which means they’re trading chances more and need to rely on their finishing rather than just pure shot volume & checking.
Carolina had players who could do this in the regular season but they haven’t found anyone who can do this with any consistency all playoffs. The games they won in the Boston series were through special teams & their forecheck. Part of this is because they’ve rarely had to play from behind, which means they can play their methodical style of pinning teams in, settling for low-to-mid-danger shots and being patient with their offense since they’re playing with house money. The story changes when they’re playing from behind & need to push, which has been the most concerning trend of the entire playoffs.
It’s not that Carolina hasn’t shown the ability to get off the mat after taking a gut-punch. They have, just not mid-game. Take Game 6 for example. They started well, got a breakaway from Aho that was stopped by Sheshterkin. Rangers get a soft goal later in the shift & next thing you know, Andrew Copp gets two point blank chances from bouncing off a check in the corner & the Hurricanes take a penalty. Then it’s 2-0, which becomes 3-0 in the third after a couple bad pinches. They dominated the second period & cut the score to 4-2, a deficit other teams have come back from in these playoffs.
If Carolina repeats that second period they can probably tie the game. Instead, they get called for a double-minor not even four minutes into the period and everything devolved into a circus of bad penalties, facewashes and not much real hockey. The game was basically over then but Panarin added a power play goal to make it official. They had four whole minutes to mount a comeback before letting everything snowball into a shitstorm of between the whistles shenanigans and it’s been a common theme in the playoffs. One thing happens & it spirals into something they can’t control until the deficit is too much.
How a team plays from behind tells you a lot about them & how they play with a lead tells you even more. Carolina is built for the latter but they also do well with the score tied because they don’t feel the need to force any offense & can stay patient. They’re a team that gets their chances through forcing turnovers, winning races to pucks & being opportunistic when they can attack off the rush. With the lead, the Rangers have to push more, which means the Canes can force more loose pucks in the offensive zone & attack the other way. Svechnikov getting Adam Fox out of position after the Canes won a puck in the defensive zone in Game 5 is a good example of that.
The Rangers, on the other hand, going to cycle the puck when they have a lead, give the Canes the line and be content to clear the puck out of the zone. They’re going to give up chances, but they’re playing like they know Sheshterkin is going to stop most of the high danger chances and all of the low-mid range ones, so it’s a risk they should be willing to take. Carolina is one of those rare teams that’s more dangerous when defending a cycle because of how quick they can break the other way & turn a clear out of the zone into a chance.
If the Rangers are set defending, they’re in a better position to deal with any push the Canes give them. Even if they give up chances, Carolina has to work through a lot to get them. Here’s an example of some of the chances they’re giving up.
Again, these are good chances and would probably find the back of the net against another goalie. But Carolina’s facing Sheshterkin so it’s going to take a little more. Until someone on the team shows that they can be a game-breaker, the Rangers are probably going to be fine sitting back if they’re up by any more than two goals. Svechnikov, Jarvis & Aho have shown flashes, especially in Game 5, but nothing on a game-to-game basis. This is the key for Game 7.
I have been screaming into the void about the Oilers inability to find a Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust or even a Conor Sheary for McDavid & Draisaitl. Even by pure luck you’d think they would stumble upon some running mates for their stars by now. It is finally starting happen. Yeah, they had to pay out the wazoo to get Zach Hyman but he has been terrific. So has Kailer Yamamoto, who is starting to get back to the player he was a couple years ago. There’s always a skilled player who embraces that annoying, forechecking pest role and that’s what’s he’s been doing for the Oilers. Not producing as much as you’d hope, but at this time of the year it’s more about finding a role to help the team, which he has done and hey, sometimes you get rewarded for it like he did on that Nugent-Hopkins game-winner.
Speaking of Zach Hyman, he’s exactly the type of player you’d want on a top line. Can be a support guy for zone entries and is actually effective as a net-front presence. Watch those two goals he scored on the power play against the Flames. Got himself lost on the side of the net & positioned himself in a way that he didn’t need to do much to get the puck over the line. He’s just very good at those details that are cool to breakdown & help your best players turn passes into goals.
I don’t blame Sutter for trying the whole power vs. power matchup with Gaudreau against McDavid. I wouldn’t expect him to go the “we gotta outscore our problems route” but maybe he’s overrating the Selke nominee who was centering that line. I can’t blame them too much because they were producing at the other end & it’s just a bad matchup with McDavid playing at a God Tier this post-season. What I’m looking at more was how a defense corps that was so stingy & efficient was so sloppy with breakouts & puck retrievals all series. The series winner by McDavid came after two botched breakout attempts & there were at least three different players I could have blamed for it. Then again, that defense corps featured a healthy Chris Tanev and not Michael Stone playing top-four minutes & power play time for most of the year so I’m sure that had something to do with it.
In a severe case of role-reversal, the Oilers defense played a really simple game getting the puck out & it actually kind of worked? There were still some problems with Keith turning the puck over & they’re relying on the forwards to do a lot of the legwork, but with the way their wingers are playing right now it might work. I can’t believe I’m saying that about an Oilers team but it reminds me a little of what Montreal did last year. On the flipside, Calgary’s defense was a problem area all series.
Cale Makar’s Games 3 and 6 were some of the best I’ve ever tracked from a defenseman in the playoffs (not including overtime games). I had my concerns with him because he rarely has to play defense in the regular season & you’re not always going to be skating downhill in the playoffs. He’s passing that test with flying colors and I love that the Avs just turned him loose in Game 6. That was one of the best games I’ve ever tracked from a defenseman which includes Nick Lidstrom vs. St. Louis in 1996. Mind you, I hate doing this but he was really that good despite not having any points.
How predictable was it that Brandon Hagel & Nick Paul would be playoff heroes for Tampa Bay? It’s too bad Florida couldn’t give them more of a fight even if the games were somewhat close, but I was kind of done with them when I saw them stick Barkov at the point on the power play even though they couldn’t score on anything that wasn’t a rebound. Andrei Vasilevskiy makes teams galaxy brain their own team’s skill level. Also a reminder that Nikita Kucherov is still probably a top-five player.
The Blues were one of my favorite teams to watch this year because I never expected that team to ever have such a fun offense. You could see the bones of it last year with Jordan Kyrou & Robert Thomas breaking out & they seemed to form their identity around that instead of turning every game into a slog fest. It was a great change of pace even if it’s tough to win like that. I just appreciate teams that look like they’re trying something new offensively instead of resorting to playing the same old territorial play or relying on a counter-attack. They seemed to have some real creativity with how they created their offense and had some of the best goals of the season with how dialed-in their passing was. They’re kind of like the Rangers but with more depth and worse goaltending. Also had the most aggressive penalty kill units of the playoffs, which I appreciated.