Professor MJ: NHL PLAYOFF SERIES PREDICTIONS – ROUND #1 (part 1)

We have finally reached the best time of the year: the Stanley Cup playoffs are set to begin!

Today I’ve got a special edition for you, as I will be projecting playoff series. I won’t be making daily projections throughout the postseason (like I did in the regular season). Instead, I will post picks based on winning strategies I found through an in-depth study from the past 9 years. I did not post this analysis on Covers because we are limited with the number of characters and it would have taken me a lot of time setting up the Excel tables. If interested, PM me please.

As a statistician, it is natural that I introduce a couple of advanced metrics. Don’t worry, nothing super complicated. Throughout this write-up, I will mention two such statistics:

– “Corsi tied”: Shots attempts FOR / (Shots attempts FOR + Shots attempts AGAINST). In other words, we are looking at the percentage of shots a team made on the opposing net relative to the total shot attempts made by both teams. Calculated when teams were playing 5-on-5 and the game was tied. So if a given team has a “Corsi tied” of 52%, it means out of all the shots that were attempted in their games, 52% came from them versus only 48% by their opponents. It tends to show whether a team controlled the puck more often than their opponents (a possession metric).

– “5-on-5 Zone Start Pct”: Number of faceoffs in offensive zone / (Number of faceoffs in offensive zone + Number of faceoffs in defensive zone). From now on, let’s call it “5-on-5 ZS %”. For example, Arizona was the worst team with respect to this metric during the 2016-2017 season with a value of 43.58%. It means that if you omit all neutral zone faceoffs, 43.58% of the faceoffs occurred in the Coyotes offensive zone versus 56.42% of the faceoffs in their defensive zone. Not good.

I’m not claiming those stats are amazingly good at predicting future outcomes, I simply wish to use them as an additional tool to shed some light on each team’s performance.

All right, so let’s get down to business!

**NEW YORK RANGERS VERSUS MONTREAL CANADIENS**

| Record | Goal differential | Corsi tied | 5-on-5 ZS %
———-|——–|———|———|———|———
Rangers | 48-28-6 (102 pts) | +36 | 47.39% (27th) | 48.68% (21st)
Canadiens | 47-26-9 (103 pts) | +26 | 52.86% (4th) | 48.38% (23rd)

Series price: Rangers +122 vs Canadiens -135 (decimal: Rangers 2.22 vs Canadiens 1.74)

Habs fans remember all too well the last time these two teams met in the playoffs. Chris Kreider collided with goalie Carey Price in the very first game of the Eastern Conference finals to knock him out for the rest of the series. New York went on to win the series 4-2 leaving a bittersweet taste in the mouth of Montreal fans.

Montreal has enjoyed a lot of success against the Rangers recently. The Habs won all 3 meetings this year, and have won 6 of the last 7 matchups overall. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist once said he doesn’t like to play at the Bell Centre because the crowd is overly excited and loud. He’d better bring some ear plugs because fans get even crazier in the playoffs. The numbers also show he’s struggling in this arena: he has won 4 games out of 11 while posting a very bad 3.97 GAA. His save percentage this year was his lowest of his career at .910.

As you can see in the table above, the goal differential favors New York, but Montreal has a much better “Corsi tied” and has been playing better under new coach Claude Julien. Montreal’s penalty kill was pretty ordinary under Michel Therrien, but has been 1st in the league since Claude Julien took over. New York’s power play is slightly better than Montreal’s, converting 19.8% occasions as opposed to 19.6% for the Habs.

Not holding home-ice advantage probably doesn’t affect the Rangers all that much considering they held the best road record this season.

Both teams are pretty healthy as the only notable players to miss the first game of the series are Alexei Emelin for Montreal and Jesper Fast for New York. Shea Weber is expected to be back on the ice for the Habs.

FINAL PICK: I’m betting Montreal -135 (decimal 1.74) to win in 6 games (maybe even in 5, but that may be too bold of a statement).

**BOSTON BRUINS VERSUS OTTAWA SENATORS**

| Record | Goal differential | Corsi tied | 5-on-5 ZS %
———-|——–|———|———|———|———
Bruins | 44-31-7 (95 pts) | +22 | 53.77% (3rd) | 53.28% (3rd)
Senators | 44-28-10 (98 pts) | -2 | 48.07% (24th) | 51.68% (9th)

Series price: Bruins -200 vs Senators +180 (decimal: Bruins 1.50 vs Senators 2.80)

Ottawa swept the season series 4-0. During those 4 games, they limited Boston to a single 5-on-5 goal! They have won 8 of the past 9 meetings with the Bruins. They hold home-ice advantage. And yet, they are established as pretty big underdogs in this series.

Boston has the edge over Ottawa based on every statistic in the table above, except the record. The Bruins also have a playoff pedigree and are perceived by the public as a “tough playoff team”. That came into play when setting up the line.

The Bruins suffered a pretty big blow when their leading scorer among defencemen Torey Krug was ruled out of the entire first round of the playoffs. Brandon Carlo finished 3rd in the team in terms of average time on ice, and he is out for at least game #1. And with Zdeno Chara looking slower than ever, they might have some issues in their defensive end.

Other than Marc Methot, the Sens might have a full lineup. Several players missed a few games because of injuries in the second portion of the regular season (Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Bobby Ryan and Cody Ceci), but they should all be ready when the puck drops tonight.

The Bruins have looked great since hiring Bruce Cassidy behind the bench, going 18-8-1. They went through a 4-game losing streak at some point, but other than that they were pretty consistent. Did you know Boston went 11-29 against teams that made the playoffs? That’s a jaw-dropping statistic! Ottawa came close to missing the playoffs when they went through a stretch where they won 2 games out of 11, but they rebounded just in time by winning three straight to secure a playoff spot.

FINAL PICK: I’m betting Ottawa +180 (decimal 2.80). I believe it will be a very tight series: I don’t know who is going to make it to the second round, but at +180 the odds offer too much value to pass. I’ll go with Ottawa in 7 games.

**COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS VERSUS PITTSBURGH PENGUINS**

| Record | Goal differential | Corsi tied | 5-on-5 ZS %
———-|——–|———|———|———|———
Blue Jackets | 50-24-8 (108 pts) | +54 | 49.80% (15th) | 49.37% (18th)
Penguins | 50-21-11 (111 pts) | +48 | 49.75% (16th) | 52.85% (5th)

Series price: Blue Jackets +140 vs Penguins -155 (decimal: Blue Jackets 2.40 vs Penguins 1.645)

The teams split the season series with 2 wins each. Over the last 10 meetings, each team has won 5 games. If you look at the numbers above, they are also pretty evenly matched (except for the 5-on-5 Zone Start Percentage which is clearly in favor of Pittsburgh).

It’s important to note that the Pens suffered a rash of injuries over the last few weeks (including Malkin), but still managed to play at a high level. That says a lot about this team. Most injured players will be back in time for the start of the playoffs, except Kris Letang who has been ruled out for the entire postseason and Carl Hagelin plus Chris Kunitz who may play at some point during the first round. Is Malkin 100%? I’m not so sure about that…

The Pens also hold a lot more playoff experience than Columbus. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions after all. This year marks the 11th consecutive season where Pittsburgh made the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Jackets are back in the big dance for the first time since being eliminated in six games by those same Penguins three years ago.

Pittsburgh had the #1 offense this season, but the Jackets have the edge in net. Bobrovsky posted a 2.06 GAA (league-best) with a .931 save percentage, while Murray allowed 2.41 goals per game on average while stopping 92.3% of shots. However, I’m worried about the fatigue factor: Bobrovsky played 63 games compared to 49 for Murray.

Both teams did not end the regular season on a very high note, especially Columbus which lost 6 straight matches before finally snapping the skid with a 3-2 win in Toronto. The Pens lost their last 2 games, but the last one was meaningless.

FINAL PICK: From a betting perspective, I believe the line offers no value, it looks fine to me. I’ll take the Penguins in 6 games, perhaps even 7 games, in what should be a very tough and physical series.

**ST. LOUIS BLUES VERSUS MINNESOTA WILD**

| Record | Goal differential | Corsi tied | 5-on-5 ZS %
———-|——–|———|———|———|———
Blues | 46-29-7 (99 pts) | +17 | 51.83% (6th) | 48.34% (24th)
Wild | 49-25-8 (106 pts) | +58 | 50.51% (12th) | 49.68% (16th)

Series price: Blues +157 vs Wild -174 (decimal: Blues 2.57 vs Wild 1.575)

This series is intriguing to me. The Blues acted as sellers at the trade deadline by getting rid of their best defenceman, Kevin Shattenkirk. They went on to win 15 games and lose only 6 for the remainder of the season. Pretty impressive! They look like a different team since hiring Mike Yeo behind the bench. They recorded at least one point in 17 of the past 19 games.

Minnesota is also a puzzling team. Their season was going extremely well as they were among the top teams in the league. Starting March 7th, they went through a stretch where they only won 2 games out of 13. What happened there? Thank God they were able to regain confidence in time for the playoffs by winning 5 of their last 6 contests.

How did the season series go? The Blues went 3-2 against the Wild in 2016-2017. As a matter of fact, they have beaten Minnesota on 6 occasions out of the past 9 matchups.

In injury news, Paul Stastny is out for at least the first game, but he figures to play a role at some point during the series. On Minnesota’s side, their second leader in average time on ice, Jared Spurgeon, is questionable for game #1.

In the second half of the season, St. Louis allowed a meager 1.88 goals per game, which is stunning! Minnesota’s starting goalie, Devan Dubnyk, finished the season with a .923 save percentage but he had a rough month in March by stopping only 88.9% of all shots fired at him. However, he did finish the season by winning its last three starts.

FINAL PICK: I’m having a very hard time figuring out this series. To me, the Wild represent the much better team on paper, but the Blues have surprisingly played so great in the second half of the season that I don’t know what to think. As a sports bettor, I’ll definitely stay away from that series. But if I had a gun pointed at my head asking me to pick a team, I’d go with the Wild (in 7 games?).

**SAN JOSE SHARKS VERSUS EDMONTON OILERS**

| Record | Goal differential | Corsi tied | 5-on-5 ZS %
———-|——–|———|———|———|———
Sharks | 46-29-7 (99 pts) | +20 | 51.24% (9th) | 52.25% (7th)
Oilers | 47-26-9 (103 pts) | +35 | 49.63% (17th) | 50.88% (10th)

Series price: Sharks +115 vs Oilers -127 (decimal: Sharks 2.15 vs Oilers 1.79)

Let’s kick off the analysis of this series with injuries. The status of Joe Thornton and Logan Couture is unknown for game #1, but they both seem to be close to returning to action. Edmonton won’t be missing any star player.

The last few weeks of the regular season have been quite different for each team. The Oilers finished the season very strong by winning 12 of their last 14 games. They scored 56 goals during those games, an average of 4 per game which is amazing! Meanwhile, San Jose lost 8 of 9 games near the end of March, but was able to follow it up with 3 wins over the last 4 contests. Pretty similar to the Wild, which we discussed earlier, in that regard!

If you are considering betting the Oilers, you should be aware that Cam Talbot might be fatigued: he led the league by playing an astounding total of 73 games. The second-highest in the league in this category was Frederik Anderson (Maple Leafs) with 66 games. Quite a gap between the two. In plain words, Talbot was by far the most used goalie in the league.

This series features youth versus experience. The Oilers have young exciting players (McDavid, Draisaitl and Eberle to name a few) and had not made the postseason in 11 years, while the Sharks have consistently made the playoffs over the last few seasons and are actually the defending Western Conference champions.

The Sharks won the first two meetings, but the Oilers came back with three straight wins over San Jose.

It’s interesting to remember that Oilers coach Todd McLellan was behind the Sharks bench from 2008 to 2015.

FINAL PICK: Much like the Blues-Wild series, this one is tough to call. The big difference between the two series is I trust a lot more the recent Oilers success compared to the Blues’ nice second half of the season. I’m leaning towards Edmonton in this series, but the main things bothering me are Talbot being overused during the season and the lack of experience. I don’t think anyone has ever shown clear statistical evidence of “experience” being an important factor though: I’ve always wondered if it truly had an impact or whether it was a myth. Another thing that’s bothering me is I feel like the Oilers are the “hot pick”, as the general public probably likes going with the young guns. But I’m still going to go with Edmonton and its crowd that should be rocking at Rogers Place after enduring such a long playoff drought. For the record, let’s go with Edmonton in 7 games.

Enjoy the playoffs, lots of late nights watching hockey in perspective!

Professor MJ