Blues-Sharks, Bolts-Penguins? NHL fans are the lucky ones

Remember when we were kids and the weirdness of 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs was at least buoyed by the 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7-seed etc. format? Right, the NHL doesn’t do that anymore because they want to shoehorn geographically based rivalries down our collective throats.

Instead the playoff bracket looks like this:

2016NHLplayoffbrackettoday

What “rivalries” means to the NHL in 2016

 

Which is interesting because the final conference standings from the regular season looks like this,

conference standings make sense

Look Mom, clip art!

So sure, the top overall seeds in each conference get the weakest overall team. Oh wait. No, the sixth placed Tampa Bay got eighth placed Detroit because the Atlantic division sent just three teams to the playoffs while the Metro sent the other five.

“But Matt, you may be thinking to yourself, travel is just so easy in the east.” Well first, tell that to Tampa who spent the first two rounds shuttling between Detroit and Brooklyn. Then I’ll say, you’re on to something. Consider this chart by the venerable Dirk Hoag, formerly of the On The Forecheck blog, which totals each team’s air mileage during the regular season based on their schedule. Spoiler, San Jose led with 50,362 miles while Detroit had the fewest miles at just 33,487. Tack one last factor that outside of Tampa Bay, the final four in this year’s playoffs boast an average age of nearly 30 years old and what we’re left with is an unusual gauntlet to the Cup.

So which is more impressive to you, dear reader? Pittsburgh not withstanding because no one can reasonably be surprised by their success. St. Louis finally bursting through; Tampa Bay going this far without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman (plus Ben Bishop for at least one game); or San Jose with their 50,362 air miles and the oldest team remaining at 29.1 average age?

Whichever way you cut it, let’s take a closer look at how these four Stanley Cup hopefuls got to their respective conference finals.

The Sharks, who are in their fourth all-time conference final (first since 2011), began with a convincing 4-1 series win over LA. Only one non-OT game finished within one goal, which was a trend that continued as they dispatched Nashville in seven games. It’s worth noting that Nashville was able to advance so far despite Pekka Rinne posting a 115 GA% (or 15% worse than league average). Which is to say sometimes odd things like this happen,

Along the way Martin Jones has played his way to a 94 GA% (a mark that keeps improving). Brent Burns just beat Mike Rathje’s record for most postseason points by a defenseman with 18 thus far. Logan Couture set a new Sharks record himself and leads the league with 19 points, and Joe Pavelski is tied with Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov with a league-leading nine goals. That’s all without getting into how great Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been once again.

St. Louis’ path was similar. Though their 40,469 air miles is a ton, it’s also 14th most overall and along the mean of the league. They began the playoffs by slaying their biggest rival in Chicago over seven games, and then put the Stars in their place over another seven games. Thing is, the Blues aren’t doing anything super special outside of Brian Elliott’s outstanding 87 GA%. If anything, their 506 shots allowed is concerning because Pekka Rinne was next at 404. Anyway, they also have the most players with double-digit point totals at six. Vladimir Tarasenko’s seven goals and 13 points were expected, but Robby Fabbri’s three goals and 13 points were not. He shot 15.8% in 72 games this season, who thought that was realistic? Or that his 20-year-old body wouldn’t break down as he nears the 100 games played mark?

Things are a little different over in the Eastern Conference.

As I noted earlier, Tampa Bay has had the easiest playoff road facing the hapless Red Wings and over-matched Islanders. The Lightning needed just 10 games in the first two rounds total to advance to their second consecutive conference finals.

Though they’ve regained a Stralman,

perhaps they’ve also gained an Andrei Vasilevskiy,

Here’s how good Vasilevskiy has been for the Bolts, through two starts and seven career playoff games he’s allowed just 10 goals on 132 combined shots. Oh, and like Matt Murray in Pittsburgh’s crease – he’s just old enough legally drink here in the States. Tack on Kucherov’s goals as mentioned earlier, Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin’s 11 points and Tyler Johnson’s 13 points, and what we have here is a young and dangerous team.

Speaking of youngsters the Vasilevskiy/Murray match is the second youngest in league playoff history,

Which is pretty darn cool. Through 11 games, Murray is sporting a stellar 89 GA% which began while Pittsburgh’s first round series was briefly tied at one with the Rangers. The Penguins, who were the second best team in the east and traveled the second fewest air miles in the league, have had one tough series – their six game match with Washington.

Their linchpin? Assists leader (nine) and third line center Nick Bonino. Yeah, check out these scoring logs and his 105.3 PDO. Okay, okay, Bonino has been excellent but it’s been Phil Kessel’s team-best six goals and 14 points with a 105 PDO of his own from the third line.

All in all, what we’re being treated to as fans are four excellent teams with potentially two not yet at the height of their powers. They’re skilled, fast, deep, and with that bit of extra hockey-grit we all love. We’re so lucky right now. All that’s left to hope for are three more seven-game series.

And maybe one team finally gets their first chance to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup. I hear Joe Thornton’s rooster will make an appearance if they win.

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