NHL Playoff Predictions 2014: The Western Conference

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

We take an analytical look at every first round series, and try to forecast who has the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup this Spring.

In case you missed it, yesterday I published my first round Eastern Conference analysis and predictions. Today, on opening day, I take a look to the West, where two cup contenders are guaranteed to be eliminated, and surprising division winners Colorado and Anaheim look to make it out of the first round for the first time since 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Metrics: While attempting to avoid overwhelming readers with numbers, I tried to find those metrics with the best predictive ability. Record and points are self-explanatory. SAF% stands for Score-Adjusted Fenwick, which you can read up on here. Basically, it takes a team's possession numbers and accounts for whether they're leading, trailing, or tied at the time. It is the best predictor of long-term 5v5 success. L10 FenClose% is a team's Fenwick (unblocked shot attempt percentage) with the score close at 5v5 over the past 10 games. Josh Weissbock has found that recent possession results are a great predictor of short-term success, so pay attention to that. I've then referenced each team's 5v5 score-close shooting percentage from both last and this season. Shooting percentage tends to fluctuate, even over the course of a season, so if there's a huge disparity between the two years, that might be a warning sign that current results are unsustainable. The best indicator of future power play success is Power Play Fenwick For per 60 minutes, while the best predictor for the penalty kill is goals against/60. Read why that is here. SSv% is simply the save percentage this year of the team's starting goalie. Rankings out of the 30 NHL teams (or goalies that qualify) are in brackets where applicable.

2. San Jose Sharks (Pacific) vs. 3. Los Angeles Kings (Pacific)

Team Record PTS SAF% L10 FenClose%

'13-'14 sh%

'12-'13 sh% PPFF/60 PKGA/60 SSv%
San Jose 51-22-9 111 55.4% (3rd) 52.5% 7.5% (17th) 6.6% (25th) 87.7 (1st) 5.26 (8th) .913 (29th)
LA 46-28-8 100 56.5% (1st) 58.2% 6.0% (28th) 7.9% (16th) 74.4 (11th) 6.03 (17th) .915 (23rd)

I'm starting out of order here because this series is probably the most intriguing, and thus deserves the most attention. The San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings are two of the three top possession teams in the NHL, they're perennial playoff powers, they have immense talent, and they are both very much for real. Last season, these teams played a very tight seven-game series in which the home team won every game. Five of those games were decided by one goal, and a team scored more than two goals only three times.

San Jose has done an exceptional job of re-tooling on the fly the past few years under Doug Wilson. Despite playoff failures, the team retained the services of pillars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and have been rewarded with continued excellence. Patrick Marleau, still one of the most underrated players in the league, has combined with Logan Couture to form one of the game's preeminent shut-down duos, facing top competition and still tilting the ice in their team's favor to a ridiculous degree. That allowed Joe Thornton - who had been playing tough minutes since Todd McLellan took over behind the bench - to take back a more offensive role, and despite shooting well below his career average still racked up 76 points in 82 games. Thornton's rejuvenation has also been the result of moving Brent Burns from defense to the playmaker's wing, where he finished 11th in the league in 5-on-5 shots on goal.

The problem for the Sharks is largely depth. It is looking like McLellan may keep Joe Pavelski on Thornton's left wing, where he's been most successful, but that means that Tomas Hertl - just back from injury - will have to produce next to James Sheppard. With moving parts like Tyler Kennedy, Raffi Torres, Martin Havlat all rotating into top-six roles, the team's bottom six forward have struggled even in heavily sheltered minutes. Moving Pavelski back to center would likely be in the best interest in the team, since matching up to LA's depth won't be easy.

The Kings, meanwhile, are a team that has gone through a systematic transformation over the past month. For the past few years under Darryl Sutter, they have been primarily a dump-and-chase team, using their big wingers to chase pucks and rough up opposing defensemen. Screen_shot_2014-04-15_at_5 Presumably thanks to research similar to what has been done on the web with regards to zone entries, however, around the time the Kings acquired sniper Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, they changed their approach. The Kings began playing higher tempo offensive hockey, carrying rather than dumping the puck into the zone, and the results have been astounding (thanks to Adam Gretz for the graph). Think of it this way, take the best possession team in hockey, and change their approach to one which over a large sample results in twice as many shot attempts for. The possibilities are frightening. The team's first line of Gaborik, Anze Kopitar, and Justin Williams has posted a Corsi For Percentage of more than 62%, and the team's 5-on-5 close shooting percentage has risen - it stands at 6.0% on the year, but 8.8% since the trade. The team has been on a 105-point pace since the deal as well.

Take the best possession team in hockey, and change their approach to one which over a large sample results in twice as many shot attempts for.

It will be fascinating to see the matchups each coach looks for at home in this series. When the two teams last met - April 3rd in San Jose - McLellan sent out Marleau, Couture, and Tommy Wingels along with Vlasic and Jason Demers to counter the Kings' top unit, to mixed results. The last matchup in LA, on December 19, saw Sutter split top pairing Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin's minutes between Thornton and Couture. In that instance, the Kings came out on top both in terms of shot attempts and the score.

One big x-factor for the Sharks could be their power play, which has registered the most unblocked shot attempts per minute of any team in the league, but only the 13th most goals per minute. The team's free-flowing power play setup -which allows guys like Thornton and Marleau to rotate between goal-line and point positions - can lead to a large number of chances when the players are in sync, but will look uncoordinated if anybody's not on the same page.

The other wild card will be goaltending. Jonathan Quick has posted a .940 sv% the past two playoffs, but is a career .915 regular season goalie. He has played very well since the Olympic break, however, maybe peaking at the right time for the third straight season. Antti Niemi, meanwhile, doesn't even have a secure grasp on the starter's job, as there are rumblings that Alex Stalock, who has posted a .932 in 24 games this year, might get the nod. If one goalie crumbles, in a series with such a small margin for error, that would likely signal the end for his club.

This is a matchup between likely two of the top four teams in the NHL, but only one of them has distinguished itself over the past month as a true powerhouse. The Sharks can only hope that their return to health can make up for that difference.

Prediction: Kings in 6.

1. Anaheim Ducks (Pacific) vs. 4. Dallas Stars (Central)

Team Record PTS SAF% L10 FenClose%

'13-'14 sh%

'12-'13 sh% PPFF/60 PKGA/60 SSv%
Anaheim 54-20-8 116 50.9 (12th) 51.5% 10.7% (1st) 9.3% (3rd) 76.1 (9th) 6.18 (18th) .911 (33rd)*
Dallas 40-31-11 91 51.3 (11th) 49.4% 8.3% (6th) 9.2% (5th) 76.3 (8th) 6.31 (21st) .919 (18th)

While there's a 25 point discrepancy between the Anaheim Ducks and the Dallas Stars, the teams really aren't that different. While Anaheim has been painted as a bad team in terms of analytics, they're in fact above average, while Dallas is only one rank above, and has been significantly worse in the past ten games. These are both teams with a good power play and a bad penalty kill, and they both thrive off of shooting percentage, as evidenced by their high percentages in each of the past two seasons (the Ducks were a good shooting team in '11-'12 as well, the Stars weren't). Both teams have pairs of superstars, in Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry and Tyler Seguin/Jamie Benn, underrated depth with guys like Mathieu Perreault and Alex Chiasson, and solid but unspectacular defenses with up-and-coming players like Brenden Dillon and Hampus Lindholm.

For the Ducks, the tough minutes line has been Saku Koivu, flanked by Andrew Cogliano and Daniel Winnik. I'd expect them to see some time early on against Dallas' top forwards. The Stars have used veteran Vernon Fiddler, along with Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt in that role at times, so we'll see if Head Coach Lindy Ruff sticks to that usage.

Considering these are two fairly evenly matched teams, the real wildcard will be the goaltending. Last post-season, Bruce Boudreau gave Jonas Hiller a vote of confidence by choosing him to start over Victor Fasth against the Detroit Red Wings. Fasth, however, is now long gone. He's been replaced by youngsters Frederick Andersen and John Gibson, who have both been impressive in limited action. While it seemed for most of the year that Hiller would be the guy, he has been benched of late for the pair of youngsters, with no clear indication of who will get the nod for game one.

Screen_shot_2014-04-15_at_10

Boudreau has been criticized for playoff shortcomings in the past, both with the Ducks and Caps, but it is important to keep in mind that he has also taken teams with no business being at the top of the standings (the 2010 Caps are the real exception) and taken them about as far as their talent would dictate they could go come April. Last year, it's tough to argue that the Red Wings weren't a superior team, but this year might be the year to take that next step. You can be sure veterans like Koivu and Teemu Selanne - playing in his final post-season - will satisfy the inspirational requirement. The Ducks have also been playing a lot better of late, trending in the right direction (see graph). We'll see if that can carry over to the playoffs.

If the Ducks can find a goalie to excel in this series, then it will be tough for the Stars - as decent as Kari Lehtonen is - to succeed. The Stars are a popular upset pick, and that is justifiable because they aren't really that much of an underdog. In this case, however, I believe second time is the charm, and the Ducks will find their way into the second round. I still believe they are the better team.

Prediction: Ducks in 7.

2. St. Louis Blues (Central) vs. 3. Chicago Blackhawks (Central)

Team Record PTS SAF% L10 FenClose%

'13-'14 sh%

'12-'13 sh% PPFF/60 PKGA/60 SSv%
St. Louis 52-23-7 111 54.2 (5th) 53.3% 8.2% (11th) 7.7% (20th) 67.8 (20th) 4.57 (2nd) .918 (20th)
Chicago 46-21-15 107 55.9 (2nd) 53.9% 7.9% (13th) 8.5% (9th) 72.9 (13th) 6.23 (19th) .917 (22nd)

The defending champions match up against the trendy cup pick at the beginning of the year, and this should be a good series as well. The St. Louis Blues come in on a six-game losing streak, however, failing to score in their final two games without a few of their most important players. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has been silent on the statuses of David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and several other important players. Whether or not they can suit up will have a drastic impact on this series. Without them, it would take a vastly superior Ryan Miller from the one we've seen of late to propel his club to the upset.

If healthy, though, this isn't a team to count out. The Blues boast one of the top sets of defensemen in the league, with Team Canada pairing Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester anchoring the league's second-best penalty kill and forward depth from guys like Vladimir Sobotka and Maxim Lapierre. Jaden Schwartz has been the forgotten man when it comes to breakout stars of the season, and the top line of Backes, Oshie, and Alex Steen plays tough minutes and thrives in them.

Screen_shot_2014-04-15_at_10

The Blackhawks are incredible, though. They've dealt with a series of tough injuries of late, and still put up exceptional possession numbers with a group of AHL call-ups that may not see the ice from here on out. Joel Quenneville uses Johnny Oduya and Nicklas Hjalmarsson as his shutdown pairing, freeing up Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook for offensive zone starts. Marcus Kruger - along with Ben Smith and sometimes Brandon Bollig - pull the heavy defensive lifting as can be seen in the graph on the right. They will take on some of the responsibility of shutting down some of St. Louis' secondary scoring. Based on the season series, neither coach has a problem with Toews and Backes going head-to-head, so that is likely what we will see.

If the Blues are going to win this series, it will be a result of superior goaltending - Corey Crawford hasn't looked quite as convincing this year, and he's stumbled before - good special teams, and a return to health. Presuming the Hawks get Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews back healthy, however, it's tough to St. Louis doing enough to compensate for Chicago's even-strength superiority and shooting talent. It tells you something about the team's forward depth when Teuvo Teravainen can't find a spot in the lineup, and neither can Jeremy Morin despite a 63% Corsi For Percentage with the club.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6.

1. Colorado Avalanche (Central) vs. 4. Minnesota Wild (Central)

Team Record PTS SAF% L10 FenClose%

'13-'14 sh%

'12-'13 sh% PPFF/60 PKGA/60 SSv%
Colorado 52-22-8 112 47.0 (26th) 45.8% 8.6% (2nd) 6.8% (23rd) 63.1 (26th) 5.94 (13th) .927 (3rd)
Minnesota 43-27-12 98 48.9 (22nd) 48.8% 7.1% (25th) 8.2% (11th) 7.00 (27th) 5.07(6th) .909 (38th)

Since 2007-08, aka the dawn of the fancystat era, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team to make the Stanley Cup finals with sub-50% score-close possession in the regular season. They did it once, in 2007-08 under Michel Therrien -where Marc-Andre Fleury played the playoffs of his life - and then again in 2008-09, except that from the time when Dan Bylsma was hired on they were in fact a strong possession club. The point is, the strongest possession teams are generally the strongest teams, and therefore have the greatest chance of advancing through four rounds. The Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild are not strong possession teams, so it's interesting that at least one of them will make it out of the first round.

Colorado has thrived thanks to likely unsustainable shooting and very impressive goaltending from Semyon Varlamov. That doesn't mean that Patrick Roy doesn't deserve some praise for the job he's done - after all, this was a lottery team last season - but their ascent to the top of the standings in a very tough division isn't something to expect again next season without serious improvements.

Screen_shot_2014-04-15_at_11

Minnesota is a curious story because by all accounts, the team under Mike Yeo committed to playing more of a possession game this year, and taking better advantage of its top-end talent by entering the zone with possession rather than dumping the puck in. Through October, the Wild were a top possession team (see graph), and had allowed less shots per game than any team in the NHL. Then the injuries hit. Zach Parise went down, followed soon after by Mikko Koivu, and the lack of depth caught up to a team that has signed several big-name free agents to large contracts in the past few years. The Wild don't seem to be particularly strong at anything anymore, and now their goaltending is in flux, with Ilya Bryzgalov likely needing to repeat performances from his Phoenix days to give his club any chance.

The biggest worry for the Avalanche is the fact that Matt Duchene is expected to miss the first two games with injury. If they can take care of business without him at home, they shouldn't have any trouble stealing a game in Minnesota once he's back.

Prediction: Avalanche in 5

Picking a champion from this conference is incredibly tough, and any of Chicago, San Jose, and Los Angeles could conceivably advance to the cup finals without much surprise. That said, considering their health; the fact that they have adjusted their style to fit the modern game and to capitalize on their talent; and that they made the most significant trade deadline acquisition of any team in the conference, I think that Sutter's troops are on track to get back to the finals after a tough loss to the Blackhawks last season in five games.

Predicted Western Conference Champion: Los Angeles Kings

While both these teams are very good at even-strength, the Bruins' superiority in net and on special teams gives them the edge in this closely contested series.

Predicted Stanley Cup Champion: Boston Bruins

Thanks to ExtraSkater.com for the stats, player usage charts, and possession graphs.

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