NHL Playoff Predictions 2014: The Eastern Conference

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.

Around this time of year, every hockey writer and their cat publishes their playoff picks somewhere. It's often tough to separate those who actually take the time to investigate the trends and underlying numbers, and those who just pick whichever way the wind is blowing that particular day. These picks will be based on a mixture of statistics, trends, injuries, and gut feelings, but luckily for you we will also be posting the statistics for you to assess yourself. The metrics we are posting aren't the conventional ones, however, so read on for an explanation. Picking the winner of a short series is always difficult because of the amount of luck and variance involved, but I was thrilled to go 6-2 at this stage last year. Let's see if that can be topped (see Western Conference picks here).

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.

1. Boston Bruins (Atlantic) vs. 4. Detroit Red Wings (Atlantic)

Team Record PTS SAF% L10 FenClose%

'13-'14 sh%

'12-'13 sh% PPFF/60 PKGA/60 SSv%
Boston 54-19-9 117 54.6% (4th) 53.0% 8.5% (4th) 8.3% (10th) 77.0 (8th) 5.75 (11th) .930 (2nd)
Detroit 39-28-15 93 51.9% (8th) 52.9% 8.6% (3rd) 6.5% (26th) 73.0 (13th) 5.62 (9th) .910 (36th)

The Boston Bruins come into these playoffs as fearsome as ever. They have essentially two dual-purpose lines centered by the still highly underrated Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Both of those players, accompanied by solid wing duos, are able to shut down opposition top lines and score goals. Contrary to popular belief, the team's fourth line has actually been a detriment to its success this year, as Shawn Thornton in particular, although also Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, have been under 48% Corsi For this year despite fairly cushy zone starts. The line isn't horrible, but it's no longer the cream of the fourth line crop that it once was. Zdeno Chara, while under the radar, has put together another Norris calibre season. Also of note, the Bruins have a top-10 power play for the first time since 2008-09, adding another layer to their attack. Tuukka Rask is one of the best goalies in the game, and there's no reason to believe he won't shine for this team again in April.

Screen_shot_2014-04-15_at_12

The Detroit Red Wings have had a challenging season, but for the 23rd consecutive year, they play post-season hockey. The big question for the Wings heading in is injuries. They've lost 417 man-games to them this season and almost 18 million dollars in cap hit - table at right courtesy of Springing Malik - and they've only barely survived thanks to the contributions of young players like Gustav Nyquist, whose 28 goals in 57 games are impressive, but whose 18.3% shooting suggest that won't be quite his scoring rate long-term. Captain Henrik Zetterberg may be back mid-series, but it's looking like defenseman Jonathan Ericsson won't be so lucky. Jimmy Howard has had a tough year in nets, and that, combined with the team's shooting percentage spike (although they were a good shooting team in 2011-12 as well) might be a sign of concern.

Boston is clearly the Eastern Conference's best team, and Detroit is probably closer to the top of the playoff picture when healthy than the bottom. But the fact is, for all Mike Babcock's Jack Adams-deserving work, they're not healthy. The Bruins are peaking; they're mostly healthy; they have a well-implemented system; they have one of the best goalies in the world. It would be a massive upset for eight (in relative terms) to defeat one in this matchup.

Prediction: Bruins in 6.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning (Atlantic) vs. 3 Montreal Canadiens (Atlantic)

Team Record PTS SAF% L10 FenClose%

'13-'14 sh%

'12-'13 sh% PPFF/60 PKGA/60 SSv%
Tampa Bay 46-27-9 101 51.7 (9th) 52.1% 7.7% (15th) 7.7% (19th) 60.5 (29th) 6.76 (23rd) .924 (7th)*
Montreal 46-28-8 100 48.1 (24th) 45.9% 8.0% (12th) 8.6% (8th) 66.6 (21st) 4.79 (3rd) .927 (4th)

As can be seen from the blocks of bolding above, these two teams thrive in very different ways. The Lightning had the biggest rise in Corsi For Percentage this season, while the Canadiens had the biggest drop in Fenwick For Percentage. In other words, Tampa Bay has gone from bad to good at 5-on-5, and Montreal has gone the other direction. So how were these teams within a point in the standings? Montreal's third-ranked penalty kill - led by the incessantly underrated Tomas Plekanec as well as the freshly deployed Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty and trade deadline pickup Mike Weaver - has kept the team afloat in many-a contest. The true hero, though, is Carey Price, who didn't just win Olympic Gold this year, but kept his team alive in a conference where other possession-slugs like Buffalo, Carolina, and Toronto faded quickly. The line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Tomas Vanek is one to watch, if not because they create chances at will on offense, then because with them on the ice the opposition does as well.

Under Jon Cooper, another deserving Adams contender, the Lightning have turned the page on two years of mediocrity. Youngsters like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and Radko Gudas have played huge roles in the turnaround, as has top defenseman Victor Hedman (who it looks will be healthy), and Ben Bishop (who is not). Losing Bishop is disappointing for the Lightning - he's been one of the best goalies in the league this year - but it might not be devastating. Since coming back from injury in early March, backup Anders Lindback is rocking a .930 save percentage, while Bishop has only held a .904 since the Olympic break. Lindback's sample isn't large, but between him and Olympic sensation Kristers Gudlevskis, there may still be good goaltending at both ends in this series. Steven Stamkos has been moved to RW of late to play with Tyler Johnson, alleviating some of his defensive responsibilities and possibly freeing him up for more fast-breaks.

This series is very difficult to predict because it pits a good team against a great goalie. We saw what happened when Craig Anderson got hot against the Canadiens last year, and it's quite possible that Carey Price can steal this series. Despite Lindback's streaky play, it's hard to be sold on a Bishop-less Lightning, especially since it's quite possible both Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Filppula miss the beginning of the series as well.

Prediction: Canadiens in 7.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins (Metro) vs. 4. Columbus Blue Jackets (Metro)

Team Record PTS SAF% L10 FenClose%

'13-'14 sh%

'12-'13 sh% PPFF/60 PKGA/60 SSv%
Pittsburgh 51-24-7 109 49.9 (17th) 50.1% 8.2% (9th) 10.1% (2nd) 82.0 (3rd) 5.15 (7th) .915 (24th)
Columbus 43-32-7 93 50.2 (14th) 48.8% 7.9% (13th) 8.2% (12th) 73.2 (12th) 5.94 (14th) .923 (9th)

Once again, the Pittsburgh Penguins come into the playoffs with poor possession numbers and Marc-Andre Fleury expected to carry the load. Unlike last year, however, there were no major trade deadline acquisitions, and there are rumblings about the team's confidence in its ability to compete for the cup in 2014. As the player usage chart below shows, the team's bottom half of the lineup struggles in possession, and that makes this lineup as top-heavy as ever. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, however, the team always has a chance. Their high shooting percentage is still probably at the low end of their true talent, however, and their special teams are phenomenal. In addition, 50.1% FenClose in the past 10 games is nothing to scoff at. If Fleury falters yet again, Tomas Vokoun has been recalled and may in fact be ready to play at some point. Matt Niskanen has established himself as a top NHL defenseman in the face of injuries to his teammates, and the Pens enter the playoffs largely healthy.

Screen_shot_2014-04-15_at_12

Meanwhile, Columbus makes its second trip to the post-season and looks for its first win there. This time, they are led by under the radar sensation Ryan Johansen, who has 33 goals - he hadn't eclipsed nine in two part-seasons until now - and likely won't be due for as much shooting regression as somebody like Nyquist in the near future. James Wisniewski has also developed into a legitimate top blueliner for the Jackets, and Sergei Bobrovsky has once again been exceptional.

Columbus presents a different challenge than the New York Islanders did in round one last year because of their blatant superiority in net, to go along with the strong play at even-strength. Whichever center out of Johansen, Brandon Dubinsky, and Artem Anisimov is lucky enough to evade each of Pittsburgh's big two is going to have to produce some offense, though, because head-to-head it's going to be tough to get the puck. This series will be closer than the regular season point totals indicate, but the Penguins have shown they can get through a round like this before.

Prediction: Penguins in 7.

2. New York Rangers (Metro) vs. 3. Philadelphia Flyers (Metro)

Team Record PTS SAF% L10 FenClose%

'13-'14 sh%

'12-'13 sh% PPFF/60 PKGA/60 SSv%
New York 45-31-6 96 52.7 (7th) 56.0% 6.1% (27th) 6.1% (28th) 77.3 (7th) 4.94 (4th) .920 (15th)
Philadelphia 42-30-10 94 49.3 (18th) 49.9% 7.6% (16th) 9.1% (6th) 75.5 (10th) 5.07(6th) .917 (21st)

The New York Rangers come into the playoffs flying under the radar despite great possession numbers, one of the top goaltenders in the game, and more depth than they've had in any recent playoffs. As he did in Vancouver, Alain Vigneault has given his top offensive players large zone start pushes, leaving shutdown guys like Dominic Moore and Brian Boyle to mop up work in the defensive zone. The strategy has worked, as the team has ten players with at least 14 goals, and is capitalizing on career years from guys like Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman.

The Flyers, meanwhile, recovered from a poor start to get back to the playoffs, benefitting from what may be a somewhat inflated shooting percentage, good special teams play, and league average goaltending from Steve Mason - something they've struggled to get in the past. Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen still make up an elite first pairing on defense, and Jakub Voracek is one of the league's most underrated wingers as he helped Claude Giroux to another point-per-game season. Expect shutdown center Sean Couturier to be matched up with the Rangers' top line of Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, and Rick Nash, whenever possible.

Screen_shot_2014-04-15_at_12

The biggest difficulty for the Rangers will be scoring goals. Despite great possession numbers, they've struggled for a couple of years now at finding the back of the net consistently. The Flyers don't have that problem, but will be relying on a sub-par Steve Mason and a top-heavy lineup to survive. The Rangers have been one of the hottest teams in the league, possession-wise, going in. They've also looked like the better team for most of the year, and have the better goalie.

Prediction: Rangers in 4.

It has been fairly clear from both the regular season and last year's playoffs that the Boston Bruins are the best team in the conference. The Rangers are likely second-best, and should the Bruins be knocked out by an Atlantic Division rival early on, the Blueshirts would become the most likely candidate to go all the way. For that to happen though, it would take a team exploiting the Bruins' lack of defensive depth - something that nobody has truly been able to do since Claude Julien took over - and a goalie outplaying Tuukka Rask - there are only a couple who could likely do that. It's not impossible that Boston loses, but it's probably less likely than it has been for any Eastern Conference contender in recent memory.

Predicted Eastern Conference Champion: Boston Bruins

Stay tuned tomorrow for our Western Conference breakdown and Cup Finals selection. Thanks to ExtraSkater.com for the stats, player usage charts, and possession graphs.

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