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Cullen: Forecasting the 2014 Stanley Cup Final

Scott Cullen
6/3/2014 11:47:14 AM
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Throughout the NHL playoffs, I have forecasted each round simply by using shots on goal and goaltender save percentage to come up with a baseline for the series.

It's not intended to be some magical formula and doesn't apply any context, like, for example, taking injuries into account. This remedial statistical method has gone 9-5 in picks through the first three rounds.

Here's a quick look at the five series that went the wrong way:

In the first round, Columbus came in ahead of Pittsburgh, though that required Sergei Bobrovsky to perform better than Marc-Andre Fleury (not an impossibility given Fleury's playoff track record), but Fleury and Bobrovsky each had a .908 save percentage in Round One and Pittsburgh dominated puck possession to an extent that they did not during the regular season.

Minnesota upended Colorado, in Game Seven overtime, which wasn't altogether surprising. I would have easily been able to talk myself into the upset had the Wild not gone into the series with Ilya Bryzgalov as their starting goaltender, because the Wild were a superior possession team. Darcy Kuemper returned for four games and helped tilt the series back in Minnesota's favour and Semyon Varlamov, whose regular-season play fueled the Avalanche's top seed finish, was only okay in the postseason, posting a .913 save percentage in seven games.

The touchiest series for this year's playoffs was the San Jose-Los Angeles matchup in Round One. The forecast had the Sharks favoured by the slimmest of margins (18.15 expected goals to 18.09 expected goals) and, when they had a 3-0 series lead, that coin flip looked to be falling the right way. We know how that has turned out since that point.

In the second round, the Boston Bruins were favoured over the Montreal Canadiens, and while the Bruins controlled large portions of the series, they couldn't solve Carey Price, who had a .936 save percentage in the seven-game upset.

Then, in the Conference Finals, the forecast put the Chicago Blackhawks over the Los Angeles Kings, due to a goaltending advantage, because Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick hasn't been great in this year's playoffs. After what was a sensational series, it was safe to say that neither team held a goaltending advantage -- both Quick and Corey Crawford struggled -- and the Kings took Game Seven in OT.

So, those misses are on the record as we head into the Stanley Cup Final.

The expected goals for each team in the series are determined by taking each team's shots for and against over the course of the season, as well as through the first round of the playoffs, and splitting the difference.

So, for example, the New York Rangers, over the regular season and playoffs have averaged 32.4 shots on goal per game and the Los Angeles Kings have allowed 27.0 shots on goal per game; the average of those two numbers, 29.70 shots, is the number that is then multiplied by (1 - the opposing goaltenders' save percentage) to determine an expected goals per game for the Rangers.

Finally, the number is multiplied by seven to indicate an expected goal total for a seven-game series. There's no guarantee that scoring more goals in a series will result in winning four games first, but the odds certainly favour the team that scores more.

So, let's see how the numbers shake out for the Final:

Team SF SA Goaltender SV% Expected GF/Series
Los Angeles 31.5 27.0 Jonathan Quick 0.912 16.54
N.Y. Rangers 32.4 29.1 Henrik Lundqvist 0.922 18.30

Verdict: While the Kings and Rangers are very similar in their playoff puck possession rates, the Kings were tops in the league during the regular season and ran through a more difficult gauntlet in the Western Conference to reach the Cup Final.

The difference in shot rates during the regular season is pretty small, however, with the Kings earning 54.7% of the shots as the Rangers earned 53.0% of the total shots. Over the course of a game, that amounts to about one extra shot on goal; hardly the kind of difference that couldn't be overcome by better goaltending.

Which brings us to the advantage to which the Rangers will cling. Lundqvist has been one of the game's top goaltenders since coming into the league in 2005-2006, and is performing at a high level in this year's playoffs as well, so couldn't he stop an extra shot or two per game?

At the other end, Jonathan Quick has traditionally been a very good playoff goaltender in his own right, but his .906 save percentage this year has dropped Quick's all-time playoff save percentage to .922, falling fractionally behind Lundqvist.

Certainly, some of the blame for this season's save percentage can be attributed to the calibre of teams that the Kings have faced on their way to the Cup Final, with San Jose (sixth), Anaheim (first) and Chicago (second) all among the top-scoring teams in the league this season. By comparison, the Rangers got through Philadelphia (eighth), Pittsburgh (fifth) and Montreal (21st), so there is some quality of competition favouring Quick.

It would be an upset if the Rangers won the series but a seven-game series, if otherwise close, can easily be decided by goaltending and, right now, it's not unreasonable to hold higher expectations for Lundqvist. Let's see if King Henrik can get the job done.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.  For more, check out TSN Fantasy Sports on Facebook.




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