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Cullen: Forecasting conference finals with shots, SV%

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Scott Cullen
5/16/2014 3:23:55 PM
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Each round of the playoffs, I forecast the 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 method was 5-3 in the first round and is currently 2-1 in the second round, with the Kings favoured entering their series against Anaheim (Game Seven goes tonight in Anaheim). More on context in a moment.

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 32.9 shots on goal per game and the Montreal Canadiens have allowed 31.0 shots on goal per game; the average of those two numbers, 31.95 shots, is the number that is then multiplied by (1 - the opposing goaltenders' save percentage) to determine an expected goals per game for the Bruins.

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 Conference Finals:

Team SF SA Goaltender SV% Expected GF/Series
Montreal 28.7 31.0 Carey Price .927 15.92
N.Y. Rangers 32.9 29.6 Henrik Lundqvist .922 16.33

Verdict: This series projects to be very closely contested. Through the first two rounds this year, only the two Los Angeles series projected to have a closer differential than the forecasted 0.41 goals between the Rangers and Canadiens, and both of those series were seven-gamers.

Montreal has been a subpar puck possession team this year, but it turns out that they have a great goaltender and a dangerous power play, one that was 32% (8-for-25) against Boston. Knock off a few power play goals or give Price a save percentage below the .936 that he posted against the Bruins and it would be easy enough to see Boston in this spot.

As for the Rangers, they were a strong puck possession club during the season that eliminated Pittsburgh despite losing the possession game to the Penguins in Round Two. The Rangers also have the benefit of good goaltending, as they rallied from a three-games-to-one series deficit, as Henrik Lundqvist stopped 102 of 105 shots (.971 SV%) in the last three Rangers wins.

It would be too simple to suggest that goaltending determines this series, since both Price and Lunqvist are among the best, so there are other factors to consider. Both teams' top-scoring forwards haven't produced in the postseason. No one on the Rangers has more than Brad Richards' nine points in 14 games and Rick Nash has yet to score a goal. Montreal's big goal-scorers, Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty, combined to score four goals in Game Six and Seven against Boston, after combining for four in the first nine games of the playoffs.

The lack of a go-to-scorer for both teams has emphasized the team approach. For Montreal, Lars Eller, Brendan Gallagher, Daniel Briere, Dale Weise and Rene Bourque are among those that have risen to the occasion at times in the playoffs, while the Rangers' supporting cast of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Carl Hagelin has been able to score just enough for the Blueshirts to reach the Conference Final.

If there is a single non-goaltender with the power to shift the series, it could be Montreal's P.K. Subban, the top-scoring defenceman in the playoffs who has been in the middle of just about everything that happens with the Canadiens. If Subban is great, that alone could be enough to overcome the slight statistical disadvantage in this forecast.

Team SF SA Goaltender SV% Expected GF/Series
Chicago 32.4 27.7 Corey Crawford .919 17.64
Los Angeles 31.5 26.9 Jonathan Quick .915 16.78
Team SF SA Goaltender SV% Expected GF/Series
Chicago 32.4 27.7 Corey Crawford .919 10.71
Anaheim 30.7 28.8 John Gibson .950 16.56

Verdict: Since there isn't much of a window between the second round ending, Friday night, and the Conference Final round beginning, Saturday at 1:00 pm ET, we're going to look at both options in the Western Conference.

Chicago hasn't even played their best hockey in the postseason, yet it's still been good enough to dispatch St. Louis and Minnesota. Corey Crawford deserves some credit, because his .931 save percentage in this year's playoffs is right on track with what he did last year (.932) on the way to the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup. Chicago was a dominant possession team during the regular season, second only to Los Angeles in Fenwick Close, but haven't held that same edge in the playoffs. Better opposition, and all that.

The same could be said for the Kings, who earned 56.7% of the unblocked 5-on-5 shot attempts during the regular season, but haven't held that same territorial dominance in the playoffs. The interesting thing is that, while he's had some strong games in the playoffs -- both this year and historically -- Jonathan Quick hasn't been much better than average this year. It's reasonable enough to forecast the Blackhawks to survive that possible matchup, and not just because we know the Blackhawks will for sure be in the Conference Final.

When it comes to breaking down the Chicago-Anaheim series, the model gets busted by Ducks rookie goalie John Gibson. It's one thing to have a goalie that has played a grand total of six games in the NHL as the starter, but his .950 save percentage in those games, stopping 171 of 180 shots, is a completely unsustainable level of play.

Thing is, unsustainable levels of play can get a team through a playoff series. Gibson was a wildcard injection into the second round, against Los Angeles, after Frederik Andersen was injured, and gives the Ducks a chance in Game Seven. However, it's not remotely reasonable forecast to suggest that the Ducks would be 5.85 goals ahead of the Blackhawks in a head-to-head seven-game series.

The Ducks aren't as strong a possession team as Los Angeles, or Chicago, and have relied on extraordinary shooting percentage, in addition to their hot goalie. The Blackhawks have been a team of high-percentage finishers too, so the Ducks' best chance, should they survive the Battle of Los Angeles, may be for Gibson to keep on keeping on.

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.

Carey Price P.K. Subban (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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