While the playoff race in the Western Conference is mostly ending with a whimper, the playoff race in the Eastern Conference is set to finish with a bang.
The perfect combination for a drama-filled final week is developing out East: three teams separated by next-to-nothing in the standings, all with a semi-reasonable claim at earning the final playoff berth.
Which team is the most deserving? That’s an extremely difficult question to answer, especially considering the fact that 77 games (and counting) have failed to separate these teams in any meaningful way in the win/loss column.
But, we can take a stab at which team might have the most impact in the event it does make it past game 82. Essentially, what we’d want to know is how each of these teams grades out in our key performance metrics – the statistical categories that generally predict future playoff success of teams as they enter the fray.
What I’ve done below is outline each team’s season-to-date performance in a number of critical statistical categories that teams can indisputably influence via individual and team talent. How do the teams grade out?
The first thing that pops to me is that Philadelphia, which has a rap for being a team that’s only come on of late, has actually played pretty respectable hockey for most of the season. Their goal rate is the most favourable (that’s partially driven by Steve Mason’s excellent season, noted later on), and their shot differential and scoring-chance differentials are inching towards break-even. If there’s an area of concern, it’s probably that special teams have been a net negative for Dave Hakstol’s club.
Boston is essentially a duplication of Philadelphia, save for two things: their goaltending has been slightly less productive, and their special teams have been exceptional. The latter point should not go unnoticed – in a playoff format where, due to diminished scoring, man advantage opportunities are of critical importance, the Bruins seem to handle themselves admirably.
As for Detroit, they could be the fancy stat team of the trio. They’re the ones winning the shot and scoring-chance differentials, numbers consistent with what we see in successful playoff teams historically. The mere fact that they put almost two percentage points between themselves and Philadelphia/Boston is pretty striking. On the other hand, their special teams – like Philadelphia – haven’t been great, and the goal rates at 5-on-5 have been pretty substandard.
But, here’s an interesting question: What if we split this into bite-sized pieces and focused on how the teams are playing right now? After all, the analysis above really takes into consideration the entire season. And even in a single season, many things change – injuries, trades, coaching impacts, etc. Considering that recent performance heading into the playoffs is actually quite predictive of postseason success, let’s look at each team by the same numbers over the last 25 games.
Is any team rising above and distancing themselves from the pack?
You can start to see why Philadelphia’s racking up the points of late. It’s a combination of definitively improved play (their shot and scoring-chance differentials have both increased of late), and a drastic reduction in penalty kill goals against. Combine that with a little bit of shooting luck of late and you have the right ingredients for a team racking up points and pushing toward the postseason.
On the other hand, Detroit is pretty much in the same boat as their year-to-date numbers – the team is skating really well and really competitively at even strength, but at least recently, goaltending has submarined most of their efforts. And as for Boston, well, they’ve cooled off at the wrong time. Their goal rates are right near break-even, mostly by way of strong goaltending. As a team, they’re not really skating as strongly as they were in the first part of the year.
All this to say: I don’t know if any team is specifically more deserving than another, but there’s real truth to the following things: the Flyers are playing well enough to be worthy of an eight seed, the Red Wings might miss the cut despite actually playing reasonably well down the stretch, and the Bruins have no one to blame but themselves if they end up missing the cut. For a team with playoff-or-bust expectations, Boston just hasn’t been good enough to hold off the rest of the pack, and it’s put them in the very real position of missing the postseason in 2015-16.