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And then there were two…
For six games both Western Conference semifinals offered the kind of seesaw battle you’d expect of a heavyweight championship bout.
In the Central, the Dallas Stars somehow managed to force a Game 7 against the St. Louis Blues despite deploying a mediocre goaltending carousel consisting of two below average starters carrying a combined cap hit of $10.4 million.
And yet here the Stars were, looking at the possibility of advancing, despite the absence of top scorer Tyler Seguin. All that was required was one big game from whichever of their shaky and grossly overpaid goaltenders would start the game. Instead of the miracle the hometown crowd in Dallas hoped for, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen combined for a mere 13 stops and gave up 5 goals between them.
That’s right, Dallas GM Jim Nill, generally considered one of the smarter ones in the business, spent more than any other playoff team for two guys whose save percentages were 15th and 20th respectively among 21 goalies who have started at least one playoff game.
In the Pacific, as predicted the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks provided one of the more entertaining tilts so far, including a spectacular triple overtime in which the Preds tied things up with less than five minutes to go in regulation and then battled through a couple of Shea Weber overtime penalties before finally putting an end to the marathon contest.
After an epic comeback in Game 6, a franchise that once sold more season tickets in anticipation of a move to Hamilton, Ontario that was never going to happen than it had ever sold to its actual hometown fans, found itself one game away from its first Conference Final appearance ever.
And then in what looked like a bad dream, Nashville’s vaunted defense collapsed early, much to the delight of Weber’s many detractors in the analytics community, and goaltender Pekka Rinne, who has been kept afloat for years by league-best blueliners, did what he does when faced with quality shots and gave up a flurry of goals. Rinne was by no means awful, but he wasn’t good either, which left fans with a second Game 7 in as many nights that was more dull than many preseason games.
Which leaves us with the Blues, who entered the league when the Toronto Maple Leafs were the reigning Stanley Cup champs in 1967, and the Sharks, one of which will make their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history.
Sharks vs. Blues
Prediction: Sharks (55.3%)
Looking at the overall standings you might be surprised to see the Sharks favored here, especially since St. Louis played in the much tougher Central Division. But points (107 for St. Louis vs. 98 for San Jose) don’t tell the full story.
The Blues enjoy some advantages in terms of the underlying numbers, but overall, San Jose is the better team by a solid margin.
While it’s true the Blues had a stronger finish (+6 points in their last 10 games and +3 in the second half), St. Louis’s win percentage in one goal games (0.658) gave them a much higher DOHA Luck Score. This suggests their point total was inflated, while San Jose’s was somewhat understated.
Both teams are solid on puck possession, with the Sharks enjoying a modest (0.4%) advantage on ESVA Fenwick. But as they’ve shown repeatedly throughout these playoffs, San Jose is absolutely terrifying to opponents when it comes to shot quality, enjoying a league-leading +259 advantage when it comes to high danger scoring chance differential. St. Louis, meanwhile, seems content to let the ice tilt toward goaltender Brian Elliott, racking up a surprisingly poor -66 differential (22nd overall) during the regular season.
This means that overall the Sharks enjoy a +325 advantage on high danger scoring chances. Unless the Blues’ defensemen and checking forwards tighten ranks quickly, that fact alone is likely to make for a lopsided affair.
On special teams the Blues are more than competitive. Their power play (21.5%) keeps pace with that of the Sharks (22.5%), and their penalty kill (85.1% vs. 80.5%) is a fair bit stronger. But the percentages don’t tell the full story here since the Sharks have been a far more disciplined team, enjoying a +46 penalties drawn vs. taken advantage over their opponents during the regular season while the Blues were -42.
Put simply, the Sharks’ high-flying offense goads opponents into taking penalties, and then their power play often finishes the job.
If the Blues expect to prevail, they are going to have to be more disciplined in all respects and limit the Sharks’ ability to generate high quality scoring chances both in 5 on 5 play and on the man advantage. That’s not easy when facing the many weapons San Jose coach Peter DeBoer can throw out each shift.
Goaltending is of course a wild card that can steal a series, and the Blues’ Elliott is certainly up to the task to do just that. While San Jose starter Martin Jones has been more than serviceable in the regular season and playoffs, Elliott has been stellar all season, giving the Blues a 1.2% advantage on xSV%. St. Louis is no longer firing pucks at the Floundering Finns in Dallas, but they still have the better goalie in this series by a pretty good margin.
In the end our model picks the Sharks as the favorite.
Our revised Cup odds are below. If you want to follow Ian’s daughter’s picks for this round, you can see them here.
The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Its three founders are Ian Cooper, a lawyer, former player agent and Wharton Business School graduate; Dr. Phil Curry, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo; and IJay Palansky, a partner at the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale, former high-stakes professional poker player, and Harvard Law School graduate. Please visit us online at www.depthockeyanalytics.com
Dr. Mikal Skuterud is a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo.