Every year, there are certain facts and stats that jump out at me as the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around. These are not the obvious stats such as goals and assists, but lesser-known stats and stories that could come into play as you look over the matchups in the first round of the playoffs. Without doubt, some of these little tidbits of information are nothing more than numbers and words - simply pieces of random information that mean nothing other than what they represent. But if you believe stats and info are a way to determine a winner, you'll probably want to check these five important stories that I bring to you today.
1. Goaltending Wins Championships
If you don't believe in goaltending, you're probably still watching Gretzky and the Oilers score teams into submission in the mid-1980s. And that's fine, but it doesn't apply in today's NHL, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Goaltending is more important than ever before, and a hot goalie can carry you deep into the playoffs.
Consider these numbers for your first round matchups:
- Nikolai Khabibulin is 22-5-2 all-time versus the Calgary Flames with a 2.06 GAA. This season, Khabibulin went 3-0, surrendering only six goals against the Flames.
- Jose Theodore is 4-0 in the first round in his career as a starting goaltender. He has not lost a series to date in the first round, and he looks to continue that trend against the Rangers.
- If you're looking for an edge between Philly and Pittsburgh, you have to go with Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is 15-10 in 25 starts in the post-season, while Biron is 9-8. The edge? Pittsburgh defeated Philly in five games last season to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Biron was 2-2-1 against the Penguins this year.
- While everyone has been all over Chris Osgood's play in Detroit this season, consider that he's 59-41 in his career in the post-season with a miniscule 2.11 GAA. Granted, Osgood's GAA is up to 3.09 this season, far off his career mark, but I'd expect Mike Babcock to get his goalie in gear for the second season.
- The two Masons - Steve and Chris - have led the Columbus Blue Jackets and the St. Louis Blues into the playoffs when it was expected they would challenge for a lottery spot. The problem? Steve Mason has never been there, and Chris Mason has played a total of five playoff games, going 1-4. Big questions there if you're looking for an upset.
If special teams are any indication of how good a team will be in the playoffs, every single powerplay and penalty kill is vitally important to your team's success. Detroit showed how lethal their powerplay can be last year, and it carried them to a Stanley Cup.
Consider these numbers for your first round picks:
- The Columbus Blue Jackets were the worst team in the NHL on the powerplay this season, scoring on 12.7% of their chances. The good news? Detroit was the 25th-best team while shorthanded this season.
- The New York Rangers finished just ahead of the Blue Jackets at 29th in the NHL at a 13.9% pace. Washington finished 17th on the penalty kill, so the Rangers need to get their powerplay going. Like now.
- The Detroit Red Wings finished first on the powerplay at 25.5%. That's one powerplay goal for every four powerplays. Columbus had better be disciplined if they want to survive.
- With all of Pittburgh's firepower on the powerplay, they had better be aware of Philadelphia's penalty kill. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter had 11 goals total together. The Pittsburgh Penguins as a team had seven shorthanded goals - as many as Mike Richards had this season!
It's the one thing that is nearly impossible to measure except when a team is clicking along. And a win streak in the playoffs makes it that much easier to get closer to the Holy Grail. Chemistry can't be overlooked, and here are a few things to consider:
- There is no doubt that Cam Ward has been a large part of the Carolina Hurricanes' recent tear through the Eastern Conference standings, but has there been any better reunion than Eric Staal and Erik Cole? These two seem to go together better than peanut butter and jelly.
- Getting Sergei Gonchar back on the Penguins' blueline has been instrumental in turning their fortunes around in the second half of the season, but Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin have been huge contributors alongside Sidney Crosby. I'll even go out on a limb and say that the Penguins are better this year with Kunitz and Guerin than they were with Hossa at this time last year.
- The St. Louis Blues have been getting contributions from youngsters all year, but how about the clutch performances from TJ Oshie, David Perron, David Backes, Patrik Berglund, BJ Crombeen, and Alex Steen down the stretch? All of those guys are 25 years-old or younger, and all have been key contributors to the Blues' run to the post-season.
The grinders, the muckers, the third- and fourth-liners cannot be forgotten. Teams always pick up these grinding, depth players at the deadline, and this season was no different. Several grinders were moved, and their grit is often the unsung hero of a series.
Here are a few of grinders who have the ability to affect an entire series:
- Sean Avery - New York Rangers. If he plays against Ovechkin, his job for the entire series will be to annoy the Russian superstar. If he doesn't, Jose Theodore will be his target. In either case, Avery will be noticed by the Washington Capitals.
- Ryan Kesler/Alex Burrows - Vancouver Canucks. These two play the game like crazed men. They hit everything that moves, they play hard every shift, and they can score in bunches as well. It will be tough for St. Louis to out-grind these two men, and Vancouver is always better with them on the ice.
- Travis Moen/Claude Lemieux - San Jose Sharks. The former Anaheim Duck faces his former teammates who he skated with a mere two months ago. However, Moen has shown he can shutdown the best players in the game with his suffocating defence, and he can score. Lemieux is the throwback grinding forward, and he'll be counted on for leadership and wearing down opponents. Lemieux knows all the dirty tricks, and the Sharks should benefit from his years of experience.
It's no stretch to suggest that fans in certain cities are tapping their fingers on their desks while staring at their teams' roster. Why doesn't he score? How come he disappears in the playoffs? What happened to our goaltending? Some players have a lot riding on them in terms of playoff expectations, but so do a number of teams.
Here are a few things to remember:
- The Boston Bruins have won one playoff round in the last 14 years. Tim Thomas needs to take this team deep to keep the Bruins' faithful happy.
- The Montreal Canadiens only have 100 years of history riding on this season, and everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Do the playoffs present an opportunity for redemption?
- The San Jose Sharks keep toying with their fans by dominating through the regular season before making an early curtain call in the playoffs. This is their 12th appearance in the playoffs since 1994, and 2004 was the only time this club has seen the Conference Finals. San Jose fans have seen more disappearing acts than David Copperfield's assistants.
- The New Jersey Devils looked shaken last year in their series against the Rangers, and fears of that team returning shook Devils fans as the team limped through March. Martin Brodeur needs to rediscover the form that allowed him to overtake Patrick Roy's record, or this could be another short playoff run from the Devils.
- The Carolina Hurricanes are appearing in their fifth playoff appearance, and this is the fourth time they will meet up with the New Jersey Devils, and the third time in the first round. There's still some lingering bad blood over Scott Stevens sending Shane Willis into an alternate dimension, and his attempt to lay out Ron Francis. The weird part is that in all four meetings between these two teams, the higher seed has always prevailed.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!