The redesigned National Hockey League playoff format is official, and assuming everything goes to plan, we’re about six weeks away from watching hockey again.
The new format will include 24 teams and will start with a qualifying round of 16 teams. The opening series, the best of five, gives new life to eight teams that were below the initial playoff limit and is expected to create waves of excitement for sports fans.
Over the next few weeks, we will preview each series of qualifying rounds in detail. An archive of previews can be found here:
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs v. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets
Today we are considering a second game from the Eastern Conference, the No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins against the No. 12 Montreal Canadiens.
Regular season performance
To say that the playoffs of 24 league teams give new life to the Montreal Canadiens would be an understatement. While most of the bubble teams that made the playoffs in the new format only had a few return wins, the Canadians were 10 points behind with less than a 1% chance in the playoffs.
On the other side of the coin, no team has been more victimized by the NHL’s decision to create a round of play than the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pittsburgh had a 96% playoff odds at the end of the regular season, backed by an impressive +28 goals differential – the seventh best in the league.
To say that this year in Pittsburgh was atypical would also be an understatement. The Penguins have been wiped out with injuries throughout the season, the most notable of which belonged to Sidney Crosby (sports hernia). But Crosby wasn’t the only player running out of time – just look at their ranking of scores against availability and you can see how inconsistencies there were throughout the programming:
Pittsburgh, to that end, may be one of the teams that benefits the most from a long reset. All teams are benefiting from the comeback, but Pittsburgh’s true talent has likely been disproportionately affected by the frequently fragmented lineups.
This is particularly remarkable with regard to the game of equal strength, where the lion’s share of the minutes will be played during the playoffs.
A distinct core skill from Montreal is their ability to play intensively in the attacking zone – no team has had better puck possession and better shot generation than the Canadians, who have had wide spreads throughout of the season. And it was not for nothing: the Canadians may have finished 24th in the standings, but in fact they were ahead of their opponents by 158 to 151 (+7) by equal force.
They may have been weak in talent and lacked strong shooters in their first six forwards, but you can manage a lot when you get 55% of the shooting share (better in the NHL).
The problem here is that Montreal faces a Pittsburgh team also capable of equal strength – a team capable of neutralizing its greatest strength. The Penguins outscored their opponents 160-145 (+15) in this state of play, seventh best in the league.
Overview of the skater (objectives greater than the replacement)
If you look close enough, this is the companion wing Bryan Rust lead the contributions of the penguins in the objectives superior to the replacement.
It’s hard to say enough about Rust’s season – he has scored 56 points (27 goals and 29 assists) in just 55 games, becoming one of the team’s most versatile weapons. Coach Mike Sullivan’s decision to put him on the superstar’s hip Evgeni Malkin – who had a ridiculous 74 point season (55 games played) in his own right – turned out to be one of the best coaching decisions in the 2019-20 regular season. With Rust on the ice, the Penguins were 1.3 goals better than their opponents for every 60 minutes of play – a number directly comparable to stars like Colorado Nathan MacKinnon and philadelphia Sean Couturier.
Separately, you will notice that Crosby – who has led the team in any metric or advanced metric since joining the league, more or less – has fallen a bit in the pecking order this season. Part of that is simply due to time being missed and recovery from an injury, and betting against a player of his caliber would be foolish. But it is certainly worth noting that for the second time in three seasons, Crosby’s incredible skill set did not mean much in terms of goal spreads:
The good news for Pittsburgh is that, regardless of its odd regular season, Crosby remains one of the most gifted two-way players in the league. This will certainly pay dividends from the standpoint of confrontation, as it can be used to mask tastes like Brendan Gallagher‘s line.
Gallagher remains one of the most underrated attackers in the league and has shown his effectiveness in breaking through the defensive interior against just about everyone, teaming up with Phillip Danault and Tomas tatar to create a fantastic top line.
But this Canadiens’ transition team is still at the top, and if their front row can’t break Pittsburgh’s defense, it could end up being a very quick streak.
Goalkeeper overview (goals recorded above average)
The biggest X factor in the series isn’t particularly close – it’s the Montreal goalkeeper Carey Award.
Price is considered by his peers to be the best goalkeeper in the league, but the data suggests otherwise. Price’s save percentage (90.9) was lower than the league average for the second time in three seasons, and adjustments for the quality of headshots are not important. During this three-year period, Price is the 22nd of 24 goalkeepers (minimum 5000 shots on goal) in goals scored above expectations at -32.2. The only keepers on the track, in fact, are Minnesota Devan Dubnyk and from ottawa Craig Anderson.
It wasn’t always like that. You probably remember the prize that won the Vezina Trophy in 2015. For years, Price had high save percentages and defended his defense. The reverse has been true recently:
Price has been an outstanding goalkeeper for years, but the results are starting to lag. If he can mount a short series where we see the price of 2013-16, Montreal has a decisive advantage in net against Tristan Jarry and penguins. If it’s more the same, it’s a wash at best.
Oh, and it’s me assuming Pittsburgh plays Jarry Matt Murray. Given their respective seasons, how could Sullivan choose differently?
I would have loved to see Montreal – a dynamic team with pucks that can occasionally skate teams off the ice with their speed on the wings – attract anyone other than Pittsburgh. But their attacking limits and inadequate special teams are a problem, and Pittsburgh is just too deep, too versatile, and ultimately healthy.
The choice is Pittsburgh in four.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Evolving Hockey, NHL.com