Sam Hitchcock

Sam Hitchcock uses hockey analytics and extensive study of game tape to examine NHL players, teams, trends, and strategy. He founded his own website, Intelligent Hockey, and is a contributor to ESPN Insider. He also writes for Hockey Prospectus and contributed to the 2014-15 Hockey Prospectus book. In his free time, he is usually watching or discussing hockey.

Back in Black

The Chicago Blackhawks’ series against the Tampa Bay Lightning was full of surges back and forth. The Blackhawks were most consistent in Game 6, but even then, they had stretches where they were on their heels. Their forwards were swallowed up by the quick and intelligent Tampa Bay defense; the Lightning were able to aggressively challenge the Blackhawks’ premier talent and overload judiciously to stall Chicago’s offensive efficacy. The Lightning did about as good a job as possible at decelerating the Blackhawks’ rush and forecheck — but ultimately, the Blackhawks’ top-four defensemen enabled them to prevail.

Blackhawks’ top four won them the Cup Final

In six games during the Cup Final, the Blackhawks averaged slightly over two goals per contest while in each of the prior series, they reached four or more goals in at least three games. They did not collect four goals once against Tampa Bay. In essence: The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup because their insanely good top-four defensemen, and grossly underrated goaltender, were able to help them overcome less-than-stellar transition defense by their forwards and diminished offense.

The defensive quartet of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya did an extraordinary job, with goaltender Corey Crawford submitting first-rate work between the pipes. Like Chicago, Tampa Bay is a quick-strike outfit that moves the puck with grace and expediency – the Lightning are adept at attacking with their first and second waves. Yet, Chicago remained fortified, despite its top-four blueliners incurring ludicrous minute totals and arduous usage. The Blackhawks’ defense was the difference in the series.

This section will focus mainly on how the top-four defended and exited the zone, but it is not intended to overlook the extremely important role they played in invigorating the Blackhawks’ offense with their activation as an extra skater on the rush or their aggressiveness at pinching in the offensive zone.

The top four has peerless footwork and stickwork, although the subtlety of their form can go unnoticed. As for their footwork, the four can expand and condense perfectly. They chase on the perimeter and move laterally in concert to take away the shot or pass to the slot. Hyper-coordinated, they shift into different formations to meet the challenge they are facing; often that means supporting the area underneath a partner who is challenging the enemy skater’s entry.

The outstanding foot speed by Chicago’s top four provides a sublime foundation for their stickwork. But their proficiency in stickwork is more than just pokechecking (although they are incredible at that). Niklas Hjalmarsson is well known for using his shuffleboard pass to move the puck D-to-D or to his outlet along the boards, but the entire group is skilled at using one hand to shovel the puck away from danger and preferably to a teammate.

The groups knows what area of the body to hit to disrupt on an enemy rush and force the puck-carrier to lose possession. Mostly, that is a well-timed assault on his hands, but sometimes it requires leaning on the player’s back or destabilizing his balance. Much like in a penalty kill, defensemen recognize that individual skaters have pressure points where they can be exploited.

Part of the expertise of the excellent stickwork of the top four is that they know what to do with their free hand. With the non-stick-carrying hand, they fend off the charging forecheckers with their mitt and sweep the puck away from the point of attack with their stick. They will make a quick grab below the opposing skater’s waist and dislodge his control of the puck with their stick. Most importantly, their timing and touch is insane.

Chicago’s workhorses on the back end read back passes and seam passes superbly. They anticipate where the opposing stick is going to finish so that they can extend their own stick and seal off that shooting avenue. They can snatch the puck and initiate the breakout in one swift motion. Their ability to complete direct passes on zone exits and clear the puck without icing it in lead-protection situations was paramount against Tampa Bay. Enjoy the montage; the fluidity in their execution bespeaks the uniqueness of this power grouping.

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The importance of retaining a competent goaltender

A faction of people will insist that goaltending is the most indispensable position in hockey, while others believe that goaltenders are a non-core asset and should be paid accordingly. The best way to view goaltending is probably through a slight twist on baseball’s Mendoza Line, which is used to define the threshold for competency in hitting. To apply this to playoff hockey: It is extremely important to know if a goaltender is capable of buoying a team in the key moments of every series.

The pervasive reluctance to fete Corey Crawford and Ben Bishop is simply bewildering. Crawford has been integral in two Cup wins and three straight conference finals; Bishop was essential in Tampa Bay beating Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist to help catapult the Bolts to this Cup Final.

Chicago is going to need to do some housecleaning to get its books in order, but Crawford has proven he can protect the net for a Cup winner. Paying $6 million for insurance in goal for a netminder who bails the Blackhawks out when they allow odd-man rushes and get hemmed in their own zone is well worth the price. This playoffs, as he usually does, Crawford came through.

Additionally, the current outcry to move Bishop to start the very talented Andrei Vasilevskiy is puzzling. Bishop was tremendous for Tampa Bay (despite playing with a torn groin), and it can be argued that the Lightning deserved a better fate than they received in the Final. Bishop is making almost $6 million per season, and if they can claim him for under $8 million, they should extend him (Only if the demands are exorbitant, like over $8 million, should they reconsider).

While a highly-regarded prospect, Vasilevskiy is only 20 years old. The youngest goaltender this season to get 30 or more starts was Jake Allen, who is 24. Braden Holtby and Frederik Andersen are the next youngest. Both performed well in starter roles at the age of 25. Generally speaking, goaltenders these days take longer to percolate.

Thus, handing the car keys to a 20-year-old seems an unreasonable risk that completely dismisses the fact that the Lightning core is in its prime right now. Recognizing the timeline of your superstars is critical, and if it takes Vasilevskiy three seasons to peak, the team’s window may be shut. Bishop is 28, and Tampa Bay is built to win now.

The Lightning should trade Vasilevskiy and start to replace the depth guys who will be cap casualties. Otherwise, the Lightning could experience the same cruel fate as the Blues and Canucks did in the first round: dramatically control the even-strength shot attempts battle because they have more depth and skill among their skaters, but lose because their goaltending is inadequate. (The Canucks did pony up substantial money for their goaltender; he just happened to be an aging netminder whose best hockey is behind him.)

The Los Angeles Kings, one of the smartest teams in the league, are a great example of a team willing to pay a premium (in regards to term, not price) for goaltender Jonathan Quick because he exceeds the Mendoza Line. Quick has had uneven regular seasons, but the guy is always good enough (usually he is excellent) in the postseason, and the security blanket in goal is what you are paying for higher price or term.

Joel Quenneville and Jon Cooper epitomize the modern coach

There may be a place in the NHL’s future for an abrasive, supreme-power coach stewarding a Cup contending team, but in present day, the shift toward a coach-player alliance is visible for the best squads. The bench bosses of the Cup Final — the Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville and the Lightning’s Jon Cooper — are great examples of the modern coach.

Both men do an excellent job of respecting the players in the room and allowing some autonomy in how their players conduct themselves on and off the ice. For important decisions, they consult the leaders on the team. That is not to say they do not ever come down on them hard when they play poorly, but there is a desire to establish trust so that both parties mutually benefit. The players are partners, not pawns.

This is a sharp split from the John Tortorella/Mike Keenan my-way-or-the-highway syndrome. Players are well aware that they are far more valuable to the team than their coach, and with the leverage tipped in their favor, it does seem to make the authority model outmoded, at least for a Cup contender. (For some young teams, having a fiery, commanding coach can be instructive.)

Conversely, it is also worth pondering whether Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who has a reputation for grating on his players, is the right coach to steer his extremely talented squad to the promised land. Some coaches can adjust their philosophy and comportment to changing times. Hitchcock certainly has modified his hockey philosophy. Whether he can abate his intensity will be a fascinating subplot next season.

Final thoughts

Any doubts about the NHL’s transition to speed and skill over grit and grind were quashed this postseason. That is not to say that checking and size are not positive attributes — they are. But the idea of a cemented paradigm when constructing rosters has disappeared. If a young forward who has top-six potential is not good enough to crack the top two lines yet, he can be placed in the bottom six. If a defenseman has defensive anchor potential but is still too green to carry that workload, teams can opt to put him at third pair instead of burying him against inferior competition in the AHL.

Quenneville was happy to put Teuvo Teravainen on the third or fourth line and let him assume puck-handling duties. Cooper moved Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Nesterov around the lineup, sometimes putting them in complementary roles, other times sticking them with the high-end players.

The modern NHL is about stockpiling talent regardless of fit-of-system or size. The two primary boxes that need to be checked are speed and puck skills (on the offensive, defensive, or both ends). It was a sensational NHL season, and the countdown to the 2015-16 season is well under way.

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    It’s a trap!

    The stretch pass is the Chicago Blackhawks’ preferred tool for catching opponents on their heels. The Blackhawks use the stretch pass to accelerate the pace of a sequence and try to place the puck on the sticks of their most skilled players. In the Stanley Cup Final, however, the Tampa Bay Lightning have impressively defended against this maneuver.

    The stretch pass supplements and reinforces the Blackhawks’ rush game. But Tampa Bay’s defensemen and forwards have blanketed Chicago’s forwards and allowed them little separation. Their alignment is not especially ornate or unique: a garden-variety 1-2-2, or occasionally a 2-1-2. But passing lanes have been scarce for the Blackhawks when they look up ice on zone exits and on neutral-zone regroups because of how the Bolts’ skaters are reading the play and reacting.

    This goal by Ondrej Palat in Game 3, was a memorable moment in this series. The Blackhawks have just taken the 2-1 lead after a Brandon Saad goal, and the United Center is going bonkers. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville puts out the fourth line, and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson tries to make a stretch pass up the boards to Marcus Kruger for a tip to teammate Andrew Shaw.

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    But Lightning defenseman Matt Carle assesses the play perfectly. Carle jams up the pass and the puck caroms to Tyler Johnson for the counterattack. Less than 10 seconds later, the puck is being fished out of Chicago’s net. The Blackhawks lost the game and suddenly trailed in the series.

    Watch Game 5: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on NBC

    Tampa Bay has overwhelmingly succeeded in thwarting the Blackhawks’ stretch pass. In the instances where Chicago’s completed stretch passes have yielded shot attempts, unusual circumstances had to occur for Chicago to generate offense off the rush.

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    In the first play, pay close attention to the positioning of the Bolts’ skaters. They have one man chasing the puck-carrier, and Palat, who is part of the second layer of coverage, anticipates the pass up the perimeter and tries to intercept it. Most importantly, Bolts defenseman Jason Garrison steps up. Unfortunately for the Lightning, Toews is incredibly good and manages to thread the pass through the middle of the ice despite the trap, and the puck slips between Nikita Kucherov and Andrej Sustr. Patrick Sharp opportunistically uses his speed to seize possession and gallop away for a partial breakaway. The probability of that stretch-pass sequence succeeding is low, so while the result was negative for Tampa Bay, the process was correct.

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    Now view the second play. How does Brad Richards get so open? The coverage fractures once Cedric Paquette takes a line change just as Duncan Keith feeds the puck up ice to Saad, and Johnson can not get on the ice fast enough to impede Richards! Sustr also makes a noteworthy mistake here. Instead of stepping up and eliminating the pass to Richards, who is the primary target, Sustr backpedals.

    Richards musters a shot from the top of the left circle, but even with the line change in progress, it is crucial that Tampa Bay’s defenseman on the strong side challenge the charging forward who is designated to receive the puck. The Bolts’ entire defensive philosophy is designed so that their defensemen can step up and aggressively attack opposing skaters on entries while their forwards cover the back-side offensive pressure.

    MORE: Saad piles up clutch goals this postseason

    The Bolts’ defensive coverage disintegrates in the final play. The Triplets have just stepped onto the ice and they pursue aggressively on the forecheck. They have been gangbusters this entire postseason, and they have been downright tyrannical in their ability to disrupt the Blackhawks’ zone exits. Generally, their overconfidence is warranted, and two-man pressure on the forecheck would be understandable. What is not acceptable is the placement of Kucherov, the F3.

    Kucherov is in no man’s land. By completely losing his positioning, he essentially forfeits the neutral zone and gives the Blackhawks a four-lane highway to enter the offensive zone. Sharp drops a pass to Toews as they criss-cross just inside the line, and Toews has a quality scoring chance.

    These three plays are the exception, not the rule. Tampa Bay has systematically diminished Chicago’s high-octane attack by having equal or more skaters race back to quell the first wave and still jump out if the puck is distributed to the trailers. This has happened again and again. Chicago has been reduced to generating scoring chances from the power play, forecheck, counterattack, and offensive-zone faceoffs. Less diversity makes the Blackhawks more predictable.

    The Bolts made a wise bet entering this matchup. They wagered that Chicago could not complete short-to-intermediate passes through the defensive zone and the neutral zone against Tampa Bay’s aggressive defense. The Bolts correctly anticipated that their large, mobile defensemen, and excellent transition defense by their forwards, could take away space and force Chicago to cabin itself in non-scoring areas. So far, Tampa Bay has been right. Your move, Chicago.

    Final exam

    The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Final because both were able to combine an extremely talented roster with a supercharged, aggressive playing style. Essentially, this style allows each team’s forwards and defensemen to pursue scoring opportunities forcefully in the offensive zone. On the defensive side of the puck, both squads’ defensemen can challenge entries while the forwards supply an adequate amount of back pressure to suffocate any opposing forays.

    The Blackhawks and Lightning have seen their opponents attempt to nullify their speed, batter them, shade their best players with checking lines, and turn the game into a grind by establishing the forecheck and slowing the game down. So what will happen when these two juggernauts collide?

    The series could go two ways. It could end up being the 100-meter dash of all playoff series, with ineffable quickness and passing and offensive firepower personified. The second option is exciting hockey with plenty of rushes, but not quite mayhem. Door No. 2 is what the Blackhawks should seek, because their biggest flaw, inadequate transition defense, could extinguish their Cup dreams if this turns into a track meet.

    For the most part, the Rangers did an outstanding job of diminishing the Bolts’ offensive impact on their rush. It is a testament to the 200-foot commitment and collective hockey intelligence of all five New York skaters that they were able to stultify Tampa Bay’s first wave and then stall its second wave. The Lightning procured a lot of offense from the power play, offensive-zone faceoffs, counterattacks, and most prominently, the forecheck.

    There were two fissures in the Rangers’ transition-defense fortification in Game 7, and the Lightning were able to convert both chances via the rush. The first goal came when Alex Killorn struck on an extremely slow-moving rush against the Rangers’ fourth line. But the second goal is more important for forecasting purposes.

    WATCH Game 1: Coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

    Bolts goaltender Ben Bishop makes the first pass to his outlet, Ondrej Palat, who makes a terrific touch pass off the half wall. The pass glides into the middle of the ice where it finds Tyler Johnson, who is powering out of the defensive zone. Once Johnson surges through the neutral zone, he pulls up right as he crosses the blue line on the entry. He makes an excellent cross-ice pass to Palat, completing the extended give-and-go. Palat corrals the puck and then deposits the puck in stride. But this play demands a closer look.

    There are two Rangers forecheckers just below the circles, and New York defenseman Dan Girardi is pinching as the F3. Just above him is teammate Carl Hagelin, looking like a safety trying to cover a large swath of ice. But Hagelin’s position is precarious against the speed of the Johnson line, especially when Girardi fails to keep the puck in the zone and establish territorial advantage. The puck escapes the Rangers’ attackers, which leads to the Triplets scoring in transition.

    This goal is important not only because it changed the score from a one-shot game to a multi-goal margin, but also because the Bolts’ ability to strike off the rush had been hampered all series by the Rangers. New York’s transition defense was very good, but a costly slip-up burned it in the deciding game.

    MORE: Kane, Toews may face toughest assignment  |  Lightning hope for better home luck

    Now watch this goal by Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad against Anaheim, which extended Chicago’s lead to 3-0 in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Blackhawks want their defensemen to pinch and play the role of the F3 (when necessary) as well! It is successful in this instance, as the Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf’s failed clearing attempt caroms off Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya. The puck skitters onto the stick of Patrick Kane, who finds Saad for the backdoor goal.

    However, the Blackhawks’ aggression can also leave them exposed. There were many instances where Anaheim was able to evade Chicago’s pressure on the forecheck and generate quality scoring chances. This goal by the Ducks’ Hampus Lindholm is a great example. The Blackhawks fail on the forecheck, and the transition defense is lacking. The Blackhawks’ first line chases the puck below the circles, leaving not one, but two trailers open. This leaves them vulnerable for the second layer of the attack, where Lindholm receives the pass and scores.

    And these are the Blackhawks’ three best defensive forwards failing to provide sufficient transition defense! Admittedly, this is rare, because this trio of Chicago forwards shows outstanding hockey acumen defensively. But this sequence is telling. Chicago’s best defensive forwards are prone to mistakes in transition defense, and the rest of their nine forwards are markedly worse in the exercise. The Blackhawks are not going to succeed on every forecheck, and failing to account for the second incursion against the Lightning is a death wish.

    The Blackhawks are at their best when their defensemen play at manic speed. They need to be joining or leading the rush, establishing the forecheck, and engaging in the offensive-zone cycle by cutting to the backdoor and diving into the slot. The Blackhawks also have several stellar two-way forwards, especially now that Marian Hossa is separated from Jonathan Toews and Saad.  But transition defense at this stage demands that every skater on the ice find his man and attach himself, and that is never a constant for the Blackhawks.

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    Ironically, since Tampa Bay is capable of exploiting the Blackhawks’ transition defense, Chicago may want to slow down the game. Slowing the game down is relative, however, as the Blackhawks most certainly will want Patrick Kane to be streaking through the neutral zone as much as possible. But they do not want to be trading rush attempts with the Lightning. The Blackhawks’ game plan should be to halt the Bolts’ transition game as much as possible, and force them to win with their forecheck, counterattack, offensive-zone faceoff plays, and power play. That should sound familiar because that is precisely what the Rangers, another finesse team that likes to play fast, attempted to do.

    MORE: Chicago mayor rips Lightning for tickets policy

    This is not to call for a total departure from the formula that the Blackhawks used to reach the Cup. Really, it is just good puck management tailored to their opponent. Chicago still needs its defenseman on the weak side activating in the transition.  The involvement on the rush from the backend visibly loosens the defensive coverage for their forwards. But where the Blackhawks concede the puck will be of utmost importance. The Blackhawks need to limit the odd-man rushes, and they need to be prepared to defend not just the first, but the second wave of Bolts attackers. If they do not, they could get torched by the Lightning offense.

    In addition to maintaining tight transition defense, it will be on the Blackhawks’ defensemen and forwards to coordinate clean breakouts, and for all five skaters to make judicious decisions with the puck in the neutral zone. Chicago will look to stymie Tampa Bay’s forecheck and counterattack and maintain puck possession. Generally speaking, good things happen for Chicago when it has the puck a lot.

    Chicago needs to recognize that Tampa Bay can have four to five skaters attacking, while still maintaining defensive accountability when its opponents counter. The Blackhawks do not have that luxury. What Chicago does have is a group that excels when they support the puck in all three zones. Like the Rangers, the Blackhawks want the tempo of the forecheck and rush played at a diluted pace. Unlike New York, Chicago has enough creators on offense and aces on defense to win this series as long as it is not scrambling.

    Prediction: Blackhawks in six

    Seventh heaven

    The Western Conference final has been an anthology instead of a novella. Familiar lessons have been woven throughout each game/story (comfort in one’s identity, perseverance, accountability, success as a product of hard work), but each game has felt strikingly distinct from the others. Nevertheless, here are three key factors that have emerged from this series and will have an important bearing on the outcome of Game 7.

    The high-end talent is so good that depth is a deciding factor

    Both coaches have been aggressive in their efforts to dictate their preferred matchups. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau wants Ryan Kesler pitted against Jonathan Toews, and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has deployed his fourth line against both the Ryan Getzlaf and Kesler lines. The offensive impact of each team’s superstar forwards has ebbed and flowed, but their scoring influence never wanes. Even after a stint of quiet play, the top-tier attackers can flash their scoring prowess. There is little doubt that the thoroughbreds will show up for the final contest.

    WATCH GAME 7: Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBC; Stream it on Live Extra

    But where things get very interesting is the secondary scoring. Chicago’s have been conspicuous while Anaheim’s returns have been diminishing. Patrick Sharp has controlled 60.87 percent of even-strength shot attempts (Corsi) over the last two games, and Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger command 58.33 percent of shot attempts in their favor, per Shaw also registered the clinching goal in Game 6, an excellent effort in a one-on-one against the redoubtable Ducks captain Getzlaf. Not to be outdone, Kruger scored the game winner in the triple-overtime battle in Game 2. Sharp’s linemate Teuvo Teravainen has 29 shot attempts at 5 on 5 over his last two games, and his one goal and one assist in that span were essential in stimulating the Blackhawks’ memorable comeback in Game 5. Even Antoine Vermette has submitted the third-best scoring chances differential among Chicago forwards in this series.

    The Ducks’ ancillary contributions have been unevenly weighted. Their defense has added scoring in this series (Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen both have a goal and three assists, Hampus Lindholm has a goal and two assists, Francois Beauchemin has two assists and Clayton Stoner has a goal) but the advantage Anaheim seemed to enjoy with its third and fourth line has been absent over the last three games. Nate Thompson, Kyle Palmieri, and Andrew Cogliano have a combined -17 scoring chances differential, per Thompson and Cogliano have two assists and Palmieri has one. If each team’s top players are canceling each other out, it is going to come down to the supporting casts making a difference.

    The Blackhawks’ workhorses on defense need to survive

    The workload that Chicago’s top-four defensemen are assuming is astounding. Johnny Oduya is fourth in time on ice among the group, and he is logging one less second per game than Francois Beauchemin, the Ducks’ top minute-logger. Duncan Keith has played 509:13 so far in the 2014-15 playoffs, which is just under 67 minutes more than Victor Hedman, who ranks second. (If Hedman plays all of Game 7 on Friday, he still will not catch Keith!) Yet it is truly amazing what these four defensemen have been able to accomplish.

    Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya all rank in the top five among all conference finals players in shot attempts for at even strength, per Keith, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson rank in the top four in scoring chances for at 5 on 5, and Oduya is ninth.

    The truth is that the Blackhawks’ defensemen are the engine of the team. They enable the transition game with their ability to consistently utilize the stretch pass. They allow Chicago to exit the zone cleanly with their mobility and crisp first pass. Early in the series, the Ducks’ physicality appeared to have the Blackhawks’ defensemen playing less assertively. Chicago is at their best when their defensemen are able to join the rush and activate in the offensive zone. Their mobility frees up the forwards to find space and there is lots of motion in the neutral zone and rotation in the offensive zone.

    But as Ryan Kesler so aptly put it, “No human can withstand that many hits.” The scary part is that the Blackhawks are so thin on defense they cannot spare one defenseman’s play nosediving due to fatigue. Anaheim will certainly be testing the limits by punishing them on the forecheck and trying to get behind them on the counterattack. The Ducks’ M.O. is to grind the forecheck and slow the game down. They have gotten away from this in recent games, but look for a return to that formula in the final chapter.

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    No lead is safe

    Multi-goal leads in this series are ephemeral. In Game 2, the Blackhawks blew a 2-0 lead and won in triple overtime. In Game 4, Chicago had a 3-1 lead and Anaheim scored three goal in 37 seconds, giving them the goal advantage, before conceding a goal and losing in overtime. In Game 5, the Ducks had a 3-0 lead and then a 4-2 edge with less than two minutes remaining, which they forfeited before winning the game in overtime. Finally, Chicago jumped out to 3-0 in Game 6 before Anaheim made the game 3-2, which the Blackhawks barely survived.

    When trailing by 2-plus, the shot attempts and scoring chances for increase when each team is losing, but not by a significant margin, per What is noteworthy, though, is that the shooting percentage for the trailing team skyrockets. When the Ducks are trailing by 2-plus, their shooting percentage is 25 percent. The Ducks’ shooting percentage is 8.4 in all scoring and manpower situations, which is last among all conference finalists. But when that is adjusted to situations where the Ducks are losing, their shooting percentage jumps to 11.7, the best in the playoffs. The Blackhawks’ shooting percentage is 9.9 when they are trailing, but when they are trailing by 2-plus it inflates to 13.0.

    What this tells us is that all of these blown leads have more to do with goaltending faltering than the winning team’s players relaxing. Some of the goals conceded have come from good scoring areas, but the sharp dip in save percentage suggests that the men in net share a portion of the blame.

    Game 7 assessment:

    Home-ice advantage matters for both of these teams, and it has shown up in different ways in this series. The home team has won the faceoff battle every single game, and the fits experienced by the high-end forwards have been precipitated by the home coach getting last change. Anaheim would appear to have the edge since they are playing Game 7 in their barn. But while there is little doubt Getzlaf and Perry will bring their A game, the rest of their supporting cast is shrouded with uncertainty. The Ducks’ defensive group has played about as well as possible so far, but Chicago has four forward lines that have shown they are capable of making a positive impact while their top-four defensemen will play as much as necessary to get the W. Winning a Game 7 on the road is tough, but the Blackhawks have shown time and time again that you cannot count them out.

    Lightning in a bottle

    Lightning center Tyler Johnson has thrust himself into the national spotlight by notching 11 goals and five assists in 15 games during the playoffs. The diminutive Johnson is carrying the highest electric current in the hockey universe at the moment, possessing distinct traits that enable him to dominate the competition.

    Johnson’s Patience

    When Johnson receives the puck in the following two sequences, his composure is what opens up the shooting and passing lanes.

    In their game against New York on Monday night, the Lightning are on a 4-on-3 power play when Steven Stamkos shuttles the puck down low, thus shrinking the chessboard for Johnson. Johnson now has a 2-on-1 below the faceoff dots, but he still faces defenseman Ryan McDonagh and the redoubtable goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

    Johnson has the sangfroid to feign a pass toward left winger Ondrej Palat – successfully crumbling the Rangers’ bulwark – before roofing it on Lundqvist’s glove side.

    Watch Game 3: Coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN

    The second sequence is from Game 4 of the first round, with Tampa Bay trailing 2-1 both in their series against the Red Wings and on the scoreboard.

    The sequence starts with Johnson jetting through the neutral zone unencumbered. Big mistake on Detroit’s part. Palat pushes a rickety pass in Johnson’s direction, and No. 9 catches it and goes from backhand to forehand in one fluid movement.

    As Johnson moves the puck to his forehand, he pivots, opening up toward the action in the middle of the ice. Johnson waits until Palat escapes the defensive pressure, which the winger achieves just as he arrives at the crease. Johnson fires a pass onto Palat’s stick, and it’s a tie game. Johnson’s patience on the give-and-go is remarkable, providing Palat the time to successfully split two opposing skaters, one of whom is three-time Selke Trophy winner Pavel Datsyuk.

    Johnson’s Footwork

    Johnson’s ability to control his speed and stride make these two goals against Detroit possible during a critical juncture in the series — Detroit was up, three games to two, and looking to close out the series at home. Tampa Bay will try 200-foot set plays on resets from their own zone from time to time, and in the game’s first goal, this works to perfection.

    Bolts defenseman Victor Hedman makes a long stretch pass to teammate Nikita Kucherov at the far blue line, and Kucherov is able to stop the puck but not fully control it. Johnson is on a timing route, and Red Wings center Luke Glendening is the man responsible for shading Johnson. Unfortunately, Glendening breaks off his shadowing assignment and tries to prevent the pass to Johnson by charging Kucherov. But, by failing to deny the pass, he leaves poor Danny DeKeyser flat-footed to cover a charging Johnson.

    Johnson shows some twinkle toes as he chops up his movement enough to stay onside and allows Kucherov to push the puck over the blue line first to enable the rush attempt. After gaining possession, Johnson protects the puck, then powers his way inside before abruptly stopping and depositing the puck top corner, blocker side.

    Johnson’s second goal of the game shows him catching the puck and whipping a shot on net without breaking stride.

    With the score 2-0, Detroit’s Brendan Smith coughs up the puck in the neutral zone, and Johnson receives the puck coming off the bench. In one swift, effortless move, he seizes the pass and takes a rocket of a wrist shot to beat Petr Mrazek. It takes him two seconds, from the 10:55 to the 10:53 mark, to collect the pass and release it from the top of the left circle. Had he been any slower, Red Wings defenseman DeKeyser, who was bearing down on Johnson, would have hindered the shot attempt and felled the scoring chance.

    A lot of forwards in the NHL have speed and puck skills. What separates Johnson is his ability to open up his options by demonstrating patience with the puck and using his footwork to keep or alter his speed in accordance with the changing dynamics of the play.

    How the West will be won

    The Chicago Blackhawks and the Anaheim Ducks both have superstars at the height of their powers who have led them to the Western Conference finals. Unfortunately, age will cause these stars to decline, and the salary cap will diminish their supporting ranks. There is no certainty in either team’s future, so for both, the time is now.

    Through two playoff rounds, the Ducks have more impressive statistics. Anaheim leads the NHL playoffs in 5-on-5 Goals For/Against ratio. It took the Ducks only nine games to reach the conference finals. They had an even-strength Corsi for percentage of 53.2 against Winnipeg, and a 55.3 Corsi for percentage against Calgary, per Moreover, in the Ducks’ five-game series win over the Flames, they had a plus-34 scoring-chance differential at 5-on-5.

    Anaheim has received secondary scoring from Jakob Silfverberg, Matt Beleskey, Patrick Maroon, and its defensive group. Additionally, Anaheim’s power play is incandescent, converting at 31 percent, first among all teams. The Ducks trailed in the majority of their first-round games against Winnipeg, but their core delivered in crunch time. That matters.

    Meanwhile, the Blackhawks controlled 53.3 percent of their even-strength shot attempts (Corsi) against Nashville, but only 49 percent of their even-strength shot attempts against the Minnesota Wild, per Chicago has a slight edge in creating scoring chances for per 60 minutes, but the Ducks have allowed fewer scoring chances per 60 minutes. Chicago and Anaheim both have four players among the top 15 scoring leaders.

    Watch Game 1: Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC

    Still, playoff success is also determined by matchups, and the Ducks’ superior statistics should be viewed in the context of the Blackhawks’ far tougher opponents. In Chicago, Anaheim takes on its toughest opponent yet, and it does not match up particularly well. The Blackhawks are nearly unbeatable at home, so it is essential that Anaheim grab Game 1 or 2 (or both) at home to avoid getting swept. There is the possibility that Anaheim will lose quickly and face a lot of accusations that it was a fraud. Here is a gameplan for how the Ducks can make this a tightly contested series.


    Establish dominance on the forecheck

    The Blackhawks are maestros at exiting their zone. Their puck support and direct passing off the wall and from the corners are the best in the NHL. But Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau will place heavy emphasis on slowing the game down and trying to punish the Blackhawks’ top-four defensemen, who will be logging exorbitant minutes due to Michal Rozsival’s injury.

    MORE: Timonen ready for more minutes  |  ‘Hawks not worried about layoff

    The Ducks were very effective on the rush against Calgary. Enabled by the Flames’ poor puck control and penchant for allowing very loose gaps, Anaheim consistently gained the zone and fired away. That will not be the case against Chicago. The Blackhawks are extremely aggressive at challenging entries, so the Ducks will want to operate below the goal line and work the cycle. Chicago is excellent at eliminating shooting and passing lanes in the middle of the ice and off-slot, especially when they are in their defensive posture. But a vulnerability of all that fronting and stick-checking is that sometimes opposing forwards can sneak by the defense and wiggle into a space in front of the net, like Zach Parise does here.


    Slow the Blackhawks down

    The Blackhawks flourish when they can carry the puck and gain speed through the neutral zone and whip stretch passes to their forwards. Opponents have had varying success with clogging the neutral zone and implementing layered defensive coverage to counteract the Blackhawks’ deadly transition game. For Anaheim to have a prayer of winning, it will need to force Chicago to dump the puck in. But Anaheim is not a team that plays with a rigid defensive structure, as this clip against Calgary reveals.

    With 39.7 seconds remaining in the second period of Game 4 in a 2-2 game, Calgary had a chance to reset and attack. Despite the Flames starting from below their goal line, Anaheim’s defensive presence in the neutral zone was lacking.  When Flames center Sean Monahan achieves the zone entry, the Ducks’ coverage is plagued by inertia, as Monahan beats Ryan Kesler and Simon Despres and slithers his way into the middle of the ice. The Ducks need to stand up against the Blackhawks before they enter the zone. If they don’t, the Blackhawks’ high tempo and skill will roast them.

    MORE: Kesler calls Blackhawks ‘beatable’  |  Ducks move on from Flames


    Capitalize on the Blackhawks’ pronounced aggression

    The Blackhawks play so aggressively that they inevitably allow odd-man-rush opportunities. Nashville and Minnesota did not convert on enough of them; the Ducks will need to do better. Such chances will come in different guises.

    The Blackhawks’ defensemen join the rush and pinch up along the boards, but their forwards do not always fall back to cover, giving them four skaters in attacking position in the offensive zone. Such confidence can be exploited with a counterattack if Anaheim can manage Chicago’s blitzing below the circles.

    In transition, the Blackhawks’ top-four rearguards consistenly activate from the weak side. But if the rush attempt gets bungled, Chicago has four skaters charging in the wrong direction. This clip is a perfect example of the Blackhawks’ brazen approach gone awry, but Wild forward Kyle Brodziak fails to register a goal.

    However, this postseason, the Ducks have the highest shooting percentage in the NHL at 11.6. They will need more of that puck luck when they encounter this type of situation, to punish the Blackhawks for their aggressiveness.

    Chicago’s defensemen love to challenge, and they will confront opposing skaters at the blue line or neutral zone in an effort to deny their entry. The blueliners have faith that the Blackhawks’ tracking will be there to cover the back side. If Jonathan Toews’ line is on the ice, there are usually one or two players driving up the middle. Because the Kane line is the least consistent trio in terms of back pressure, there are sequences when Chicago’s defensemen can be exploited as they chase down an opponent on the perimeter.


    Keep the Ryan Getzlaf line away from the Toews line

    The Ducks rely on Getzlaf’s line for major production but the Toews line and the Blackhawks’ top-four defensemen can overwhelm any opponent’s top line. The Toews line is remarkable at suffocating the opponent and driving play, and this postseason they have a combined plus-47 scoring-chance differential at even strength, per Moreover, in their own barn, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville will get to control the matchups.

    The Blackhawks probably won’t blanket the Getzlaf line because Getzlaf and Corey Perry are all-world talents. But if the impact of these two forwards is reduced, Anaheim will struggle mightily.


    The Ducks’ puck management cannot be their downfall

    Anaheim’s zone exits and puck advancement in the neutral zone have not been a hindrance yet, but the Blackhawks excel at pilfering possession from their opponents. The Ducks routinely cough up the puck in dangerous areas of their own zone, and even if they are able to chip the puck out, that is not the best outcome when playing Chicago. The Blackhawks’ regroup is swift and can strike quickly, and Anaheim needs to avoid the Blackhawks pouncing on their breakouts.



    The Blackhawks’ defensive group will log big minutes, and Anaheim will punish Chicago’s skill players and attempt to turn each game into a grind. But the Blackhawks are very experienced in overcoming a physical opponent and utilizing their speed and puck skills to win the series. In the end, Anaheim’s turnovers and minimized efficiency from their top two lines will cause them to sputter.

    Bolts from the blue

    Fueled by three power-play goals, Tampa Bay finished the second period of Game 2 with a 4-1 lead over Montreal en route to a 6-2 win. Yet it was the lone even-strength goal by the Lightning during that early stretch Sunday that revealed the most about the Canadiens’ challenges in this series now that they have lost both home games and seven straight head-to-head matchups.

    The play starts when the Canadiens’ Torrey Mitchell beats Steven Stamkos on the faceoff in the defensive zone and Montreal defenseman Tom Gilbert chips it out of the Habs’ end. The puck finds Montreal forward Brandon Prust, but Prust misses Mitchell on a pass in the neutral zone, giving Tampa Bay a chance to regroup. Look for a theme here. The sequence illuminates how Tampa Bay exploits the Canadiens’ dependence on counterattacks and area passes to create offense. Montreal’s high-risk game plan allows a puck-savvy team like Tampa Bay ample time and opportunity to recalibrate and find gaps in its opponent’s defense.

    With the puck in the neutral zone, Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn, Tampa Bay’s defensemen, initiate a reset, but attempts to Ryan Callahan and Alex Killorn fail. Thanks to Killorn’s flub on a pass, Prust regains possession of the puck, but the Montreal forward immediately surrenders it to Garrison. Once again, Tampa Bay tries to regroup, but once again, the puck finds Prust. Right on cue, the Habs’ forward dumps the puck in allowing Tampa Bay to reclaim possession.

    After an ugly breakout that needs some assistance from goaltender Ben Bishop, Callahan fights off pressure from P.A. Parenteau, Montreal’s third forward, and passes the puck to the weak side for Garrison. Garrison tries to headman the puck to Stamkos but misses the center. This is choppy hockey, but the constant is that the puck never remains in Montreal’s possession for long.

    WATCH THE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS: Lightning vs. Canadiens, Game 3, Wednesday (7 p.m. ET on USA)

    After Garrison relinquishes the puck, Habs defenseman Gilbert is guilty of the fatal turnover. Killorn intercepts Gilbert’s pass that was directed through the middle of the neutral zone and kicks it back to the Bolts defensemen for yet another regroup.

    Bizarrely, while it is 50 seconds into the sequence, not all of Montreal’s depth players have changed. Parenteau heads to the bench to take a rest and suddenly the math shifts to a 5-on-4 for Tampa Bay. The Bolts love to use the stretch pass and their five skaters are primed for a quick counter on the reset. Moreover, Gilbert is still on the ice, but off-kilter because he has one eye on Killorn.

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    Additionally, Montreal center Tomas Plekanec, fresh off the bench, is a step behind Stamkos. Stammer decides that, before he goes for a change, he might try to curl toward center and sprint up the gut to see if he can exploit Montreal’s haphazard line change. Garrison’s pass finds just enough daylight to fall into Stammer’s radius. Stamkos carries it in on the breakaway and pulls a nice forehand-backhand-forehand deke on goaltender Carey Price.

    This play was notable for a few reasons. As sloppy as the Stamkos line played for the majority of its shift, Montreal’s energy players continued to concede the puck and give a speedy and skilled group of skaters opportunity after opportunity to control possession, reset, and try to enter the offensive zone with speed. That is way too risky. Also, the shift for Montreal’s bottom-six forwards lasted almost as long as that of Tampa Bay’s top-six forwards, and that can’t happen. Finally, the Canadiens forfeited possession a half-dozen times in this sequence. Tampa Bay might match its opponent in ugly play, but Montreal was too often chasing the puck in this chain of events, and that cost the Canadiens a crucial goal.

    Speed kills

    The Pittsburgh Penguins lost in the first round because of their one-dimensional play. Partially this was the result of injuries, but a portion of blame goes to the roster construction. They were a stark contrast to the Rangers, possibly the most versatile team in the NHL. By definition, versatility is the ability to adapt to many changing demands. When every game in a hockey series is decided by one goal, personnel flexibility is significant.

    The Penguins lived and died by their forecheck

    The Penguins identified the forecheck as essential to their success for two reasons. First, the postseason iteration of Pittsburgh was helpless on the rush. Only the Penguins’ forwards were engaged in the attack, and on many sequences the result was a turnover that led to a quick Rangers counterattack. The Penguins’ defensemen did not join the rush, so their forwards in transition often faced a forest of Rangers skaters because of New York’s relentless back pressure.

    The second reason, and likely why it took Pittsburgh until late in the series to ratchet up its defensemen’s aggression, was the potent speed and transition game of the Rangers. By keeping the puck in the offensive zone, the Penguins were attempting to keep the lid on New York’s explosiveness.

    Pittsburgh’s dependence on a forward-driven cycle had mixed results in a series in which they packed four 2-1 losses around a 4-3 win in Game 2. The Penguins finished the series with the edge in Corsi for percentage at even strength by a margin of 51.4 to 48.6, per “Corsi for percentage” measures each team’s share of the total shot attempts (on goal, blocked or missed) and is thought to imply possession — the more teams possess the puck, the more attempts they make on net. Possession, by its nature, implies control of the game because teams have a limited number of ways to score if they do not have the puck.

    Yet, Evgeni Malkin failed to record any points, the bottom-six forwards were a nonfactor unless they were playing with Sidney Crosby or Malkin, and virtually all of the Penguins’ even-strength goals came against the Rangers’ third or fourth lines.

    The Penguins got a first-rate goaltending effort from Marc-Andre Fleury, which helped them stay competitive. But the reality is that their lack of depth and their limited defensemen forced them to go with a more vanilla approach and caused New York to be brazen.


    New York’s orchestrated aggression was enabled by team speed

    Even though Pittsburgh wanted to slow the game down, the Rangers were able to play at a fast pace for good portions of every contest. The Rangers preyed on the Penguins’ defensive group with area and stretch passes, along with plenty of backdoor cuts. The Rangers were able to run quick-strike set plays off offensive zone faceoffs like in this action from Game 1.

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    This set play is designed to put two of New York’s best creators into open ice as Derick Brassard dives beneath the goal line and Mats Zuccarello curls into space. The finished product is Brassard zipping a pass to Zuccarello, who is skating right into the middle of the slot. They have set up a perfect scoring chance, although Zuccarello flubs the reception of the pass.

    New York’s defensemen also contributed speed and aggression as they were encouraged to join the rush, and pinch in the offensive zone. The defensemen and forwards frequently changed places, and sometimes New York had four skaters below the circles. The Rangers were confident that their team speed overmatched the Penguins so they wouldn’t get burned for it. Also, the Rangers’ defensemen were capable of filling the role of F1, F2, or F3. And New York could overload in the offensive or defensive zone and not get exposed.

    The Penguins didn’t have that luxury. They sorely missed their injured defensemen, particularly Kris Letang, who may have swung a game or two. The Penguins’ three forwards in the offensive zone were essentially all the Rangers needed to account for; the Penguins’ defensive group presented neither a shooting nor playmaking threat.

    Late in the second period of Game 4, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh activated on the weak side, and his efforts would lead to Brassard scoring the game-tying goal. It proved to be a consequential play, since that was New York’s only goal in regulation, and they would win the game in overtime and take a 3-1 lead in the series. As demonstrated by this sequence, Pittsburgh’s transition defense was suspect all series. Too often, the Penguins’ forwards were slow to get back or their defensive coverage was lackadaisical.

    The Rangers’ speed also manifested itself in other facets. Their defensemen challenged the Penguins’ forwards at the blue line or even in the neutral zone because the support from New York’s forwards was consistently there. The speed advantage also appeared on the forecheck, where New York arrived quickly and wreaked havoc.


    Five skaters playing offense and defense engender puck support and good decision-making

    The following sequence, which leads to a goal, epitomizes the ethos of the series.

    It starts with Rangers center Derek Stepan retrieving the puck and advancing it to his outlet, J.T. Miller, just as Stepan is being hammered into the boards. Miller head-mans the puck to weak-side defenseman Keith Yandle, who sees Chris Kreider charging down the wing with Pittsburgh’s immobile Rob Scuderi blocking his avenue to the goal.

    Yandle tries to hit Kreider with an area pass, but Scuderi knocks it down and foils the attempt. But Scuderi manages the puck poorly when he tries to pass to his defensive partner, and Kreider jumps the passing lane and regains possession. Kreider then tries to feed Stepan, but does not connect, and the offensive zone attempt fails. Still, the elements were there for New York: clean breakout and good puck support. Also, they got an extremely favorable matchup when Scuderi was isolated on Kreider.

    The sequence continues. With three Rangers forwards below the goal line, Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist receives the puck. Crosby is powering up the ice, so this would be the time for Pittsburgh to mount a three- to four-person counteroffensive. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the play led to a two-on-two where Crosby failed to beat Yandle one-on-one. The Rangers overload the right corner for good measure to make sure the Penguins’ forwards are not moving the puck toward the home-plate area. Crosby manages to get the puck to the point where Penguins defenseman Ian Cole corrals it, then passes it to Scuderi who throws the puck into the corner to continue the cycle.

    Dan Girardi and Kreider double-team Crosby, steal the puck and the Rangers successfully foil the Penguins’ offensive foray. In summary, the Penguins have missed an opportunity on their rush attempt, and their inadequate scoring presence from the point sabotages the offensive-zone chance.

    Unfortunately after that, Pittsburgh goes off for a line change as Yandle is calling for the puck on the weak side. Girardi feeds him the puck, and Yandle whizzes a stretch pass to surging Carl Hagelin who goes right up the gut, splitting the Penguins’ skaters, for a breakaway goal.

    This goal has a little of everything, which is what makes it so notable. The Rangers display strong 200-foot puck support, and their defensive group pushes the attack. There is poor puck management by the Penguins, whose defensive group’s mobility is exploited. Crosby and Hornqvist skate into the teeth of the Rangers defense without assistance, and Pittsburgh’s lack of scoring punch from their defensemen is exposed. The entire string of events is 44 seconds, but it highlights the up-tempo methods New York employed and the predictability of the Penguins.

    Searching for Stanley

    Sixteen teams have forged a path to a playoff berth. The marathon regular season revealed important strengths and weaknesses that, if carefully parsed, can help project which teams are headed for a deep run and which are set to falter. Here are two contenders, two pretenders, and two sleepers.



    Tampa Bay Lightning

    Tampa Bay’s line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat is the best forward trio in hockey. Together, the line has played 644:27 minutes at even strength and controlled 57.3 percent of shot attempts, per That is insane! Johnson’s line — which ranks first among NHL line production scored at even strength by a margin of 13 goals, per — is a key component of a powerhouse team that bulldozes opponents at 5-on-5.

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    The possession metrics, puck-handling, and passing for the Lightning are elite, and coach Jon Cooper has the luxury of staggering superstar Steven Stamkos and high-end playmaker Valtteri Filppula on different lines if he so chooses.

    Statistics site uses hexagonal bin plots to map teams’ shot-location rates by x-y coordinates relative to the net (explained here). The visualizations, which are called Hextally charts, show how well teams generate shots from high-probability scoring areas — usually contained within an area in front of the net that’s roughly the shape of home plate — or prevent opponents from doing so. Take a look at the Bolts’ Team Hextally chart. The shot rates are tomato red because they accrue tons of shots in the home-plate area relative to the league average. It’s no surprise Tampa Bay led the league with 262 goals.


    The composition of Tampa Bay’s roster enables fast and aggressive play on offense and defense. Depth wins in the playoffs and the Lightning’s overall roster strength gives this team an excellent chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the Cup final.


    St. Louis Blues

    The Blues are primed for a long playoff run because their forward and defensive groups are a strong mix of unapologetic north-south power skaters and dynamic quick-strike players. The roster is teeming with skill, and the sole worry for St. Louis is the play of goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jake Allen.

    Pressing Questions: Suspect goalies  |  Babcock’s last waltz?  |  Chicago and the switch

    Even though space is harder to come by in the playoffs, the clip below is worth highlighting because there will be fleeting windows of opportunity. Postseason fortune favors the bold, and here the Blues exploit the Capitals’ vulnerability.

    A long stretch pass by Jay Bouwmeester to Alexander Steen becomes available through the middle of the ice because the Capitals are changing lines and, because it is the second period, it is the long change. Steen gains the zone, drop passes to Vladimir Tarasenko, and drives the middle. Tarasenko zips it across to T.J. Oshie, who passes it diagonally to Steen. Steen goes forehand-to-backhand, and by doing so causes a rebound off the far pad. Steen proceeds to slam home the second-chance opportunity.

    The Blues have the right collection of players to win the board battles and races for the puck. They can cycle continuously or pounce off the rush. With the Kings dead and the Blackhawks wobbly, the Blues’ best chance to win a Cup is this season.



    Anaheim Ducks

    There is a win-or-else mandate from the Ducks’ management. Franchise cornerstones Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry turn 30 in May, and Ryan Kesler is already 30. History shows that when forwards leave their 20s, the decline can be drastic from their peak performance years.

    The Ducks want to play a physical, heavy forechecking game and pound their opponents below the circles. But the Ducks’ breakout and how they traverse the neutral zone are serious concerns. Take a look at this clip from the Rangers-Ducks game in March.

    Defenseman Sami Vatanen misses center Kesler with a pass, which results in a turnover in the neutral zone. Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle makes a diagonal pass to the weak side, where Kevin Hayes has room and time because Anaheim’s forward on the off side is experiencing a line change. Hayes skates forward to the faceoff dot before Clayton Stoner confronts him. Hayes stops, spins around, and flings a shot on goal that finds the back of the net. While the puck deflected off net-front traffic before reaching and passing through goaltender Frederik Andersen, the Ducks’ bad puck luck was self-inflicted.

    Anaheim’s zone exits and transition game have been sloppy all season, placing extreme pressure on a suspect defensive group that struggles with gap control. Unless the Ducks can connect on more direct passes in the defensive and neutral zones, this flaw has the potential to prematurely end their Cup dreams.


    Montreal Canadiens

    The Canadiens’ record suggests that they are a serious Cup contender. But their success has been a byproduct of how exceptionally well their stars have performed this season. Carey Price is having one of the greatest seasons ever for an NHL goaltender and will win both the Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy. Max Pacioretty has been on the precipice of 40 goals for two consecutive seasons, and P.K. Subban is a former Norris Trophy winner and electric talent.

    Playoff previews: Eastern Conference  |  Western Conference  |  More

    But aside from exceptional work from those three, the rest of the forwards and defensemen are closer to garden-variety role players, and this is reflected in the statistics. Montreal is 20th in goals per game, 21st in shots against, and 25th in shots per game. The Canadiens are a subpar possession team that relies too heavily on counterattacks and a nonpareil goaltender to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.



    Washington Capitals

    Much like the Blues, the Capitals’ strength is their versatility. They pride themselves on getting their hands dirty and scoring with the forecheck. If an opponent places too many skaters beneath the dots, the defense can burn them with their heavy shots.

    Washington also has a plethora of capable puck-handlers who can carry the puck with speed through the neutral zone and attack off the rush. This allows coach Barry Trotz to achieve more balance by sometimes using Evgeny Kuznetsov as a playmaker for Alexander Ovechkin — still the NHL’s most redoubtable sniper — instead of relying on Nicklas Backstrom or Marcus Johansson.

    The Capitals’ puck management has improved under their new bench boss. Trotz has installed more structure and defense, and the Caps have dramatically improved in the noteworthy possession metrics. There is more accountability from the forwards, and offseason additions at defense have helped Washington field a blue line without any replacement-level defensemen.

    Winnipeg Jets

    The Winnipeg Jets are a difficult team to play against because they are gigantic, quick, and skilled. And with the return of Dustin Byfuglien, the team’s unsparing security apparatus, they will become even more challenging. Under coach Paul Maurice, the Jets’ improvement on defense has been conspicuous, and they have the fifth-best shot attempts against per 60 minutes at even strength (CA60) of any team in the NHL, per A look at their Hextally chart reveals that accumulating shots against the Jets on 5 on 5 is a brutal task.


    However, what makes the Jets most intriguing as a sleeper is their side of the bracket. They will play the Ducks in the first round and, even though they are 0-3 against them this season, there are reasons to like the matchup for Winnipeg.

    The Jets can match the Ducks’ size and physicality, and both teams’ goaltenders are question marks. The Ducks own the two best players in the series (Getzlaf and Perry), but the Jets’ depth is better and they have stronger metrics. It is conceivable that, if the Jets upset the Ducks, they could then win a soft second-round matchup against the Flames or the Canucks, and shockingly thrust themselves into the conference finals.