One of the things that ultimately cost the Rangers during their 2014-15 Stanley Cup run was a gradual decline in their ability to control the play. Early on in the postseason, they were able to dominate possession and create high-end opportunities. However, as the playoffs wore on this advantage began to dissipate and they became more and more reliant on Henrik Lundqvist to bridge the gap. The Blueshirts tried to ride percentages to the Stanley Cup Final and ultimately came up short.
We can see the contrast between the Rangers and the Lightning above. The Lightning managed to consistently remain above the break-even point and while they weren’t reliant on goaltending like the Rangers, they controlled the play. Pairing that with their offensive explosiveness, they were able to secure a trip to the Cup Final.
The Lightning enter the Stanley Cup Final with no glaring weakness and have not been relying on percentages for their success. When I look at their quality of opportunities, they are performing to expectation. Ben Bishop has been slightly greater than expected (+.009 above expected save percentage), and the Lightning offense has been able to maintain their high level of play because they aren’t relying on fortune or breaks. They are actually shooting -.002 than expected determined from their shot locations and pre-shot movement.
Their opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks, are a different story. The Hawks run seems like a swan song, one last great run from a truly great team whose dominant window may be beginning to close. The Hawks will remain a top team, but what we have seen for the past six years has been a special run that has been tied to the primes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.
This year I have been impressed with how they have managed to literally seize every opportunity handed them to vault themselves into another Cup opportunity. Remove even one of their OT wins and we may be talking about the Anaheim Ducks at the moment. Pekke Rinne had some struggles in the first round and they buried Nashville. The Wild were a slight, but not signficant, speed bump in the second round and during the Conference Final, they managed to outlast a Ducks team that had been dominant in running play through 14 games.
While traditional possession numbers show the Hawks pushing play, the concern for me is their expected goal differentials. While reviewing their play, I had some concerns with a reliance on some sub-standard goaltending from the opposition for some of their success.
While the Lightning’s numbers seemed sustainable and even open to a possible shooting run, the Blackhawks seem to be riding percentages offensively. At 9.7%, their shooting totals are +.017 above their expected 8.0% (my percentages don’t include phantom shots registered by NHL.com). At issue is the Hawks reliance on scoring on red opportunities. Whereas I had the Lightning creating only 83% low percentage shots, the Blackhawks are over 88%. They are also finishing their high end opportunities at rates close to double that of the Lightning.
The playoffs are always susceptible to crazy shooting or goaltending runs and if any team can manage to cheat the percentages, it’s a team like the Blackhawks. They use speed and intelligence from the back end to provide their forwards the opportunity to gain the blue line and attack teams in an east/west manner.
Patrick Kane’s ability to manipulate seams in the middle of the ice is exactly the model for modern day success and a stark contrast to the north/south game that the Ducks attempted. The problem is the Lightning also operate in the same manner. Tyler Johnson has been masterful in these playoffs at gaining the zone and disrupting defensive coverages with speed to the outside. When he breaks, containment the middle of the ice has opened for linemates Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
The difference has been the Lightning have been consistently overwhelming teams with high end green opportunities and the Blackhawks have not. Neither team possesses an elite goaltender, so this series will be decided by which offense can sustain elite production.
The question for me is whether there is a Conference tax that needs to be applied. The Western Conference has generally been the better conference for the last five-to-six years and the Hawks expected goal differential may be victim to a more difficult route than the Lightning. This was the case with the Ducks, who had a ridiculous expected goal total because they matched up against the Jets and Flames through two rounds.
The Hawks intangibles and refusal to go out on anything should make me fear picking against them, but I have a feeling that regression may strike its ugly head at the wrong time and the Lightning will be there to ride it to capture the Stanley Cup.