As the clock winds down on the 2008/09 NHL regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins post season hopes are looking up. Just a little over one month ago, the Penguins’ prospects were not so good as they meandered outside of playoff position. However, since bringing in a new coach, a new philosophy, a healthy veteran defenseman, and some experienced wingers, the Penguins have had a tsunami-like surge and could conceivably finish as high as 4th place in the east. While we are doubtful that the Penguins will be able unseat the gritty Philadelphia Flyers for a home-ice advantage, the Penguins chances of finishing the season in 5th – 8th playoff postion are very good; the Penguins would have to stumble significantly in the final 7-games to drop out of playoff contention. With that in mind, Penguins fans like myself are looking at the potential first round playoff matchups for the ideal foe. I have taken a look at a number of factors that are influencing my thoughts of late and thought I would share them with you.
Momentum, the Mighty Mo’: I am a firm believer that you have to have momentum going into the playoffs to be successful. You can’t limp into the post-season and expect your fate to change overnight once you get there. We can get a pretty good assessment of momentum by looking at a teams’ last 20-games. The Penguins, having gone 14-3-3 and won 70% of their last 20-games, have developed the most momentum down the stretch of any team in the East. While the current top-4 teams in the East have all had great overall seasons, what kind of momentum are they bringing as we head down the final stretch into the playoffs?
- Boston: 7-9-4, or 0.35 winning percentage
- New Jersey: 13-6-1, or 0.65 winning percentage
- Washington: 11-7-2, or 0.55 winning percentage
- Philadelphia: 12-7-1, or 0.60 winning percentage
As a result of their late season slump, the once unstoppable Boston Bruins are carrying the least momentum heading into the playoffs. With nearly a week’s rest on their side since their last game, the Bruins will be looking to turn that momentum around in their final 9-games. One team not currently in the top-4 that we should all keep an eye on, however, is the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes are riding a 5-game winning streak and have gone 14-4-2 in their last 20-games, practically matching the Penguins. The Hurricanes could end up overtaking the Flyers for a home ice position, and a Penguins-Hurricanes matchup in the first round is still in the realm of the possible.
Playoff-Experienced Goaltending: Great goaltending is a “must have” for the playoffs. Most teams that make it into a top-4 playoff position have done so with great goaltending on their side. As we all know, playoff hockey is much more intense than regular season hockey and the pressure affects players differently. That is why you hear the term “playoff proven” used to signify players that have been able to maintain their high performance levels in competitive post season play. As with any player, the pressure cooker environment of playoff hockey can take the luster off from a goaltenders’ regular season shine. That is why having a playoff-experienced and proven goaltender is so important. So how do the current top-4 teams stack up in terms of playoff-experienced goaltending?
- Boston: Fernandez/Thomas combined have 1,001 playoff minutes and 6-8 record
- New Jersey: Brodeur/Weeks combined have 10,987 playoff minutes and 98-77 record
- Washington: Theodore/Johnson combined have 3,390 playoff minutes and 24-32 record
- Philadelphia: Biron/Nittymaki combined have 1,110 minutes and 9-8 record
While Boston’s Tim Thomas leads all NHL goaltenders in regular season Save Percentage (0.931) and Goals Against Average (2.11), the 34-year old 5-year veteran of the NHL lacks playoff experience. Will he be able to continue his level of performance in the pressure cooker of post season play? While I don’t discount what he has been able to do in the regular season, his lack of playoff experience could be a risk for the slumping Bruins. Similarly, Philadelphia lacks significant playoff experience in net. The Washington Capitals have more playoff experience in Jose Theodore and Brent Johnson. However, the surging New Jersey Devils’ Martin Broduer brings the most to the table in terms of playoff-experience and should be the most feared goaltender in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Penguins combination of Fleury and Garon bring 1,550 minutes of playoff experience and a 15-10 record, with Garon having only 12 minutes of playoff time. As we saw last season, Marc-Andre Fleury can be lethal when he is on his game, and his play of late suggests that he is getting in the groove at the right time, just as he did before last season’s amazing run through the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Goal Differential, Offensive/Defensive Strength: A complete team is one that combines both a strong offense and a tight defense. If you have too much of one and not enough of the other, the imbalance can be a team’s undoing. A good measure for evaluating a team’s combined offensive/defensive strength is to look at their goal differential, or their goals for (GF) versus their goals against (GA). A larger goal differential demonstrates a better combined offensive/defensive strength for a team. The following is the offensive/defensive strength of each of the current top-4 teams as demonstrated over their last 20-games.
- Boston: 58 GF – 54 GA = +4 Goal Differential
- New Jersey: 59 GF – 50GA = +9 Goal Differential
- Washington: 59 GF – 61GA = -2 Goal Differential
- Philadelphia: 64 GF – 52GA = +12 Goal Differential
While Boston has the NHL’s most impressive goal differential over the entire season (+72), over the past 20-games the Bruins have faltered and rank 3rd amongst the current top 4. The Philadelphia Flyers lead the pack with +12 differential in the last 20-games. Washington has struggled the most amongst the top 4 with a -2 differential in their last 20-games. By comparison, the Pittsburgh Penguins have 68 GF and 54 GA for a +14 Goal Differential over their last 20-games, which is better than any of the top-4 teams in the East over that timeframe.
Summary: While I have not addressed special teams, my early assessment is that a matchup against the Boston Bruins or the Washington Capitals would be more favorable to the Penguins in terms of being able to take advantage of momentum, goaltending experience, and goal differential over the last 20-games. It is those same factors that would make a match up against the New Jersey Devils less favorable, while the Philadlphia Flyers momentum and goal differential make them less favorable, as well.
In terms of exciting rivalries, a Penguins/Flyers matchup never disappoints and a Penguins/Capitals matchup would be a close second! Let’s hold on for the next couple of weeks and see where it all ends up!