Friday, May 11, 2007


Final Four

Hello all! I'm back from the basement. While I haven't been posting, I have been ruminating; I'll try to touch on as much as possible here within a reasonable word count.

First of all, notwithstanding the absence of the Flames, I'm tickled as to how the first two rounds have played out. There's a bit of room for argument, but it sure looks to me like the two best teams in each conference are playing off for a spot in the SCF. All four are good organizations, in the sense that they haven't (recently) done stupid or shameful things. I've had the odd problem with Bryan Murray over the years, but those are four excellent coaches. And none of the four has any obvious fatal weakness. They can all score and defend.

More generally, it's somewhat of a relief (satisfying?) to see the best teams continue to do what made them successful in the regular season and get results. Like Tom B. wrote in March, I fume at references to the "meaningless regular season":
The regular season is about the race for the playoffs and entertainment, the opportunity to watch a great game being played by the best players in the world. It is no more - or less - than that. By itself that has meaning.

To my mind, it is actually a bit more: it's about preparation, and a constant effort to make improvements at the margin. Bolster this strength a bit, address that weakness a bit, try a few different things and see what works -- all so that maybe in that 1st round matchup you can be a 65/35 favourite instead of 55/45. Or so that when you reach the conference finals, you're in a coin flip situation instead of a 40/60 underdog. There is no guarantee of success, but it's all a team can do, and it's nice (for me) to see these marginal advantages translate into series wins.

Conference Finals: I predicted before Round 2 that Ottawa would win the East, and I'm certainly sticking with that; I would have even if they got thumped last night. It's pretty remarkable just how closely this situation mirrors the one last year. Then, the Sabres were the nominal underdog, even though Ottawa's lead in the final standings was due entirely to a screaming-hot 1st 20 games, and the Sabres were the measurably better team thereafter. If Ottawa plays well, Buffalo plays well, and the breaks are roughly even, Ottawa will win convincingly.

Detroit v. Anaheim: it's really, really tough to pick against Anaheim here. The Ducks were by far the best team in the West vs. other good teams, and their only real slump coincided with injuries to Pronger, Giguere, and Beauchemin. Carlyle has been playing Pronger & Niedermayer huge minutes, and line-matching ferociously hard, since October. Back then, it was a source of amusement, but now, it seems wise: if that's the way he envisioned beating the Red Wings in the conference finals back then, why not prepare to play that way from the get-go. Even before Schneider got hurt, the Wings were going to have a bugger of a time cracking the Pahlsson-led PK; now, a single-digit PP% seems more likely than not.

If I were to use past performance (large sample) to predict future results -- which is nowhere near infallible, but quite a lot better than most other methods -- I'd have to pick the Ducks. Further, if both teams were to play the way that brought them great success in the regular season, I'd have to pick the Ducks.

But, I'm not going to. I'm going to flirt with the fallacy known as The Playoffs Are A Different Game.

For the most part, They're not. Great goalies are still great goalies; even great players make occasional mistakes; teams are breaking out, and trapping in the neutral zone, and setting up the PP, etc. etc. in the same manner as they did in the regular season.

The difference is that you have a whole bunch of games in a row in which to induce the other team to change what they do well. There are some things a team can do that just don't pay dividends in a single regular season game, but pay substantial dividends in a long playoff series.

The idea of physically punishing one or more specific players on the opposition is one of these. Regardless of whether this is a wise strategy for a particular player (let's use Dion Phaneuf as an example), clearly it's a pretty useless one in a single game. For a game, Phaneuf will willingly (if not happily) take punishment in order to make the correct play. Next game they're probably playing someone else who will try different things; it's no big deal.

In a playoff series, though, Phaneuf has got to deal with (A) the physical strain of the constant punishment, and (B) the knowledge that "this is how it's gonna be". Both A and B can, and often do, eventually induce Phaneuf to alter the way he normally plays and the decisions he normally makes. And 90+% of the time, when a player adjusts, it's not for the better in the big picture (otherwise, they would have been playing that way already, no?).

A hard, determined forecheck is kind of the same; yes, it can create turnovers in any given game, but over the course of several games, it can cause a team and its players to entirely revisit how they get out of their own zone.

I'm going to be light on specifics here, but I really think that the Wings are much less likely to alter what they do best in the face of Ducks challenges than the Ducks are to (eventually) change their game in reaction to the Wings. Put another way, like I said before Wings/Sharks, I trust the Wings to play their best hockey more than I do the Ducks.

Fun Fact #1: in Games 5 & 6 of their first two series, the Wings outscored the Flames/Sharks 13-3.
Fun Fact #2: Chris Chelios turned 14 two days before Rhett Warrener was born.

The Ducks may win this series, but it's utterly impossible that they'll do it by "wearing down the Red Wings". In both previous series, they got stronger and stronger as play went on. Not to mention last year against the "young Oilers":
What surprises me is that they continue to promote it [the CBC and the Young Team Myth] when the indisputable evidence before their eyes, from Games 1 and 3, is that the Oilers wear down more dramatically in overtime than the Wings. Until the Oilers caught a break in front of Manny Legace, Detroit had all the good chances in the 5th period tonight. And even leaving age aside, Chris Chelios, who once played the "rover" position for the Ottawa Silver Seven, arguably appears better-conditioned than some of the younger Edmontonians.

If you can forget about some of the birthdates on the roster and just watch them, you'll notice that Detroit is as fit and as tough a team as there is in the league. I fully expect the Ducks to win one of the first two in Detroit; I wouldn't even be shocked if the Ducks have 2-1 or even 3-2 series leads; but I think the Wings are going to emerge in the end. Detroit in 7.

And I'll be cheering for them, too. No need for the Oil to pick up a bonus 1st-rounder in 2008 by having Pronger make the Finals. Plus, while I admire Brian Burke in some ways, I certainly don't like him, and I can't even fathom how much more of an obnoxious know-it-all he'd be if he had "built Stanley Cup winner in 2 years" on his resume.


Plus, a Detroit-Ottawa final would pretty much ensure that I continue to whip your ass in our Hockey Pool.

Detroit in 7.

I think I liked you better before the hiatus, Matt.

Plus, a Detroit-Ottawa final would pretty much ensure that I continue to whip your ass in our Hockey Pool.

Myself as well. If it goes any other way, I'm sunk.

I love the permutations of this time of year. I really need a Buffalo-Anaheim final, which probably isn't happening, so I need Drury to absolutely run up the points between now and then and then I'll have to pray the Sens can keep either Neidermayer or Zetterberg under control.

Oh Dion Phaneuf.

Your -12 in 13 playoff games with just two points sure puts a smile on my face. Keep doing what you do best!



Dion and Lombardi did us all proud at the World Championships this week.

Why, even Roloson did an admirable job backing up Cam Ward in the big games.

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