The Western Conference top seed and Pacific Division champions will face the second wild card and the fifth playoff team from the Central Division, the Winnipeg Jets, in the opening round of the NHL playoffs on Thursday, April 16th. Game one will be in Anaheim at 10:30 ET. On paper, this would seem to be a no brainer. Anaheim is deep and full of playoff experience. The Jets are in the post season for the first time since moving from Atlanta in 2011. But don’t be fooled, this will not be an easy series for either team.
The playoffs make for great theater, but just in case you need more reasons to watch this series, here are five storylines to keep an eye on.
1. The Goaltending Tag Team Championships
Both teams got strong goaltending this season. The Jets were 10th in the league in goals against (2.49) and Anaheim was 20th (2.70), but the Ducks’ number was inflated because of eight games of Ilya Bryzgalov.
The interesting thing about this matchup is that both teams featured a true two-headed monster combination between the pipes.
Anaheim started Frederik Andersen in 52 games and John Gibson in 21. Both had identical .914 save percentages, with Andersen having a slight edge in the goals against department, 2.38 to 2.60. From March 1st to the end of the season, Andersen had the edge in total starts, 10 to 9, but Gibson had the longest start streak. He started four straight games from March 11th to March 18th. Andersen did start three of four April games to end the season though. Head coach Bruce Boudreau showed no fear in switching goalies last postseason, as Gibson, Andersen and Jonas Hiller all started at some point.
The Jets had a similar situation of goalie roulette throughout the season. Ondrej Pavelec started 44 games and Michael Hutchinson was called upon for 35 starts. Hutchinson earned the majority of the starts from December until March. But from March 14th until the end of the year, Pavelec was between the pipes for 12 of the Jest final 14 games.
Andersen and Pavelec are the likely starters for the series opener, but odds are that both Gibson and Hutchinson will have an impact upon the outcome of this series as well. This could be seven games of goaltender musical chairs.
2. Experience Against Enthusiasm
The Ducks are led by the trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler. They also have veterans Francois Beauchemin, James Wisniewski, Tomas Fleischmann, Matt Beleskey, and Andrew Cogliano. The Ducks key contributors this season have a combined 505 games of playoff experience, with 74 from Perry and 81 from Getzlaf.
Winnipeg is led by Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien. They have some playoff experienced veterans scattered throughout the lineup with Mark Stuart, Mathieu Perreault and Michael Frolik. The Jets also traded for Lee Stempniak, Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers during the year, adding more postseason knowhow to a young roster that needs it. The Jets have 269 games of playoff experience among their key players, led by Andrew Ladd’s 53 games and two Stanley Cups (2006 Hurricanes and 2010 Blackhawks).
The Jets are the NHL’s 7th youngest team, with an average age of 26.843. Anaheim is the 10th oldest at 27.381. Experience is certainly in Anaheim’s corner, but experience doesn’t equal playoff success on its own. The Jets played through the NHL’s toughest division this season, so their entire year could be considered one extended playoff run. It’s all gravy from here.
3. Pressure versus Lowered Expectations
Anaheim has been focused on the playoffs since losing game seven to the Los Angeles Kings last year. They traded for Ryan Kesler expressly for the second season. It’s Conference Finals or bust for the Ducks.
The Jets weren’t expected to be here, fighting against the odds all season and outlasting the defending champs to hold onto the final wild card in the conference. The league’s smallest, but perhaps loudest arena, the MTS Centre, will get to host playoff games for the very first time on Monday April 20th and Wednesday the 22nd. If you don’t think the scene in Manitoba will be absolutely nuts for those two games, you obviously weren’t paying enough attention.
If Winnipeg can somehow steal one game in Anaheim, how difficult will it be for the Ducks to get that back in that kind of environment. Those games may be the closest experience to European soccer matches you will see in North American sports. Hostile isn’t even strong enough of a word for it.
4. Advanced Stats You Need to Know
As statistical analysis is infiltrating sports more and more as a predictive tool, the NHL has put together some very useful new stats that make for strong predictors. With this being the Western Conference’s top seed against the last team in, one could assume the numbers would be in Anaheim’s favor. But that isn’t the case.
The Jets actually scored better as a possession team this season, with a SAT total of 344 and a USAT (unblocked shot attempts) of 200. That was good enough for 9th and 11th in the league respectively. Anaheim rated 16th in SAT (174) and 13th in USAT (180). Now Anaheim’s shot attempt total was higher (3673 to 3531) but they did allow far more shots toward their own goal (3499 to 3187). Make of that what you will.
Another important stat to look at, especially as far as playoff performance goes, is 5on5 goal ratio. With the majority of playoff hockey played at five on five, this metric shows which teams played the best at full strength during the season. Winnipeg ranked 8th in the entire league with a ratio of 1.15, meaning they scored .15 more goals than their opponent at five on five. Anaheim was 15th, with a ratio of 1.04.
That’s a miniscule difference, but over the course of seven games, Winnipeg would score .77 more goals than Anaheim at full strength. That’s not a lot, but playoff series can be determined by just one goal.
Winnipeg would seem to have the edge in those important stats. Here’s one more to keep in mind. The Ducks were absolutely dominant this season in one goal games, going 33-1-7. Winnipeg wasn’t that bad themselves, earning a record of 19-7-13. As good as the Ducks were in one goal games, they were 5-7 in two goal games and 13-16 in three or more goal games. The Jets, on the other hand were 10-7 and 14-12 in those same situations.
This doesn’t really tell us who will win the series, but it shows what each team’s tendencies were throughout the year. The Ducks liked close games and weren’t to successful in games that were blowouts. The Jets thrived in all situations. Which means this should be a fun series.
5. History for Everybody
The Ducks were also the top seed in the Western Conference last season. They lost in the second round. The year before that, Chicago was the west’s top seed and won the whole thing. The year before that, the Vancouver Canucks were the top seed in the west. They lost to Los Angeles in the first round. In 2009, the San Jose Sharks were the top seed out west and lost in the first round as well. In 2006, Detroit was the number one seed in the Western Conference. They were eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs.
For the past decade, the West has followed a pattern of the top seed being eliminated every three years. This is the third year of the cycle. History isn’t necessarily a predictive factor, but it is interesting. The advanced stats above show that this series isn’t as lopsided as a 1 vs. 8 matchup would have you believe.
Then there is this little factoid. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ first ever playoff series victory came in 1997 against the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes had just moved from Winnipeg that season as the former Jets. The Jets are in their first playoff series now after moving from Atlanta, taking on the Anaheim (just plain) Ducks. There is no connection between the current Jets and the former franchise other than playing in the same city, but the irony of a Winnipeg series win would be mighty juicy.
One thing is for sure, this isn’t your normal top seed against an eighth seed matchup. The Ducks had a great regular season, but they have a lot of pressure on them in this series. The Jets can play loose and easy and their fans are going to be revved up. It may not be a sexy matchup, but this is going to be one fun series. Don’t miss it.