How will the NHL’s West be won? Projecting the matchups, tactics and X factors that will matter most

The NHL’s conference finals have arrived, and if you asked around in September, the four teams remaining were some of the most likely answers to the question, “Who will win the Stanley Cup?”

We didn’t get here the way many would have imagined, though. In the East, there can be no debate that the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers are the best teams, and were the best teams over the course of the season.

The West, however, was a little more surprising. The Dallas Stars battled the Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets all season for the No. 1 spot in the West, with all three teams having spells at the top. The Edmonton Oilers had times during the season when they were wholly unconvincing as playoff threats, including a dismal start that saw them nine points out of a playoff spot in November, leading to the dismissal of coach Jay Woodcroft.

In our series previews, we look at specific areas: key points of difference in the series, the X factor, which team my model favors and the reasons why, along with a projection on the series result.

The model is a neural network that accounts for player strength, offensive, defensive and special teams performance, goaltending, matchup ratings and rest. As the model ingests data, it improves, with the heaviest weights on recent play. The model allows for players to be added and removed, with their impact on the game results measured.

Note: Projections for Stars-Oilers will be added prior to Game 1 of that series.

The Rangers and Panthers start their series Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+) in what should be a classic. Two teams with goaltenders capable of stealing games, superstar scoring talents and quality depth. Florida has two of the best defensive forwards in hockey in Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart. They will be tasked with shutting down the high-powered Rangers offense. Both teams have a standout on the blue line with Adam Fox in New York and Gustav Forsling in Florida.

X factor

It’s the proverbial “nonsense,” and the special-teams play that comes as a result.

Florida has a well-documented list of questionable plays, borderline hits and a knack for getting under an opponent’s skin. Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Nick Cousins and Ryan Lomberg lead the shenanigans brigade.

The Rangers have Jacob Trouba, Chris Kreider and a new kid on the block, Matt Rempe, who has made a significant enough impact that rival teams are adding players to the lineup to ensure he does not go unchecked.

This has the potential to be a series that is played in the alley, and the winner will be the team that keeps its cool and makes the other team pay on the power play. This won’t come as a surprise, but the model does not account for shenanigans and a team’s ability to get away with them. That rests in the hands of the officials. It is rare that the best teams over the course of a season remain standing in the conference finals, but that’s the case here in the East. This series will be won or lost on which team takes advantage of the opportunities earned by staying out of the box.

The special teams edge

The Rangers’ special teams have been nothing short of outstanding in the playoffs. When power-play and penalty-kill proficiency are combined, the good teams are above 105%. The Rangers are at 121% heading into the conference finals, while the Panthers are a respectable 108%. The Rangers are generating scoring chances, and their superstars are capitalizing on their opportunities.

New York stopped Carolina’s power play in its tracks during the second round. Florida has better goal scorers and is generating more than Carolina did, which will make the Rangers’ task more difficult. The Rangers’ penalty kill is humming along at nearly 90%, and while that could regress to the mean, they have consistently taken away passing lanes, and they understand when to pressure and when to pass off players. If the Panthers are going to have success, they’ll need to execute on quick plays, keep players moving in the zone and try to force the Rangers out of the passing lanes. If they can do that, they will still have to get the puck by Igor Shesterkin, who is playing at a Conn Smythe level.

Statistical point of difference: depth

Simply put, it’s how the Rangers create offense versus how Florida defends. Florida’s elite forwards finish scoring chances at a lower rate than the Rangers do, but they are better defensively. They keep the opponent’s best players in check while producing offense at a top-line level. The Rangers lack the offensive firepower in the bottom six and on the blue line to attack in waves the way Florida can.

Fox is the only offensive driver on the back end for New York, while Florida has Forsling and Brandon Montour driving separate pairs. Both teams have excellent depth, but Florida’s offensive depth gives them the edge along with elite two-way players in Barkov and Reinhart. Florida should feel comfortable when the Barkov and Mika Zibanejad lines are on the ice, allowing its depth to win out over the course of the series.

How Florida’s tactics can slow New York

The Panthers are good at defending rush play, an area the Rangers have feasted on through the first two rounds. The Rangers have enjoyed success getting the puck to the high-danger areas and finishing their opportunities. However, they have not done that with sustainable volume, and the Panthers have the defensive chops to make it more difficult to penetrate the high-danger areas of the ice.

If the Rangers can continue their strong finishing rate, this will undoubtedly be a tight series. There is no guarantee of that, nor is there a guarantee that they will have as many chances as created against Washington or Carolina.

The eye test

The Rangers have a demonstrated ability to win one-goal games. Their goal differential was nothing to write home about, but they lived off the “one more goal than the other guys” mentality all season, and it resulted in a Presidents’ Trophy.

While it is more eye-opening — and less stressful on fans — to beat up on teams and post a goal differential above 60, the Rangers (plus-53) did it the hard way. The playoffs are about who can win one-goal games, and no one is better at it than the Rangers, who finished 23-4-4 in those contests this season.

If the clichés like “finding ways to win the tight ones” and “making one fewer mistake than the other team” are a coach’s dream, then the Rangers are a dream team. That’s Rangers hockey, complete with heart palpitations and off-the-charts stress levels. It is a dangerous way to live, and it can bite you at the worst moments, but the Rangers will be more comfortable in those situations.

What about Bob?

Almost none of the above matters if Sergei Bobrovsky does not make the timely saves he has made this postseason. He hasn’t played at the level he did during last year’s run to the Cup Final, but he has been very reliable.

The Rangers are ranked near the bottom in 5-on-5 high-danger chances generated per 60 minutes in the playoffs and middle of the pack in all scoring chances. The Panthers are not giving up a high volume of scoring chances, and Bobrovsky has stopped more than 2.6 goals above expected, according to Moneypuck. He will need to sustain — and perhaps improve upon — his .902 save percentage over the past month if he is to outperform Shesterkin in the series.

If he can do that, the Panthers are well positioned to win. If the clock strikes midnight in similar fashion to the 2023 Cup Final, it tips the scales in favor of the Rangers.

Series prediction

The model gives the Panthers a 55% edge, with a predicted seven-game series on the horizon. The most likely outcomes for each team are Panthers in six and Rangers in seven. A sweep or five-game series would be a major surprise barring a significant injury to either team.

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