Each year, I take a relatively simple mathematical look at each series, using shots on goal and goaltender save percentages to determine which team might be expected to win the series.
Since I'm the first one to emphasize that overall statistics (or standings) are not necessarily representative of the current value for a team, especially with respect to injuries, these statistics merely provide a baseline for the series, perhaps providing an idea what a team needs to do in order to emerge victorious.
In some cases, teams can keep on keeping on; in others, they might need better goaltending, fewer power play against, fewer shots against, more shots for -- just something -- to provide better expected results in a seven-game series.
In last year's projections, for example, the St. Louis Blues were projected to come out ahead of the Los Angeles Kings in a close series, but the end result wasn't that close at all, partly because Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, who had a .902 save percentage during the regular season, had a .944 save percentage in Round One against the Blues. This points out the obvious limitations of forecasting a seven-game series -- it's short enough that a player, particularly a goalie, running hot for a short period of time can easily shift the outcome.
The expected goals for each team in the series are determined by taking each team's shots for and against over the course of the season and splitting the difference.
So, for example, Boston had 31.9 shots on goal per game and Detroit allowed 29.3 shots on goal per game; the average of those two numbers, 30.6 shots, is the number that is then multiplied by (1 - the opposing goaltenders' save percentage) to determine an expected goals per game for the Bruins.
Finally, the number is multiplied by seven to indicate an expected goal total for a seven-game series. There's no guarantee that scoring more goals in a series will result in winning four games first, but the odds certainly favour the team that scores more.
Verdict: The Bruins are not only one of the league's top possession teams, ranking fourth in Fenwick Close, but they also have the odds-on favourite to win the Vezina Trophy, Tuukka Rask. This doesn't mean there is no hope for Detroit -- the Bruins were similarly favoured against Toronto in Round One last year and needed a near-miracle to escape with a win in Game Seven -- but plenty will have to break right for the Wings if they are going to get the upset.
First, they need goaltender Jimmy Howard at the top of his game. Howard has played well in his last handful of starts, but his .910 save percentage this year marked only the second time in five seasons that he posted a save perentage under .920 in a season. Even if Howard can close the goaltending gap with Rask, the Red Wings will need to get a better handle on puck possesssion, which isn't an outrageous goal considering that most of the Wings' top possession players didn't play full seasons in Detroit, either due to time in the AHL or injury.
Ultimately, though, the Wings need a lot to break right and the Bruins need a lot to go wrong for the first-place Bruins to end up going out early..
Verdict: For much of the year, the Pittsburgh Penguins were considered a viable Eastern Conference contender alongside the Bruins. As injuries mounted, however, the Penguins became more and more vulnerable and their shot differential is far from outstanding. Take Evgeni Malkin away from that and suddenly the Penguins need breaks to go their way and coming into the playoffs, it's not easy to put a lot of faith in goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, even though he had a fine season, because his last four playoff appearances have resulted in a combined .880 save percentage, which is frightening for any team, let alone one that doesn't dominate territorially.
What works in the Penguins' favour is that the Blue Jackets don't fare that well in shot differential, though their Fenwick Close is above average, and the Blue Jackets have some injuries to deal with up front, as Nathan Horton, Nick Foligno and R.J. Umberger are all hurt as the playoffs begin.
For the Blue Jackets to get their forecasted upset, though, they need Sergei Bobrovsky to stand tall in net. Over the past couple seasons, Bobrovsky has been one of the best and if that holds in the playoffs, then maybe Columbus' second trip to the postseason will be more memorable than their first.
Verdict: Based on the season overall, it would be natural to favour the Tampa Bay Lightning, who overcame a lot, including the loss of their best player for months, but going into this series with Montreal presents such a massive difference in goaltending that it's difficult to come back to the Lightning.
If Anders Lindback and Carey Price are true to this season's form, the series is no contest, but the Lightning can take some encouragement from Lindback's last three starts of the season and hope that is a sign of things to come -- he had allowed at least three goals in eight of the previous nine starts though, so there's reason to be skeptical.
If Lindback can give the Lightning decent goaltending, though, then they have a chance because Tampa Bay has been the better possession team by a decent margin. The other alternative for the Lightning would knock Carey Price off his game and that has happened in the playoffs before. In 30 career playoff game, Price owns a .905 save percentage and hasn't played more than seven playoff games since his rookie season of 2007-2008.
Verdict: While historically it would be easy to favour the Rangers over the Flyers based on the relative merits of goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Steve Mason, their numbers this season were very close, so the Blueshirts end up favoured based on notably better shot differentials (and, incidentally, possession stats).
The Rangers have been a relatively strong team even without much contribution from trade deadline addition Martin St. Louis, so that gives them another proverbial bullet to fire, if St. Louis could get back to the form that has seen him score 68 points in 63 career playoff games or leaves him as the second-leading scorer over the past four seasons.
If you click through on that St. Louis link, though, you'll see that Flyers centre Claude Giroux is the league's top scorer over the past four years and Giroux led the Flyers' resurgence, finishing this year with 86 points after starting the year with seven points in the first 15 games. If Giroux puts the Flyers on his back, and can shake Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh, then that could easily be enough to swing the series in Philadelphia's favour.
This should be a close enough series that, any out-of-the-ordinary performances can make the difference, but the edge going in goes to the Rangers.
Verdict: This isn't a particularly lopsided matchup for what is, effectively, a 1 vs. 8 matchup. The Ducks have mediocre possession numbers, but their overall shot differential is solid. Thing is, what has driven their success this season is scoring on an absurd 10.7% of their 5-on-5 score-close shots -- Colorado is second-best at 8.6% -- and percentages that far above the norm are really tough to bank on.
The other factor is the Ducks' goaltending. Based on their hesitance to use Jonas Hiller down the stretch, it's entirely conceivable that the Ducks will put their playoff fate in the hands of rookie Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, who have been really good, but have combined for 31 career NHL starts.
The task for the Stars, then, is to somehow get the Ducks' finishing to fall into more normal range (or, if it falls below, even better), which means goaltender Kari Lehtonen will have to be sharp. That practically goes without saying though. A lower-seeded team is likely going to need good goaltending, but if the Stars get it from Lehtonen, that can level the ice pretty quickly.
Then it might be a matter of the stars. Can Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry get the better of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin?
Verdict: This is the kind of series that could lead to upset, as the underdog Wild tend towards a low-event game -- no playoff team has fewer shots (for and against) in their games than the 54.3 averaged by the Wild and reducing those opportunities can undermine skills chances of winning in a short series. Furthermore, the Avalanche are missing leading scorer Matt Duchene (and possibly puck-moving defenceman Tyson Barrie), so they may currently be less than the sum of their overall parts this season.
Where the edge really goes to the Avalanche is in net, where Semyon Varlamov has been great. The Wild might be a reasonable upset pick if you have faith in their goaltending but this is a team that goes into the playoffs with Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes. Bryzgalov's track record over the past couple seasons makes it difficult to project him outdueling Varlamov head-to-head, which means that the Wild will need to better control play.
Admittedly, that's possible since the Avalanche have the worst Fenwick Close of any playoff team and two of their top three score close possession players (Duchene and Barrie) are hurt.
Verdict: For much of the season, the St .Louis Blues were rolling along and looked to have the possession game to compete with the best in the league, but they stumbled down the stretch as injuries dotted their lineup and now they are blessed with a first-round matchup against the defending champs, a team that has stellar possession numbers and might be a touch healthier at this point; at least that's the expectation with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews apparently ready for the postseason.
If the Blues aren't healthy enough to ice a credible lineup, then it won't much matter how well goaltender Ryan Miller plays but, when he was acquired, Miller was supposed to be a difference-maker for the Blues. After a .903 save percentage in 19 games with St. Louis, though, it's asking for a leap of faith to believe that Miller gives the Blues any kind of significant advantage over Corey Crawford.
The angle for the Blues may be to lean more on their defence, which might be the league's best group, one through six, and if Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and company can control play or at least limit the extent to which the Blackhawks control play, then it will give the Blues a chance. It's not as good a chance as they would have expected a month or two ago, but injuries can strike at inopportune moments and it's looking like that could be the Blues' undoing this year.
Verdict: We finally come to the elite matchup of the first round, with two bona fide Cup contenders squaring off, and look at how close the forecasted numbers have the series. It's a coin flip, close enough that whichever goaltender plays well should be enough to tip the balance.
Over the past two seasons, Quick has played more playoff games than any other, while posting a .940 save percentage so, even if his numbers were average during this season, he might get the edge over a similarly-mediocre Niemi.
If the result is going in the Sharks' favour, though, they may have a deeper group of forward, particularly with Tomas Hertl (and possibly Raffi Torres) coming back from injuries. The biggest difference in the series could be the status of Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, who is expected to be ready when the series starts, but if he's not, the Sharks have the forwards that can take advantage of that absence.
Ultimately, this is such a close forecast that one bounce, one deflection, one call, could make the difference.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy Sports on Facebook.