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Playoff odds: Despite unpredictable playoffs, one clear favorite remains

For better or worse, these playoffs have been very unpredictable. A lot of the top teams are already gone, but at least it's not boring.

It’s been one of the most unpredictable Stanley Cup playoffs in recent memory and now four teams remain, and it’s hardly a foursome most people expected.

Sure, the defending Cup champs and Pacific division winners could be expected to make it this far, but there weren’t many picking Nashville and Ottawa to get to the conference finals. The unpredictability of the NHL playoffs is part of what makes it great – anyone can win it all with some inspired play in April, May and June. It also means the best teams are at a higher risk of leaving earlier than expected.

That makes for an interesting dichotomy between meritocracy and predictability. No one wants the playoffs to be completely predictable because that would be boring, but no one wants it to be completely random either because that would make the whole thing meaningless. I’m not sure which extreme is worse and it really comes down to preference. Ideally, you’d want to find a balance between the two and the NHL playoffs has usually been that – but with lower scoring and more parity the league might be losing that balance. One playoffs isn’t proof of that, but while the league champions ‘the closest playoffs ever’ just understand what that really means: anyone can win. Anyone. For better or worse.

That brings us to the chances of winning after two rounds and things are relatively close, as expected given these are the final four teams. Here’s how the rest of the playoffs likely shakes out as well as eight thoughts on the results.

A breakdown of how the model works can be found here.


1. Here’s a comparison to what I mean about finding the balance between meritocracy and predictability: the chances of Pittsburgh beating Ottawa this round, a relatively huge mismatch, are the same as the chances 538 and Basketball Reference gave the Golden State Warriors to make the NBA Final at the start of the playoffs. That’s not a slight to basketball, but it shows how much likelier the best team is rewarded with a championship run in the NBA while better teams in the NHL have the same fortune of simply winning a round.

The Warriors are an outlier given their talent, obviously, but the pattern holds true for most seasons where dominance in the NBA is usually rewarded while dominance in the NHL is usually ridiculed after the fact even though the odds were stacked against them to begin with. The chances of the Warriors not winning the NBA title right now are 17 percent. It’s roughly the same odds we gave the Washington Capitals at the start of the playoffs as the league’s most likely team to win it all. How certain you are that the Warriors will win it all right now is about as certain you should’ve been that the league’s best regular season team wouldn’t. Anyone can win in hockey, but that usually means the best teams very likely won’t.

2. Most people would call the Warriors being that likely to win boring, and I’d agree, but there is value in a deserving team winning it all. That’s not to say the four remaining teams aren’t, it’s just a by-product of a league driven by parity where every team can deserve it because they’re all so close. By no means do I want the winner to be so pre-determined, but the league needs more dominance before it descends into the National Coin-Flipping League: On Ice. More scoring would greatly help that cause. Unpredictably is great, chaos is fun, it’s what makes the NHL’s playoffs the best of any sport – but there’s a tipping point where everything loses meaning. This is the cost of the NHL’s quest for complete parity: the closer the league gets to it, the closer we are to the Stanley Cup basically being given out at random.

3. That’s a lot of doom and gloom for what has mostly been a great playoffs thanks to that very unpredictability I was lamenting. One of the most unpredictable things to happen this season is Ottawa making it to the conference final. You can count me as one of the loudest detractors of Ottawa for most of this season (I called them a first round guppy back in February and didn’t think they could sustain their winning before that) which I don’t think is unfair given they were the only team going into the playoffs with a negative goal differential. But I’ve changed my tune lately and the model even had them favoured against the Rangers in Round 2, though I was admittedly skeptical of that assessment.

What changed was their forward depth and they’re a very different team now as a result, one that deservedly beat analytics darling Boston and bested New York. A lot of it is thanks to the super human play of their captain Erik Karlsson who’s proving he’s the best defenseman in the world right now. Ottawa deserves a lot of respect for getting this far – their playoffs hasn’t been a smoke and mirrors show.

4. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, there’s a bit of pessimism going around especially in analytics circles based on their play against the Capitals. The Penguins found a way to win despite being out-attempted 368 to 242 at 5-on-5, making it the second such series this year where a team won despite earning under 40 percent of the shot attempts (the other being St. Louis over Minnesota). Teams don’t usually win when the shot clock is that lopsided, but goaltending is the great equalizer and Braden Holtby was not sharp. We can argue about the value of shot attempts all day long, but even by the plain ol’ eye test it was clear as day that Washington dominated the series up until the final period when it laid a gigantic egg.

Pittsburgh played a very good team, so we shouldn’t take its play at face value, but there’s legitimate concerns about a team that is very deep up front, but very weak on the blueline. The Penguins underlying numbers without Kris Letang in the lineup haven’t been so hot and while Marc-Andre Fleury has hid a lot of the defensive deficiencies so far with some stellar play, they can’t depend on that forever.

5. That leaves two teams trending in opposite directions and a growing sentiment that this series is a lot closer than most people might think. I’m not buying that. The two teams have gotten closer, and of course Ottawa has a chance, but Pittsburgh is still the heavy favorite. Say what you will about the Penguins defense, but it’s not like they’re running six replacement level players back there. And it’s certainly not as big of an issue when you easily have the best forward corps in the league.

I think there’s a bit of recency bias at play here in underrating the Penguins. They weren’t very good against Washington, but that wasn’t exactly an unexpected outcome. They aren’t as bad as their play against the best team. As long as they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing at a high level they’ll be right there among the league’s best teams and I wouldn’t bet against them.

Even without Letang the model had them rated as the league’s second best team going into the playoffs (behind Washington) and they’re a very clear cut above the remaining teams. A number of people think the Cup race is wide open, and it technically is because hockey is a weird game, but it’s also still very much Pittsburgh’s to lose.


6. Out West, the Predators are likely the team to beat, but it’s really close. They weren’t as dominant against St. Louis as they were against Chicago, especially after the injury to Kevin Fiala. That one stings because the Predators forward group isn’t as deep as the other teams left. The fourth line is especially worrisome given some of the lineup choices being made, but the Ducks are doing the same things on their fourth line so it should cancel out. The top line will need to do a lot of the damage and they were pretty quiet in the second round after a commanding first round against the Blackhawks.

The big story for Nashville though is the play of Pekka Rinne, who has been a brick wall in the playoffs. He’s been sensational, but I’d be concerned about regression in the next two rounds. No one keeps up a .951 save percentage for long and that’s why Nashville will really need its offence to step up. There’s likely a flood of goals coming their way, they have to be able to match it the other way.

7. The Predators live and die by their defense, the league’s best group, and that’ll be tough to solve for Anaheim’s forwards. Nothing against Edmonton or Calgary, but the Ducks haven't faced an opponent as formidable as Nashville yet in these playoffs and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare. They’ve got two great lines that gave Edmonton fits, but things will be much tougher matched up against Nashville’s two exceptional defense pairings. That’s going to be a battle.

The injury to Patrick Eaves is pretty big, too. He was seen in crutches, but this is the playoffs so I doubt he’s done for this series, and the odds listed above have him out up until Game 4 which I figure is a safe bet. If he’s out longer, Nashville goes up a couple more percentage points. If he’s back earlier than that this series is much closer to a coin flip.

This model has Nashville favored, but there appears to be little consensus among the others I’ve seen, not like the Pittsburgh-Ottawa series where everyone sees the Pens as favorites. Depending on what each model values there’ll be a difference in opinion on who the favorite is here, but there’s one thing they can pretty much all agree on: this one will be really close.

8. We’ve got Pittsburgh at 66 percent and Nashville at 54 percent so that’s your likeliest Stanley Cup final at this point. Here’s how the match-ups break down:

Pittsburgh vs. Nashville: 35.8%

Pittsburgh vs. Anaheim: 30.3%

Ottawa vs. Nashville: 18.4%

Ottawa vs. Anaheim: 15.6%

I’m crossing my fingers for that first one: the league’s best forwards facing off against the league’s best defense. It’s a slap in the face for any team built on balance, but the two teams play to their strengths and seeing them meet their match will be a treat. From a ratings standpoint and for entertainment value it’s probably the best case scenario for the league.


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