Wednesday, May 1, 2013

2013 Playoffs, Round 1. Pens v. the Islanders

An important aspect of my hockey fandom is hatred. I absolutely loathe the Philadelphia Flyers. I despise the Washington Capitals. I hate the New York Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils with "the heat of a thousand suns". And in the playoffs...

You may have noted I didn't link to any of the teams mentioned above. Fuck them, let them generate their own web traffic. Assholes. Oh, the image above is from Wikimedia Commons. And, my dart board.

well, just push the slide rule all the way to the right.

Which makes this years first round opponent, the New York Islanders, a little problematic for me. I don't hate the Isles. They've been too pathetic, for too long to get a good hostility built up. I deeply admire Al Arbour. I absolutely love Bryan Trottier, who joined the Pens for two Stanley Cups. John Tavares is an exciting young player who is an absolute blast to watch. And of course the Isles have something the Pens do not, despite all of our success. The Isles have a dynasty.

We were supposed to have a dynasty. In 1991 and again in 1992 we won the Stanley Cup under the leadership of Mario Lemieux. I think of him as God the Father. Those teams were thick with talent; including my favorite hockey player of all time, Ron Francis (the Holy Spirit) and Jaromir Jagr (God the Son). I had the most meaningful spiritual experience of my life at a Christmas Eve Mass when Jagr and Martin Straka showed up for communion.

After winning 2 Stanley Cups in a row, the Pens set the NHL record for consecutive wins the next season: 17. Scotty Bowman autographed a schedule for me from that season during the streak. The dynasty was a done deal in my mind; a third consecutive championship is a dynasty in the mind of any rational sports fan.

Having amassed the most wins that season, we drew the New York Islanders, who had squeaked into the playoffs as the 8th seed.

And, they beat us in 7 games. Darius Kasparitus and Rich Pilon hacked, and slashed, and held, and cheap-shotted our guys so brilliantly that we completely lost the chemistry and flow that had made us a success. Sure, it was dirty hockey...

and SO WHAT? It was the playoffs! Winning the Stanley Cup is the single most difficult feat in team sports; you have to win 4 "best of 7" game series, in an activity in which you are being slammed into by people traveling MUCH faster than a football player, in pursuit of a frozen rubber puck that can crack 100 mph... ON SKATES. It calls for levels of courage, and determination, and talent, and sheer indefatigable zeal that typically exist only in warfare.

We lost in overtime, after my 2nd favorite hockey player of all time fractured every bone in his face trying to run Rich Pilon. No dynasty.

You know what? Forget everything I said; I DO hate the New York Islanders. I hate their stinking guts. Let's do this.

Penguins Goals per game average: 3.38 (1st in the league)
Islanders Goals against per game average: 2.83 (21st)

Islanders Goals per game: 2.81 (7th)
Pens Goals against per game (12th)

Advantage Pittsburgh

We're going to score on these guys. Neal, Malkin, Iginla, Letang, Kunitz (full disclosure, I wanted to trade Kunitz early in the season) the inimitable Sidney Crosby... this is a preponderance of firepower that rivals the Edmonton dynasty. Make no mistake, the Isles will score on us, too. But we ought to be able to overwhelm them will sheer quantity.

Pens Power Play percentage: 24.7 (2nd)
Isles Penalty Kill percentage: 80.3 (21st)

Isles PP: 19.9% (11th) 
Pittsburgh PK: 79.6% (25th)

Advantage Pittsburgh... BARELY

It is absolutely essential we stay out of the penalty box. This team can hurt us on the power play. I will note that the addition of Brendan Morrow to the team, and his pairing with  Matt Cooke has made us a much better penalty killing team. I will also note that putting Jarome Iginla on the left point  during the power play has the potential to devastate the Isles. I haven't seen a slapshot that hard since Al Iafrate retired.

Pens Marc-Andre Fleury's save percentage: .916 (16th)
Isle's Evgeni Nabakov save percentage: .910 (22nd)

Advantage Pittsburgh... on paper

Fleury is a great goaltender. His stats are better than Nabakov, although Nabakov is playing for a mediocre team, and Fleury is playing for a great team. (This is why I cite save percentage rather than goals against average.) But in the playoffs, Fleury is infamous for giving up the occasional soft goal. Often, he does so on the first shot he faces. This is guaranteed to discourage his team, and encourage the opposition. In a playoff setting, where guts and determination and the weight and diameter of one's testicles are the key determinant of success, this is absolutely deadly.

So, I have a "system" I developed back when I was gambling on hockey. Over the years, it's been about as accurate as flipping a coin. I've stuck with it because damn it, it OUGHT to work. It does work in the regular season, but the playoffs are very, very different. Statistical analysis doesn't help when the most important variable is something as intangible as "guts".


I'm predicting Pittsburgh in 4 games