The NBA gets a bit of a head start, but the NHL season is largely overlapping (when they don’t have a lockout) and the playoffs start tomorrow. I sadly wasn’t able to watch many games, so I don’t have a lot of insight to go with the predictions, but I’m running my model to predict the winner and number of games for each series just like I do for the NBA. The usual caveats apply: the NHL playoffs are wild and uncertain even in the best of seasons. With a lockout-shortened season supplying the goal differentials for the model, anything could happen. But here are some guesses.
As a side note, all goal differentials were multiplied by about 1.7 to square them with a usual 82-game season. So the +53 Chicago Blackhawks are input as a +91 team, which makes them the third-best team in my database (behind the 2006 Senators and Wings).
Speaking of the Black Hawks, they’re playing the Wild, whose adjusted differential of -12 is the third-worst in my database. The third best playing the third worst means this is the second-biggest mismatch in my set behind the 2006 Ottawa-Tampa Bay series. Ottawa won that in 5, which I’m sure the Hawks would be happy with. However, the thoroughly out-classed Oilers beat the Red Wings in 6 that year, and in 2010 Montreal beat Washington in 7 to fill out all the examples I have of series with a 90+ goal differential difference. So it’s not like being a big favorite is doing anyone any favors here. But the model says that Chicago should win 86% of the time and the Wild will win 2 games.
The Red Wings help illustrate the noise in such a short season. Seven days ago they were out of the playoffs and had a -3 goal differential. Then they went 4-0-0 to finish the season and end up with a +9 differential. A 12 goal swing would be big for any team at any point, but it would even out a lot more if they were to play another 30-plus games. But as it stands, the Wings managed to jump to 7th and draw the Anaheim Ducks instead of Chicago. The Ducks are favored to win 60% of the time and the Wings should win 2. Practically every NHL series is predicted to go 6, but to illustrate how close the numbers are, the Wings are expected to be swept 8.5% of the time, win one 16.8%, win two 20%, and win 3 14.5%. Of course they win about 40% of the time. So it isn’t like the six game series is anything like a lock.
The Vancouver Canucks get the dubious distinction (also to be shared in the next match-up) of being the home team despite having a worse goal differential than their opponent. The Sharks were a bit better on that count but had fewer points on the record. Since my model can’t find a significant benefit of home ice (the effect is not significant but actually slightly negative), that means the Sharks are favored but they are close enough that it’s basically a coin flip. The Sharks win 52% of the time and the Canucks win two games.
The Blues were also behind their opponents, the Kings, but only by a single goal. Match-ups between then 4 and 5 seed tend to be close in any sport, but this is kind of silly. The Kings get the tiny nod with a 51% chance of winning the series and the Blues can expect to win twice.
Moving to the East we start with the Penguins and Islanders. The Penguins might have the most obvious excuse for being underrated since Sidney Crosby missed time with a broken jaw. He was out for 12 regular season games, but that’s a quarter of the season this year. So when he comes back, it’s reasonable to think the Pens will be even better than the second-best differential in the league. If that happens against the Islanders, the Pens might improve on their 80% chance to win the series (the Islanders are, of course, expected to win two).
Canadian fans have to be happy that three of their teams made the playoffs, but they’re probably less happy that three others didn’t and two have to play each other in the first round. The Canadiens get the Ottawa Senators, but I guess on the bright side that means that at least one Canadian team will reach the second round. Montreal is favored to win 58% of the time and Ottawa takes two.
Continuing a streak in a relatively recent rivalry, the Washington Capitals will host the NY Rangers. The Caps got the third seed by winning their comparatively weak division (they were five points behind the 4th-seed Bruins), but they were still just ahead of the Rangers in terms of points and goal differential. By which I mean one point and one goal. Washington moves on 50.4% of the time and the Rangers win two.
Finally we have the Boston Bruins hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since the year before the lockout (you know, the big lockout), but I’m sure they won’t just be happy to be there. They have a good chance to move on as the Bruins are expected to win 57% of the time with Toronto taking two.
So there you go. As you can see by the percentages, and comparing them to the NBA predictions, there is a lot of uncertainty. Only two series, the 1-8 match-ups, break 80% for the favored team whereas only two NBA series were under 80%. Both of those were still over 70% while every other NHL series was 60% or less. If you enjoy March Madness for the ‘anything can happen’ appeal, maybe you should try some hockey.