Discover more from Neil’s Substack
Vegas And Florida Made Their Weaknesses Strengths
Winning in the NHL playoffs is all about adaptation.
As hockey analysts, we might have gotten a little spoiled last year with the postseason’s relatively predictability. Yes, the President’s Trophy winner bowed out early — what else is new? — but the overall bracket made a bit too much sense, culminating in a powerhouse Stanley Cup Final featuring the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning. It was easy to forget about the NHL’s historical penchant for playoff chaos and pretend that things are supposed to sort themselves out in an orderly fashion on the ice.
This year? Not so much. In addition to defending champs and all-time regular-season teams falling early on, it seems that the narrative shifts every time we might have a handle on which team(s) are emerging as favorites. And that’s probably a good thing — it reminds us that a big part of success in sport is about evolving to meet the demands of the moment.
Both of the teams currently up 2-0 in the conference finals have been case studies in this. During the regular season, neither the Vegas Golden Knights nor the Florida Panthers were especially dominant; Vegas ranked ninth in goals-per-game differential (good but not great), while Florida ranked 16th and barely broke even. And how they got there mainly owed to one particular side of the puck. Relative to average, Vegas’s defense and goaltending made up +0.39 of their +0.52 overall differential per game, while Florida’s offensive margin versus average (+0.36) was better than its overall differential (+0.21) because its defense and goaltending (-0.15) were actually subpar.
In the playoffs, though, each team has taken its regular-season weakness and turned it into a strength. Led by Jack Eichel and an extremely deep roster of contributors, the Golden Knights have been an offensive powerhouse in the postseason — leading all active teams in goals per game. And though the Panthers have gotten 7 goals and 18 points out of Matthew Tkachuk in 14 games, it has been their defense and (mainly) their goaltending that has powered a surprise run to within 2 wins of the Cup Final.
As is always the case in hockey, you can ask the very fair question of how much of this owes to the playoffs simply being a tournament to determine the hottest goalie, as opposed to deliberate tactical changes and favorable matchups. For instance, nobody would have predicted that Sergei Bobrovsky could stonewall the Bruins, Maple Leafs and now the Hurricanes in rapid succession.
In fact, Florida’s metamorphosis from an offensive to defensive team seems particularly fluky, since they’re still allowing more than 30 shots per 60 minutes in the playoffs with the score close — the league average is 29.3 — and they’ve been only marginally better than that in the Carolina series. (Even that is perhaps just due to the tedious style that the Hurricanes can sometimes impose on games, plus the exhaustion of playing five overtime periods in the series’ first two contests.) By contrast, the Knights’ transformation feels more logical, given the talent and track record they possessed — Vegas ranked third in scoring as recently as 2020-21.
Either way, both teams are up 2-0 and carry at least an 80% chance each of making the Final, according to FiveThirtyEight. The margins to get them there have been razor-thin — this is the only time in history that the first four games of the conference finals each required overtime to decide a winner — and, as we’ve seen, the winds of these playoffs can shift in a hurry. But neither current favorite would be where they are right now without leveling up what had previously been a weakness, and turning it into a postseason strength.
Filed under: NHL
Neil’s Substack is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.