Welcome back to Insights and Observations of the NHL playoffs, where every team has played at least five games and only one series has been decided.
This week, we look at road success, inflated power-play numbers, Wild-Stars, Devils-Rangers and Rick Bowness's comments on the Jets
Home ice advantage and its importance has always been hotly debated. Studies typically rank the NBA and soccer highest, while the NHL falls somewhere in the middle, with baseball usually the lowest. All of them, though, have home teams winning more often than not, even if it’s just slightly.
In general, it’s hard to say there’s a hard and fast rule. As is usually the case, most of these situations are team specific. Even then, look at some early returns in the NHL playoffs. The top three home teams in the regular season by record were the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bruins are 1-2 at home, as are the Leafs. The Lightning are 0-2. The Hurricanes, who were fourth, lost Game 5 at home with a chance to clinch. The Kings, who were fifth, blew a 3-0 lead at home.
Then there’s this:
With the @NYIslanders' win in Game 5, all 16 teams have now earned a victory as visitors in the 2023 #StanleyCup Playoffs - just the second time that has occurred in the NHL's expansion era.#NHLStats: https://t.co/lHQOxSU1N4 pic.twitter.com/qXFrZT1jih
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) April 26, 2023
It’s fair to say teams generally relish the underdog role. Florida and Tampa Bay's wins in Game 5 on the road come to mind. One, there is big pressure to win at home now. We are seeing teams do things they shouldn’t to overcompensate. Whether that’s overpassing, chasing matchups or having their home crowd actually get on them when they are losing instead of supporting them.
There is something to be said for getting a scoring chance on the road in front of a quiet crowd and just focusing on the play instead of getting caught up in the noise and emotions in front of your home crowd.
But it’s also fair to say we haven’t had a Game 6 or Game 7 yet. Traditionally, many will tell you that home ice only matters at the end of a series. Well, the end is approaching and there’s still lots to see.
Rick Bowness tells it like it is
When you lose in five games it’s hard to get too worked up about the overall playoff series because, well, you weren’t particularly close to winning it. When you are down 4-0 late into the third period of the series-deciding game, you are probably looking at roughly an hour of real time where you are soaking in the defeat of that game, the series and your overall season.
The Winnipeg Jets coaching staff and players knew it was over on Thursday — and they played like it. When they thought for a second they scored to make it 4-2 with over two and a half minutes left, the complete lack of emotion showed it.
That, more than anything, is what makes Rick Bowness's press conference rant so fascinating. He had so much time to sit on that, to cool down, to just dismiss it. It’s not like people are waiting with bated breath to hear your last post-game presser of the season, either. The dressing room cleanout day press conference, sure. But that one? I can’t think of a coach who has taken that opportunity to prove a point. Certainly not to that extent.
"I'm so disappointed and disgusted right now, that’s my thoughts," Bowness said.
"No pushback. But it’s the same crap we saw in February. It was. As soon as we were challenging for first place and teams were coming after us, we had no pushback. This series we had no pushback. Their better players were so much better than ours, it’s not even close."
They gave up a goal not even a minute into the game and had five shots on net in the first period in a series where they were down 3-1. Then they gave up another goal within the first minute of the second period. I’ve watched this goal 15 times and I still have no clue what Pierre Luc-Dubois (No. 80) is doing. You can talk Xs and Os all you want but there’s no point if you lack effort.
There’s no effort whatsoever to get the puck out. He makes no attempt on the wall. That is a preseason caliber effort. When the puck is kept in, I’m not sure his stick even touches the ice afterward. Most players lose a battle and dig in furiously to win it back. He could not have been less interested in the puck, getting it out, making a play or battling for his teammates.
The Josh Morrissey injury was probably the nail in the coffin for this season. The Jets needed lots of things to break right to win in the first place and losing their top defenseman is the exact opposite of that. They could have at least gone down swinging, but they didn't even attempt to throw a punch. And their hockey lifer coach, who has been around this game for literal decades, chose violence to end the season. If that doesn’t set the table for an offseason of change, I don’t know what would.
Rangers can't keep pace with Devils
There might not be a better story right now than Akira Schmid. Where did this guy come from? The answer is technically Switzerland, but his pro hockey career started just last season and before that the 2018 fifth-round pick was in the USHL where he had two very good seasons.
Down 2-0 and heading to Madison Square Garden for Game 3, it was hard to see a path forward for the Devils. The Rangers had won both games in New Jersey with identical 5-1 scores and hardly looked bothered by the Devils.
In the regular season, New Jersey was the fourth highest scoring team in the league. They had two goals through two games and one of them was on a penalty shot when the game was all but over.
But some funny things have happened since. They turned to Schmid and they locked things down defensively. In three games since, the Rangers have scored a total of two goals. It’s not all goaltending though, as the Devils have carried the scoring chances and created more than the Rangers.
The Devils' speed is also giving the Rangers fits. Look how quickly they are able to transition out of their zone here and create a 2-on-1. A chip around the wall and a chip off the boards leads to an odd-man rush and eventually a power play.
There is no questioning the Rangers' talent — they have a number of game-breakers. But the speed is fair to wonder about. The Devils are quickly transitioning up ice, getting the puck out and creating offense. Their speed on the forecheck is also causing issues. They scored a shorthanded goal on a 2-on-1 that developed in a blink of an eye.
But to switch to a rookie goalie and get this type of stretch from him and then winning two at MSG and three straight overall is incredibly impressive.
— Mollie Walker (@MollieeWalkerr) April 28, 2023
Tough calls swing Stars-Wild series
One of the toughest series to figure out going into the playoffs was Dallas Stars versus Minnesota Wild. They are both really good teams, although the Stars had a distinct advantage on special teams as both of their units finished in the top five while the Wild had the 15th-ranked power play and the 10th-ranked penalty kill.
So far, that’s where this series has really played out. The Stars have just six 5v5 goals and the Wild have just eight through five games. For reference, eight teams — half the playoff field — have at least 10 5v5 goals through five games.
There is nothing happening. Jake Oettinger has been great. The Stars had under 40% of expected goals at 5v5 in Game 4 and they won 4-0. Among regular starters, Oettinger and Minnesota's Filip Gustavsson are third and fourth in save percentage.
Of course, penalties, and what has been called, has also played a big role in this series.
It’s fair for Marcus Foligno to feel like he was jobbed. This is not interference, and the Stars promptly scored the game-winning goal on the power play. The following game, Foligno was handed a five-minute major and a game misconduct on another controversial call.
— x - Minnesota Hockey (@MinnyHockey) April 24, 2023
This is a tough, violent series. We saw that in Game 1 right away with the Matt Dumba hit on Joe Pavelski. But you get a few calls, and that can swing the series. It’s a special teams battle and the Stars are clicking at just over 40% while the Wild are at 20%. You can’t overcome that disparity.
Can anyone kill a penalty?
One of the early stories of these playoffs is whether anyone can kill a penalty in this league.
Early lessons from this postseason - whatever you do...don't take a penalty.
League-wide power play conversion this postseason is at an all-time high (25.6%) pic.twitter.com/rII7xS8Hfp
— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) April 26, 2023
The biggest anchor, of course, is the Los Angeles Kings as they are going against arguably the greatest power play of all time. They have killed under 43% of their penalties, which just a shocking and appalling number.
Over the past few years, essentially every team has shifted to a 1-3-1 power-play formation and teams have not particularly figured out how to combat that. There was a time when penalty kills would shift between a “box” formation and a “diamond” formation. Since this 1-3-1 development there has not been any real counter.
Lots of teams appear to run almost a 1-1-2 penalty kill, with two defensemen in front of the net, a player in the slot and a player at the top of the circle. The two forwards will interchange and swing to the half-walls to pressure them, but they often don’t get there in time or apply anything close to enough pressure. Players are standing on the half-wall with all day to make decisions.
Look at this goal, as the Toronto Maple Leafs end up in 1-1-2 with two defensemen in front and two forwards stacked on top of each other in the house. Kucherov has all day to make this decision. He could have shot it if he wanted to and probably would have felt great about that as well.
That is way too easy. Power plays have figured out spacing and with so many shooters teams are scrambling. It might not happen this year, but someone needs to figure out a counter on the penalty kill.