The NHL’s second season is here, and that means it’s time to expect the unexpected. Perhaps the Nashville Predators, this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners, will succumb to the Colorado Avalanche. Or maybe Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will fall in the first round to their cross-state rival, the Philadelphia Flyers.
To find out what upsets appear to be the most likely, we created postseason probabilities based on the win rates that fuel our weekly power rankings. These rates take into account a team’s actual win-loss record, its expected win-loss record based on goals scored and allowed — also known as its Pythagorean winning percentage — and its expected win-loss record based on expected goals for and against, a metric created by hockey metrics website Corsica, which takes into account the likelihood a shot becomes a goal based on distance, angle and whether the attempt was a rebound, on the rush or generated on the power play.
With that in mind, here are the most likely upsets for Round 1:
No. 2 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 3 San Jose Sharks
Chance of a Sharks upset: 52 percent
The Sharks’ deepest run in the playoffs came in 2016, when they made the Stanley Cup finals, eventually losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. That year, centers Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski plus defenseman Brent Burns were the team’s top three scorers in the playoffs. They are also the top three scorers for this year’s squad.
Burns, the 2017 Norris Trophy winner, is the most dynamic of the three. His 67 points tied him with Dallas Stars blue-liner John Klingberg for the second most at the position behind John Carlson of the Washington Capitals. Only Klingberg (32) had more primary assists than Burns (30) during the regular season, but no defenseman generated more scoring chances.
The Sharks also have defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who is often deployed against one of the opponent’s top two forward lines. Vlasic and the Sharks were only outscored, 90-82, at even strength with him on the ice this season, notable because he routinely faced the best forwards the NHL had to offer and nearly neutralized them over a full season.
In addition, the Sharks generate 65 scoring chances per 60 minutes on the power play, the third most during the regular season. The Ducks, meanwhile, allow the eighth-highest rate of scoring chances on the penalty kill.
No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 4 Columbus Blue Jackets
Chance of a Blue Jackets upset: 47 percent
Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky could be the “hot goalie” who has tormented Washington in postseasons past. The 29-year-old reigning Vezina Trophy winner posted a .921 save percentage in 2017-18 with 38 quality starts, those games with an above-average save percentage. His save percentage on even-strength, high-danger chances (.892), those in the slot or the crease, was the sixth highest in the NHL this season. The league average on these shots is .878.
And don’t be fooled by Bobrovsky’s poor playoff performance that is skewed because of a small sample size. Over the past two postseasons, he has saved 348 out of 388 shots faced, making us 95 percent certain his “true talent” level is between a save percentage of .867 and .927. Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray led all goaltenders with a .937 save percentage during last year’s championship run.
Plus, Washington hasn’t shown any ability to stop Columbus’s top player and leading scorer, Artemi Panarin. Panarin scored four points in four games against the Capitals this season, and his line, alongside Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois, has outscored all NHL opponents 18-9 at even strength with nearly six out of every 10 scoring chances produced by both teams going in the Blue Jackets’ favor. When on the road, without the benefit of last change, this line still outscored opponents 11-4.
No. 2 Boston Bruins vs. No. 3 Toronto Maple Leafs
Chance of a Maple Leafs upset: 42 percent
The Maple Leafs were inconsistent at times this season, but only one team in the NHL generated more even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes and no team produced more scoring chances on the power play either overall (78.9 per 60 minutes) or in the high-danger scoring areas such as the slot or the crease (36.8 per 60).
James van Riemsdyk has been phenomenal with the man advantage. His 74 high-danger chances created are a league high, and after factoring in shot quality and quantity, no player has a higher expected-goals rate (5.9 per 60). In fact, based on location and angle, van Riemsdyk should have seven more power-play goals than he tallied in 2017-18 (11 actual vs. 18 expected).
No. 2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 3 Philadelphia Flyers
Chance of a Flyers upset: 42 percent
On Dec. 2, Coach Dave Hakstol decided to split up Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, moving the latter to the team’s second line. Since then, Giroux is third in the NHL with 74 points (23 goals and 51 assists) in 57 games, Voracek is tied for 18th with 55 points (13 goals, 42 assists).
As a result of the shake-up, Sean Couturier was moved up to the top-line center role, pushing Giroux to wing. The results have been sensational: The duo have outscored opponents 70-40 at even strength with 56 percent of all high-danger scoring chances produced going in the Flyers’ favor. Voracek’s line has outscored opponents 54-37 in that span.
If the Flyers pull the upset, it’s likely because those top two lines are scoring in bunches.
No. 2 Winnipeg Jets vs. No. 3 Minnesota Wild
Chance of a Wild upset: 40 percent
The Wild struggled offensively at even strength — its 26 scoring chances per 60 minutes was the second-lowest such rate in the NHL last season — but its defense still allowed the team to break even on scoring chances (50 percent). It was also highly efficient at locking down the slot and the crease, giving Minnesota the third-largest percentage of high-danger scoring chances (55 percent). Overall, the Wild had the fourth-highest goal differential after taking into account shot quality and quantity (plus-20 expected goal differential).
Generating high-quality chances while limiting the same during the regular season could reap huge benefits in the playoffs. Per the hockey data analytics site Corsica, the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins ranked fifth in expected goal differential at even strength last season, and their opponent in the Stanley Cup finals, the Nashville Predators, ranked eighth. Pittsburgh and San Jose, the two teams in the 2016 Stanley Cup finals, rankled No. 1 and No. 2 during the regular season, respectively. Since 2008, the first year expected goal differential is available, no team appearing in the finals has ranked lower than 20th, with a majority finishing in the top 10.
|2017||Pittsburgh Penguins||5th||Nashville Predators||8th|
|2016||Pittsburgh Penguins||1st||San Jose Sharks||2nd|
|2015||Chicago Blackhawks||18th||Tampa Bay Lightning||5th|
|2014||Los Angeles Kings||3rd||New York Rangers||7th|
|2013||Chicago Blackhawks||7th||Boston Bruins||6th|
|2012||Los Angeles Kings||7th||New Jersey Devils||9th|
|2011||Boston Bruins||20th||Vancouver Canucks||15th|
|2010||Chicago Blackhawks||1st||Philadelphia Flyers||8th|
|2009||Pittsburgh Penguins||15th||Detroit Red Wings||6th|
|2008||Detroit Red Wings||1st||Pittsburgh Penguins||15th|
No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 4 Los Angeles Kings
Chance of a Kings upset: 37 percent
Forward Anze Kopitar could get MVP consideration after a 35-goal, 92-point campaign despite taking a team-high 5.4 defensive-zone faceoffs per game. The former Selke winner, when paired with Dustin Brown, outscored opponents 42-22 over 800 even-strength minutes with 53 percent of all high-danger scoring chances taken going in the Kings’ favor. Kopitar is also one of the few scoring forwards to skate more than two minutes per night with the penalty kill.
For the Kings to move past the Golden Knights in the first round, Los Angeles will need Kopitar to help neutralize Vegas’s top line of William Karlsson, Jon Marchessault and Reilly Smith, a trio that scored a league-leading 47 goals as a unit. Fortunately for Los Angeles, Marchessault is nursing an undisclosed injury and Smith played just once since March 6, and he could perhaps require a game or two to get back to full speed.
No. 1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 4 New Jersey Devils
Chance of a Devils upset: 30 percent
Devils forward Taylor Hall made a serious push for the MVP award late in the season, scoring a point in 26 straight games staring Jan. 2 with 11 multi-point games during the streak. He is also a threat to lead an odd-man rush and do some damage in transition. Per the analytics site Natural Stat Trick, Hall created 16 rush attempts at even strength in 2017-18, tying him with six others for the fourth-most rush attempts during the regular season. Hall’s teammate, Miles Wood, is right behind him with 15, giving New Jersey two lines that can put pressure on Tampa Bay’s transition defense.
This might be the only path to victory for the Devils: The Lightning allows just 28 even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes, the 12th fewest in the NHL this season, and has Norris Trophy hopeful Victor Hedman to help make sure scoring attempts are kept to a minimum.
No. 1 Nashville Predators vs. No. 4 Colorado Avalanche
Chance of an Avalanche upset: 29 percent
Nathan MacKinnon had a breakout season for Colorado, setting career highs in points (97), goals (39) and assists (58). But he wasn’t nearly as effective on the road as he was at home. The 22-year-old scored 4.6 points per 60 minutes at even strength when he and his team had the benefit of last change, but that dropped to 1.5 points per 60 when playing away from home ice. His ability to produce scoring chances also diminished on the road.
That’s bad news for Colorado, which won’t have home-ice advantage in this matchup. When MacKinnon scored a point this season, the Avalanche went 33-12-7, a 115-point pace over 82 games. It was just 10-18-2 (60-point pace) when he was held scoreless or didn’t play.