So Day 1 of the NHL playoffs is in the books. But the real meat of postseason actually begins on Thursday, when two of what should be the very best series all spring begin in St. Louis and San Jose.
Given the calibre of the teams involved, the Stanley Cup could easily come out of those two bloodbaths – provided they don’t take too much out of each other.
In that sense, the league’s new division-heavy playoff format hasn’t done the Western Conference contenders any favourites. With the Blues facing the Chicago Blackhawks and the Sharks up against the Los Angeles Kings, two of what are likely the five best teams in the NHL will be out after the first round.
One reason why these teams will be a tough out comes back to their play with the puck; all four are among the top six possession teams left, meaning they typically give teams fits by hemming them in their own zone.
It’s not always easy to predict which teams will get great goaltending or have their stars go on hot streaks in a series, but controlling possession is one trait that remains relatively constant. That makes it a good indicator of how teams match up with one another and a number that correlates reasonably well with postseason success.
The past six Cup winners, beginning with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008, averaged an elite 54.5-per-cent possession rating during the regular season.
The true contenders: Chicago, San Jose, Los Angeles and Boston
Only four teams are in that territory this year, and they should be considered the toughest matchups at even strength in the league. The Blackhawks, Sharks, Kings and Bruins all finished the year at 54 to 57 per cent in possession, which essentially measures time spent in the offensive zone versus the defensive zone.
Possession isn’t everything. A goalie is also a huge factor in a short series, and the way Tuukka Rask has played for the Bruins gives them a clear edge over the others, especially combined with how much they control the play.
Over all, those two elements likely give the Bruins the best chance of winning the Cup this year, especially considering they won’t have to go through as many powerhouse teams as the top clubs in the West.
The next tier: St. Louis and NY Rangers
Among the rest, the Blues stand out. They’re an elite possession team (53 per cent) and have the potential to get great goaltending from Ryan Miller.
All that prevents St. Louis from joining the top four is the fact the Blues lineup is riddled with injuries, Miller hasn’t played well since joining them in a late-season trade, and they’re up against the defending champs right off the bat.
There’s a noticeable drop-off after St. Louis, but the Rangers have significant potential. Under new coach Alain Vigneault, they emerged as a dominant team in the second half – with a 55.2-per-cent possession rating starting in mid-December – and netminder Henrik Lundqvist can win a series singlehandedly.
The dark horses: Dallas, Detroit and Columbus
Don’t count out the wild-card teams, either. While the Anaheim Ducks and Colorado Avalanche racked up a lot of regular-season points, they are both middling possession teams that relied on shooting percentage and their goalies to win games, and that doesn’t always hold up in the postseason.
A team like the Stars could knock off a contender in the first round, for example. And the Red Wings and Blue Jackets aren’t nearly as overmatched as they at first appear based on their records.
If you’re going to go with a long shot, bet against teams like the Ducks and Avs and on a good possession team that struggled during the season for reasons such as injuries or inconsistency. They just might put it together in a short series and surprise.
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