NHL Playoffs: Blueprint to Pulling off a 1st-Round Playoff Upset

Isaac SmithAnalyst IApril 20, 2013

NHL Playoffs: Blueprint to Pulling off a 1st-Round Playoff Upset

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    The NHL saw some memorable playoff upsets last season, with the eighth-seeded Kings winning it all.

    But after the Kings won as an eighth seed, the rest of the NHL is on notice; anything can happen in the playoffs.

    If these playoffs are any bit as unpredictable as the 2013 regular season has been thus far (with some teams looking great one night and terrible the next), then there could be a fair number of upsets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    But how do these "underdog" teams pull off the upset? Simple.

    They need a blueprint.

    This slideshow will attempt to lay out the chronological blueprint by which a team can pull off a first-round playoff upset.

1. Keep the Pressure on from the Regular Season

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    For the substantial number of teams fighting for the last few playoff spots in the Eastern and Western Conferences, there is (or should be) desperation to make the playoffs at all.

    As of Friday night, the Eastern Conference has six teams competing for the last five playoff spots.

    The Western Conference has five teams (Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers) competing for the last playoff spot alone, with plenty of other teams (like the Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks) trying not to fall out of the playoff race.

    As of Saturday morning, there are anywhere from three to five games remaining for all of these teams.

    As for the playoff-upset blueprint, these teams need to take the desperation and playoff intensity from the remaining regular-season games and channel it into the first two games of the playoffs (for which these lower-seeded teams will be on the road) in order to get a good start in the series.

    Which leads to the next step.

2. Generate Energy Through Forechecking and Finishing Hits

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    Winning a playoff series is all about grabbing momentum and keeping it throughout the series.

    If a team cannot score goals to generate momentum, then finding ways to finish checks (especially big checks like the video above) generates momentum immediately.

    Finishing checks, either on the forecheck or just in general, usually makes the other team give the puck up more quickly than they would otherwise. This is especially effective when the opposing team plays better with the puck.

    If the opposition is forced to give up the puck constantly, the underdog, forechecking, check-finishing team gains momentum. This momentum is sometimes enough to change the flow and end result of a game.

3. Goaltending: Stop the Shots That Are Supposed to Be Stopped

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    It goes without saying that skilled teams will get their scoring chances. If the hitting game is working well, these chances may be few and far between. It is then important and imperative that the "underdog" team's goalie not allow any soft goals.

    Timely saves can also give a team momentum, as it can completely deflate the team that gets shut down offensively. If a team is able to get these saves, it can go a long way to helping them win games and ultimately pull the first-round upset.

4. Get Players to the Opposing Net

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    Getting players toward the net causes havoc on all fronts.

    This havoc extends to the opposing goalie (who now has to worry about players as well as the puck coming in his direction), defensemen (who have to worry about forwards driving the net) and forwards who have to collapse as well.

    Getting players to the net has other perks. If players are getting to the net, it means less time spent in the defensive zone and more time on attack.

    Add in the fact that there are big juicy rebounds that goalies give up, and there are plenty of opportunities to score and seize further momentum.

5. Take Care of Traffic by the Net, Make Traffic in Front of Theirs

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    Tomas Holmstrom was one of the best (if not the best of the all time) net-front presences in the history of the NHL. Holmstrom revolutionized the sport of hockey as it is played today, with players constantly either going to the net for rebounds, or simply going to the net to screen the goalie.

    Holmstrom retired before the start of the 2013 season, but his legacy lives on in two fundamental ways.

    First of all, teams in the playoffs need to find a way to get traffic in front of opposing goaltenders. If a team is an underdog, this can be a great way to get the opposing goalie out of his groove, thus creating momentum and an advantage for an underdog if that goalie lets in a soft goal.

    Secondly (and probably more importantly), it emphasizes the need to clear traffic from in front of one's own goal. The Los Angeles Kings had one of the heaviest groups of defensemen in the playoffs last season, with Slava Voynov being the only player under 200 pounds (per NHL.com).

    This made it a lot easier to clear traffic from in front of Jonathan Quick, thus helping Quick see the puck all the way to the net. If an underdog team is to succeed in pulling the first-round upset, the team needs to take care of the crease at both ends of the rink.

6. At Least One Special Team Needs to Be Phenomenal

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    Realistically, with the exception of the 2011 Vancouver Canucks' regular season, a team likely won't dominate on the power play and penalty kill.

    Using the Los Angeles Kings as an example from last year, the Kings killed 92.1 percent of their penalties, but scored on just 12.8 percent of their power plays.

    To pull an upset in the playoffs, the team must be able to convert on special teams when called upon. Percentages are irrelevant for the most part, as statistics alone don't tell the whole story of a game.

    If a team comes in as the underdog, they should focus on winning two of the three categories (offense, defense and special teams) if they hope to walk away victorious in the series.

7. Be Opportunistic by Capitalizing on Offensive Chances

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    The goal above really says all that needs to be said in regard to this slide.

    Underdog teams are "underdogs" for a reason; the team is not expected to win in the series. This means that the "underdogs" have nothing to lose in games. Having played the complete defensive game as illustrated in the previous six slides, the game is theirs for the taking.

    This involves taking some chances—in the case of Dustin Brown's two shorthanded goals in a game against Vancouver last year—but more importantly it involves getting pucks to the net.


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    Finally, a team needs to believe it belongs. It isn't easy to make the Stanley Cup playoffs on a consistent basis, let alone at all.

    (Take the Toronto Maple Leafs for example.)

    According to Sean Leahy of Puck Daddy, the odds were just 20:1 that the Kings would win the Stanley Cup last year. The Kings could not have cared less about odds. Hockey is a strange game because unexpected and unbelievable things can occur (see the 1980 "Miracle on Ice").

    Believing is key.

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