The Biggest Reason to Fear Each Remaining Team in the 2014 NHL Playoffs

Rob VollmanContributor IMay 1, 2014

The Biggest Reason to Fear Each Remaining Team in the 2014 NHL Playoffs

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Eight teams remain in the 2013-14 NHL playoffs, each with at least one terrifying weapon. There are many good reasons to fear each of the remaining teams and to respect their Stanley Cup chances, but if you had to select just one, who would it be?

    To answer that, I've gone team by team using a variety of different analytics to find each one's most deadly weapon—and not just for this coming round, but also against whichever opponents the teams might be meeting next.

    Youth, speed, toughness, goaltending, special teams, coaching systems, particular lines or individual players, each team has at least something that sets it apart from the rest. Turn over to begin, and be sure to weigh in with comments of your own. Let's begin.

Anaheim Ducks: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The Weapon

    The Anaheim Ducks finished a single point back of the Boston Bruins for the Presidents' Trophy thanks in large part to Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. They are tremendous two-way physical forwards who should both figure prominently on Hart Trophy ballots.

    Out of the 27 analysts I found who published their preseason projections, not a single one predicted a divisional crown for the Ducks and only four even had them finishing in second. Over half of them, myself included, even projected them for fifth or below. Two rather large details were clearly overlooked!

     

    Why They Should Be Feared

    Anaheim's celebrated top-line duo takes on top competition and dominates them in every way possible.

    Perry's 43 goals were second only to Alexander Ovechkin, and Getzlaf was one of only 20 other NHLers to score at least 30. They finished fifth and second in the scoring race with 82 and 87 points, respectively, while also finishing seventh and 13th in plus/minus.

    Despite Getzlaf's upper-body injury, the two superstars combined for five goals and 14 points in their six-game opening-round series with the Dallas Stars.

     

    Countermeasures

    While Perry and Getzlaf can be unstoppable some nights, the rest of the team can be quite mortal.

    Even against the wild-card Dallas Stars, the Ducks were without the puck or in their own zone most of the time, much as was the case all too frequently in the regular season.

    The goal is to beat the Ducks by a wider margin when Perry and Getzlaf are on the bench than they beat you when they're on the ice.

Boston Bruins: Tuukka Rask

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Weapon

    Inevitable Vezina winner Tuukka Rask led the NHL in save percentage (minimum 30 starts), both at even strength and overall, and both in the regular season and through the first round.

    Rask allowed just six goals in five games in Boston's opening-round victory over the Detroit Red Wings, stopping 146 of 152 shots.

     

    Why He Should Be Feared

    Watching Boston's game tapes creates the impression that Rask can only be scored upon with double deflections or lucky bounces. The talented Finn establishes flawless position and boasts fast movement that stymies even the league's fastest and most skilled shooters.

    Rask has 16 shutouts in 121 regular and playoff games over the past two seasons, or one every 7.5 games. That means that one game in every series is essentially in the bag, and Boston's opponents have to win two-thirds of the remainder in order to advance.

    Combine Rask's talent with one of the league's best defensive teams, and even a couple of Boston goals can pose an insurmountable obstacle.

     

    Countermeasures

    It goes almost without saying that its opponents have to keep Boston's scoring to an absolute minimum in order to have any chance at victory.

    To score on Rask, the best strategy is to get a lot of traffic in front of the net to reduce both his ability to see the puck and to respond quickly. This should also maximize the likelihood of the deflections and rebounds that must be relied upon.

Chicago Blackhawks: Pure Talent

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Weapon

    The best team doesn't always win the Stanley Cup; in fact, it "wins the Cup 22 percent of the time," according to JLikens of Objective NHL. The Chicago Blackhawks have nevertheless managed to hoist the Stanley Cup two times in the five seasons since Joel Quenneville took over, during which time they have arguably been the best team in hockey.

    Over the past five years combined, Chicago leads the NHL in goals scored and possession percentage, and is second to Boston in goal differential and to the Pittsburgh Penguins in winning percentage.

    The secret to the Blackhawks' success? They have the most talent.

     

    Why They Should Be Feared

    Only the best players in the world were selected for this year's Sochi Olympics, and 10 Blackhawks were among them.

    The team finished the season with five 20-goal scorers and five 60-point scorers. The Blackhawks have a combined 15 30-goal seasons and 13 All-Star Games in just five players: Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.

    If that's not frightening enough, take note that about a quarter of their roster is 23 or younger and that they have blue-chip prospects such as Teuvo Teravainen still to come. This team is going to be dominant for a long time.

     

    Countermeasures

    What can you do against a team like Chicago?

    The St. Louis Blues are one of the league's youngest, fastest and best all-around teams, and they were outshot 215 to 186 while being outscored 20 to 14 in their first-round series with the Blackhawks. Not a single one of those six games ended with St. Louis ahead when regulation time expired.

    Chicago was stopped by the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 and by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2012. Of course, Vancouver was outscored 22 to 16, and Phoenix was outshot 241 to 159, so I guess the best advice is to be patient, stay in it and win the close ones.

Los Angeles Kings: Possession

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Weapon

    Not everyone likes to hear the hockey analytics guys beat the possession drum over and over again, but it is the main reason why the Los Angeles Kings keep surprising the mainstream critics.

    Los Angeles led the NHL in possession numbers for the second year in a row since winning the Stanley Cup in 2012—and by a comfortable margin too. The Kings were beaten in the possession game only once in the final quarter of the regular season.

    Not a single player had to start more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone in the regular season this year, and Jarret Stoll has been the only one so far in the postseason. There wasn't a single player with whom the team was outshot in the regular season.

     

    Why They Should Be Feared

    The Kings didn't win their first-round series because the San Jose Sharks are choke artists, but because it was awfully hard for the Sharks to score when they were always in their own zone or without the puck.

    Few if any of the remaining teams can match San Jose's skill, a team that also went to great lengths to try to match Los Angeles' toughness too. If the Kings' possession-oriented game can overcome a 3-0 deficit against a team like the Sharks, L.A. could very easily be considered the league's most dangerous team right now.

     

    Countermeasures

    The only way to beat an elite possession-based team is to score on a greater share of one's scoring chances than it does. That requires both red-hot shooting and lights-out goaltending.

    There are those who argue that teams can consistently win without possession by allowing shots only from the outside while taking advantage of higher-quality opportunities of their own. While anything is possible, there's been very limited evidence that such a tactic can reliably persist over time, and all the best examples seem to inevitably collapse.

    To beat the Kings, opponents will need to either fight fire with fire by matching their game with strong possession-based play of their own or work hard, crash the net and fight for a larger share of the bounces.

Minnesota Wild: Star Power

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Weapon

    The Minnesota Wild built their current roster using a highly recommended model. They paid whatever price was required to acquire the most elite players who were available and then filled the rest of their roster with well-selected value players.

    Of the team's roughly $64 million payroll, almost $30 million is invested in just four players: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu, only the last of whom was drafted by the Wild. Furthermore, Jason Pominville was acquired late last season and is signed for $5.6 million per season for the next five years.

     

    Why They Should Be Feared

    The Minnesota Wild are almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when you compare the team between when their superstars are on the ice and when they're not.

    The four high-priced stars combined for 27 of the team's 61 individual points in Minnesota's first-round triumph over the Colorado Avalanche.

    With the exception of Heatley, these star players are the ones playing big minutes in all critical game situations against the top opponents, both offensive and defensive. Suter led the team's defensemen by over five minutes per game, while Koivu and Parise led all other forwards by two.

     

    Countermeasures

    The balance of Minnesota's roster played very well in the opening round, but it's one thing to hold your own against the likes of Marc-Andre Cliche, Cody McLeod, Nick Holden and Andre Benoit, and quite another to do the same against this year's other postseason participants.

    There may not be much that even the league's best teams can do against Parise, Suter and Koivu, but youngsters such as Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle can certainly be put to the test. Shut down that secondary offense, and it might not matter how well the Wild's top stars perform.

Montreal Canadiens: Ghosts!

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    The Weapon

    The Montreal Canadiens are the greatest hockey franchise in history and one of the most accomplished in all of sports. They have won 24 Stanley Cups over their 105-year existence, including at least one in each of their first nine full decades.

    There are a lot of hockey ghosts in the Bell Centre (assuming they didn't remain in the Forum). Sixty-two members of the NHL Hall of Fame were with the organization at one point of in their careers, and the team has retired 17 numbers. Pretty soon, the Canadiens will have to add another digit to their jerseys.

     

    Why They Should Be Feared

    It means something to wear the bleu, blanc et rouge. Consider the (translated) motto that is written on the dressing-room wall, "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high."

    While all NHLers take pride in their teams and play hard for their fans, there has to be a little something extra you get when you wear the sport's most celebrated logo on your chest.

    While Ron MacLean may have been out of line to suggest that the hockey ghosts can affect the officials, they can certainly affect the players and the fans.

     

    Countermeasures

    The Montreal Canadiens are by no means the best team in the playoffs and possibly one of the weaker teams that remain. They finished with only 11 more goals than their opponents this season, and Max Pacioretty is the only player to top 20 goals this year while wearing Le Tricolore.

    Overall, the Canadiens are a solid and well-rounded team, but they are beatable. Their opponents are all professionals who have played against them and in this building countless times. They doubtlessly already know what to expect and how to prepare for it.

New York Rangers: 5-on-5 Play

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Weapon

    The New York Rangers are among the best teams in the league at five-on-five hockey. In the opening round, they outshot the Philadelphia Flyers 15 to seven in such play, the largest advantage in the league.

    In close-game situations, when they weren't sitting back and killing time, they outscored the Flyers by a 10-to-three margin, according to the data at Extra Skater, stopping 96.3 percent of Philadelphia's shots.

    This news isn't completely unexpected to those who have been following the team closely this year. In the regular season, the Rangers were tied for third in the NHL in shot differential in such situations.

     

    Why They Should Be Feared

    Most of the game is spent playing five-on-five hockey where the Rangers' opponents need to contend with three full scoring lines playing Alain Vigneault's unique brand of zone-matching hockey.

    To score on the Rangers, opponents need to get past a blue line with three of the league's best defensive defensemen in Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal before they even have the opportunity to shoot against arguably the best goalie since the 2005 lockout, Henrik Lundqvist.

    This is a dangerous team that plays with confidence at both ends of the ice when working as a five-man unit.

     

    Countermeasures

    The Flyers almost pulled off the upset with their special teams success. While the Rangers scored on just three of their 33 power-play shots, Philadelphia converted on five of 21.

    The key to success is to play tough, hard-nosed hockey in order to knock the Rangers out of their element.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The Weapon

    With only one goal in the 2014 Olympics and no goals in the opening-round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the question was raised whether Sidney Crosby was still to be feared. The answer? Of course he is—are you crazy!

    Crosby, who will doubtlessly win his first Hart Trophy since 2007, is the game's best player and most potent offensive threat. This year's scoring leader has averaged 1.40 points per game throughout his career in a league with only four others above 1.00 (Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr and Steven Stamkos).

     

    Why He Should Be Feared

    Not only does Crosby score at the league's highest rate, but unlike the bulk of the league's other top scorers, he does so against top players and often without the advantage of starting in the opposing team's zone. One can only imagine how jaw-dropping his offensive totals could be otherwise.

    Even if a team manages to slow down Crosby for a while, guess what? Now it has to deal with Evgeni Malkin, and for a shift that likely starts in its own zone while its best players are catching their breath from chasing Crosby around. Uh-oh!

     

    Countermeasures

    Crosby is not one to stay on the peripherals of the play; he takes a lot of punishment on any given night, both for who he is and for how he plays. 

    By checking him closely, physical shutdown players can add to the toll that the frequently injured superstar has to pay to get near the net, one that may eventually get too high for even him to afford.

     

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.