Who's Hot, Who's Not in the 2014 NHL Conference Final?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistMay 22, 2014

Who's Hot, Who's Not in the 2014 NHL Conference Final?

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    With the first two games of each series in the third round complete, we can start to form some opinions on the conference final and the playoffs to date. 

    We've opted to do that with an admittedly cheesy "Who's Hot, Who's Not" format, lightheartedly looking at some of the individuals, teams and general trends observed over the course of an excellent NHL postseason. 

    Read on to see who and what get mentions as exciting (or decidedly less than exciting) in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Hot: Rick Nash

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    Rick Nash has recently been somewhat criticized for his playoff performance.

    If that isn't the understatement of the decade, it's at least the understatement of this slideshow; even in a postseason where Sidney Crosby's status as the best player in the NHL has been up for debate, it's possible no player has been more harshly critiqued than Nash.

    One of the NHL's better pure goal scorers, Nash had been on an incredible 2-of-107 shooting slump over his playoff career, a cold streak that has finally shown some signs of coming to an end in the third round.

    With two goals in the first two games against Montreal, has Nash finally turned a corner?

    "You know, when players go through that, you can tell them all the lines like, 'I've got a lot of faith in you, you're working real hard, da-dee-da-dee-da,'" said New York coach Alain Vigneault on Tuesday, according to the New York Daily News. "At the end of the day, they've got to work themselves through it. They've got to believe in themselves. And that's what Rick did."

Not: Thomas Vanek

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    Thomas Vanek, acquired by Montreal at the trade deadline as the team's missing piece, has posted decent scoring totals over the first two rounds of the postseason. 

    There have been troubling signs for a while now, however. After recording seven shots in his first playoff game, Vanek has just 15 in his last 12 games. He's looked wretched in the Canadiens' first two games against New York and recently was bumped down to the Habs' fourth line by head coach Michel Therrien. 

    Andrew Berkshire of Habs Eyes on the Prize puts Vanek's latest difficulties into perspective

    "Over the first two games against the Rangers, only Dale Weise has produced fewer scoring plays per minute played than Thomas Vanek. We all like Dale Weise, but he's had a brutal two games, which tells you a lot about how bad Vanek has been."

Hot: The 'All-Important 1st Goal'

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    It's hard to watch a broadcast of any of the games in these playoffs without someone mentioning the "all-important first goal." A quick Google search for that exact phrase turns up 847,000 results—pretty impressive given that the ubiquitous "enigmatic Russian" turns up less than 13,000

    In a league where the team that scores the first goal wins two-thirds of the time, the emphasis on that first goal is perhaps to be expected. But as Eric Tulsky of SB Nation's excellent Outnumbered blog notes, there is a catch

    Teams that score the first goal win 67 percent of the time. So that first goal really sets the tone, huh?

    But here's the catch: teams that score the second goal win 68 percent of the time. And teams that score third win 68 percent of the time. So, uh, about that super-important first goal...

    How is this possible? Well, it turns out that the team that wins usually scores more goals than the team that loses. 

    In short: It's a popular phrase among folks who cover the NHL, but it's bad analysis, even if teams scoring first have won a slightly above-average 74.7 percent of games in these playoffs.  

Not: Michel Therrien's Confidence in Peter Budaj

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    Peter Budaj has been the Montreal Canadiens' backup for three seasons. He's been a pretty good goalie over that span, posting 0.913, 0.908 and 0.909 regular-season save percentages. The Habs obviously like him well enough to keep him around, having re-signed Budaj to a two-year extension last summer.

    But that doesn't mean Montreal's coaches trust Budaj to start games when it really matters.

    With Carey Price injured, the Canadiens head coach bypassed Budaj and instead promoted third-string tender Dustin Tokarski in Game 2 against New York. Tokarski was only so-so, but Therrien has already committed to starting him in Game 3. 

Hot: Chicago When Jonathan Toews Is on the Ice

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    It's no secret that Jonathan Toews is a phenomenal player. He plays the toughest available minutes, generating a tremendous amount of offence without ever sacrificing defence.

    It's possible no player in the league is more respected by punditry. 

    He's been a positive force for the Blackhawks early in the second round, too. Through two games, the Blackhawks have 30 shot attempts to the Kings' 23 at even strength (56.6 percent in their favour) when Toews is on the ice, a remarkable feat given the situations he plays in. 

Not: Chicago When Jonathan Toews Is off the Ice

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    The Blackhawks as a whole are an excellent team, but outside of the marquee matchup (Toews vs. Anze Kopitar), they have struggled in the third round against the Los Angeles Kings. 

    In the last slide, we mentioned that with Toews on the ice at even strength, 56.6 percent of all shot attempts are in Chicago's favour—indicating a massive advantage in puck possession.

    However, when Toews is off the ice, the shot attempts are 61-41 in favour of L.A., meaning the Hawks are generating only 40.2 percent of all shot attempts in those situations.  

Hot: Teams That Play Disciplined Hockey

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    The site of two Montreal Canadiens in a penalty box, taken from Game 1 of their series against the New York Rangers, is a little unusual. The Habs are among the least penalized teams in the postseason. 

    This is something winning teams have had in common all playoffs. Three of the NHL's four least penalized teams (in terms of penalty minutes per game in the postseason) are still alive.

    The only exception to the rule is 13th-ranked Los Angeles, averaging 14.6 penalty minutes per game, but the thing working in the Kings' favour is that they have played in heavily penalized series. First-round opponent San Jose ranks 15th in the NHL playoffs in penalties per game; second-round opponent Anaheim ranks 14th.

Not: Faceoffs

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    For a while there, it looked like the teams that were winning faceoffs were winning series. 

    Then the second round happened. The NHL's best playoff faceoff team (Boston) fell to one of its worst (Montreal). The excellent Wild lost out to the mediocre (on the dot) Blackhawks, and Pittsburgh (52.3 percent) was beaten by New York (46.7 percent).

    Now, of the NHL's top eight playoff faceoff teams, the sole survivor is Los Angeles; the remaining three clubs have all been below average in this postseason. 

Hot: The Predictive Power of Dave Lozo

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    Again, we have to mention Bleacher Report's Dave Lozo, whose complete playoff predictions (laid out before the start of Round 1) have been bulletproof so far.

    Lozo went 8-of-8 in the first round and 4-of-4 in the second round. In the conference final, he predicted the Rangers would defeat Montreal in six games (currently New York has a 2-0 lead in that series) and that Chicago would ultimately prevail over Los Angeles in seven games (currently tied 1-1). 

    Picking the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup doesn't look so crazy right at this moment. 

Not: The Kings' Top Line

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    While the Kings are doing just fine in their third-round series against Chicago, the team's top line has been all but silent.

    Kopitar, who had points in 13 of L.A.'s first 14 games, has none through two contests in the third round. Dustin Brown is pointless in four games and hasn't scored a goal since the Kings were playing San Jose. Marian Gaborik, with one assist, is the only member of the trio on the board against the Blackhawks. 

    Statistics courtesy of ExtraSkater.com and NHL.com.