Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Round 1: The Defenses

With the first round of the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs looming in the distance, now would be as good as time as any as to take a closer look at each team. The New Jersey Devils will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round starting this Thursday at the Continental Airlines Arena. Today, let's look at the defenses of both teams as well as what each team needs to do in order to win the series on defense. I apologize in advance if I make a mistake with respect to the opposition or the Devils.

The Tampa Bay Lightning
Goals Against Average: 3.16/game (24th in NHL)
5-on-5 For/Against Ratio: 0.85 (19th in NHL)
Penalty Kill: 78.4% (28th in NHL)
Times Shorthanded: 305 (2nd in NHL)
Shots Against Average: 27.2/game (4th in NHL)
Faceoff Win%: 48.9% (21st in NHL)

Top 6 (by icetime): Dan Boyle, Paul Ranger, Filip Kuba, Cory Sarich, Nolan Pratt, Shane O'Brian
Top Goaltender: Johan Holmqvist (27-15-3, 2.85 GAA, 89.3 Sv%, 1 SO)

I'm really impressed that a defensive unit like Tampa Bay's that is seemingly Dan Boyle and bunch of guys only allow an average of 27 shots per game. Whatever schemes head coach John Tortorella has been coming up with, they've been working. Discipline is good too, as the Lightning as a whole don't take a lot of penalties. However, while those two stats are quite good, there are two related states that are quite bad. Despite the relatively low number of shots they allow, they give quite a few goals on average. Whilst they don't take a relatively lot of penalties, their penalty killing leaves a lot to be desired.

The biggest question the Lightning has isn't whether the defense can hold up; it's in net. Holmqvist has the better numbers, so it's likely that he's going to be Tampa Bay's starter. However, this means better numbers than Marc Denis; so Holmqvist isn't particularly impressive on paper. While the Devils have a tendency to make mediocre, backup-caliber goaltenders look brilliant, the mentality of opposing offenses are going to be different now in the playoffs than in the regular season. They're going to look for more open holes, they're going to take full advantage of turnovers, and they're going to go hard at the goaltender if the opportunity presents itself.

The most important key for the Lightning on defense, in my opinion, is that Holmqvist must get hot. Tortorella doesn't do line matching to slow down the opposition's scoring lines as I understand it. Nor does he employ any trapping schemes - this is the man who came up with "safe is death" as a coaching strategy. Even if the Lightning outscore the Devils out of the playoffs, Holmqvist will likely face even stronger and more threatening offenses. If he doesn't get hot, forget about Tampa Bay. Especially if the defense commits too many turnovers (fun fact: the Lightning top 6 I mentioned combine for 306 giveaways this season). Aside from that, the Lightning would do well to improve their penalty killing - but they don't go to the penalty box all that much as it is.

The New Jersey Devils
Goals Against Average: 2.35/game (tied-3rd in NHL)
5-on-5 For/Against Ratio: 0.95 (18th in NHL)
Penalty Kill: 85.2% (4th in NHL)
Times Shorthanded: 271 (1st in NHL)
Shots Against Average: 28.4/game (8th in NHL)
Faceoff Win%: 49.0% (20th in NHL)

Top 6 (by ice time): Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin, Colin White, Brad Lukowich, Johnny Oduya, Andy Greene
Top Goaltender: Martin Brodeur (48-23-7, 2.18 GAA, 92.2 Sv%, 12 SO)

The Devils are known for their defense. One of the top checking lines in the league with John Madden and Jay Pandolfo? Check. A strong set of defenseman who handle the puck relatively well (267 giveaways combined this season) who are used to taking on top offenses? Check. The best goaltender in the NHL? Check. A style of play that turns mistakes by the opposition in the Devils' zone into potential scoring opportunities by the Devils? Check.

I'd say the Devils have the edge on defense here: They're in the top 10 in most defensive categories on team stats (I include faceoff win percentage on defense because draws in your own end are crucial) and the team gives up far fewer goals than Tampa Bay (and a lot of other teams). The 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio is telling in that the Devils are significantly better 5-on-5 this season than Tampa Bay and a lot of that has to do with the defense pouncing on loose pucks and the like, the penalty killers stopping penalties cold, and Martin Brodeur stopping opposing forwards cold.

In this series, the Devils do have a high-octane offense to try and get a handle on; however, the Devils have been doing that all season in the higher-scoring Eastern Conference. The one concern I have and the one problem the Devils must address are coverage assignments. Specifically, missed assignments. Most of the time, as evidenced by how the Devils play and these stats, the Devils do a good job in covering offensive players. When a defenseman forgets to pick up a guy in the high slot or a backchecker decides to not knock a guy in front down, that is usually when the other team finally beats Brodeur. With the Lightning being able to create a lot of havoc on offense, the Devils defenders will need to be on point throughout the game.

On paper and from what I've seen of both teams, it's the Devils who have the edge on defense. New Jersey has the better goaltender and the better defensive unit. This isn't to say Tampa Bay's defense is not worth considering, as the Devils will need to challenge them with aggression in order to have any success. If the Devils need any inspiration, I offer the following fun fact:

The Lightning has never won a game where they don't score 2 or more goals this season.

With Brodeur in net and the Devils being strong on defense, limiting Tampa Bay is possible. Difficult, but possible - and perhaps even necessary.

LINK UPDATE ASIDE: Playoff Beard is a well put-together and well-designed site that was formed last season discussing, well, playoff beards. However, Capt. Bosh has kept close track of the season (and facial hair) and is more than ready for this year's playoffs. It even has a section for the Devils, not to mention the Chuck Norris Trophy. Finally, a Chuck Norris reference that has little to do with those now more-than-lame "TOTALLY TRUE FACTS" about Norris. Thank you, Captain Bosh.


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