Trietley: Hockey teams’ reputations can be misleading

By Greg Trietley

Every hockey fan knows that the Washington Capitals have a lethal offense and that the Nashville… Every hockey fan knows that the Washington Capitals have a lethal offense and that the Nashville Predators win because of strong defense and goaltender Pekka Rinne.

Except only five playoff teams scored less in the regular season than Washington, and Nashville had a goal-scoring rate comparable to those of Detroit and Chicago while finishing among the bottom half of playoff teams in goals against.

Teams have stereotypes: “high-flying” Washington, “tough” Philadelphia and “anemic” Nashville. None of them are true. Instead, look to statistics for some answers before the playoffs begin Wednesday.

The eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators, who are largely considered a first-round speed bump for New York, actually dominated the Rangers in the regular season. The Senators beat the Rangers in their final two regular-season matchups: a 3-0 shutout victory in January and a 4-1 win last month.

No playoff team allowed more goals than Ottawa did in the regular season. If regulation, overtime and shootout losses are grouped together, the Senators enter the playoffs 41-41. Yet they had New York’s number, winning three of four this year.

No team in the East allowed fewer goals per game than the Rangers. But in the West, St. Louis makes New York look like Toronto. The Blues allowed fewer than two goals per game in the regular season, a feat unseen since the lockout. Both their goalies (Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak) finished in the top five league-wide in shutouts and goals-against average.

But the Blues aren’t an especially talented team, and head coach Ken Hitchcock’s defensive system usually earns more praise than Elliott and Halak. First-round opponent San Jose, loaded with skill, is a trendy pick to upset the Blues, although the Sharks will have to win at least one game in the Scottrade Center — where St. Louis lost just six times in regulation this season.

St. Louis’ low-scoring, defense-first attitude reflects the Western Conference as a whole. The NHL’s top eight scorers all resided in the East this year, and no West player who made more than two appearances averaged more than a point per game. The East had 10 players do so.

The West’s top three in goals? Corey Perry (37), Radim Vrbata (35) and Michael Ryder (35). In the East, meanwhile, New York Islanders winger Matt Moulson quietly scored 36.

On the topic of scoring, consistency counts in the NHL. But consistency is tougher to find in players than in interference rules. Only Steven Stamkos and Henrik Sedin have finished in the top 10 in scoring in each of the past three seasons, and nobody has done it in each of the past four. Hockey’s best players have changed drastically since 2006, when Jaromir Jagr, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Eric Staal all scored 100 points, and Jonathan Cheechoo scored 56 goals.

The model of consistency on defense, Nicklas Lidstrom makes the Detroit Red Wings the stellar franchise they are. Lidstrom missed 12 games this year, and Detroit went 3-7-2 in that span.

Some expect Los Angeles to give Vancouver a challenge in the first round, but the Kings’ offense — a powerhouse on paper — has yet to produce on the ice. Over the past three months of the regular season, goaltender Jonathan Quick lost 1-0 five different times.

According to The USA Today, Vancouver forward Daniel Sedin will likely return soon from a concussion, making the Canucks the favorite in the West. In the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a popular pick, even though they allowed 41 goals in the final 11 games of the regular season (3.72 goals against per game).

The Penguins play Philadelphia in a game considered a difficult matchup because of the intrastate rivalry. But the Flyers, without Chris Pronger this year, haven’t shut anyone down — they are 13th among playoff teams in goals allowed. That bodes well for Pittsburgh.