Keep the puck out of the net. Stop the biscuit from going in the basket. Shoot it around and chip it off the glass and out of the zone. Sounds simple enough for a winning formula. Ah but is a top defence all one needs to win the vaunted Stanley Cup? Survey says… yup.
It really does sound so simplistic and cliché but it’s true. Great defence wins championships. Yielding less goals than the opposition is key for success. Is that good for selling tickets? No. Great for the business of winning? You bet.
In the post-lockout NHL (well, post second lockout in 2004-05) where the league enjoyed a bubble economy boom of goal scoring in the very short-term, defence matters most to winning the Cup. Much like baseball has shifted to pitching, defense and analytics in the “post-PED era,” hockey continues to get more conservative and defence oriented. Unfortunately in hockey, short of making the goals bigger (insert huge gasp from purists) there’s no way to bring in the fences so to speak.
Think preventing goals is important? Here are GA rankings of S Cup winners since lockout:
18 (CAR in 'new' NHL)
— Daryl Reaugh (@Razor5Hole) December 5, 2014
So with that, which clubs stand the best chance at standing their ground and raising the Cup Razor?
- Chicago Blackhawks – First on the docket and it comes as no surprise, using a formula that has brought them two Cups in the past five seasons. Even with Corey Crawford sidelined for the next few weeks and trading Nick Leddy to the New York Islanders before the start of the season, Chicago is the lone team in the league to average under two goals allowed per game, standing at 1.96. On the year, they’ve yielded what is tied for a league low of 53. Not surprisingly, the Hawks are also tops on the penalty kill at 91.1%. Having Duncan Keith patrol the ice for over 25 minutes per contest is also a plus.
- Nashville Predators – Also tied with Chicago for a league low of 53 goals allowed. Nashville has given up 2.04 tallies per game. A healthy Pekka Rinne will work wonders for those numbers. Rinne boasts a microscopic 1.89 goals against average and a sparkling save percentage of .931. The Predators also have Shea Weber and Roman Josi logging big time minutes, both over 26 minutes per contest. Granted Nashville is only ranked 19 on the PK, at 79.7% but at full strength they’re a pretty dynamic force.
- Los Angeles Kings – Again another one of your usual suspects. Setting the standard on the blue line, the defending Cup champs and winners of two of the last three, are once more among the league leaders in stonewalling the opposition. L.A. has let up just 56 markers thus far, allowing 2.07 goals per game. Their penalty kill is ranked eighth, a stout 84.4%. Like the Preds, the Kings are also in possession of an annual Vezina Trophy contender in Jonathan Quick (plus Martin Jones has some nice numbers in limited duty). Quick has posted three shutouts, a 2.14 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. Also helpful, 28 minutes per game out of Drew Doughty and the efforts of youngsters such as Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez.
- Winnipeg Jets – “Everything is coming up Milhouse!” for the Jets. All joking aside, a change in coaching philosophy and at netminder, appears to be just what the doctor ordered for Winnipeg. The Jets rank fourth lowest in goals against, with 58. Their average per game holds that spot as well, with 2.15 per game. Plus their PK ranks a superb seventh, at 85.2%. Anyone who followed the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs is well aware of the theatrics of Michael Hutchinson. In 21 postseason tilts with the St. John’s IceCaps, Hutchinson posted a 1.95 goals against average and recorded three shutouts, until eventually running into the Texas Stars. This season, he has a 1.62 GAA with the Jets. Jacob Trouba is also becoming an anchor on the blue line for Winnipeg.
- Pittsburgh Penguins – One of the aforementioned outlier teams, perhaps this shift and commitment to defence will push the Pens back over those tougher hurdles in the postseason. Pittsburgh has given up the fifth fewest goals, at 59. Their goals against per game ranks sixth, at 2.27. When it comes to specialty teams, the Penguins boast the fifth best kill of 85.6%. They also seem to have a good balanced corps of four guys (Kris Letang, Christian “revitalizing his career post-Buffalo” Ehrhoff, Olli Maatta and Paul Martin). Marc-Andre Fleury has also done his part, registering five shutouts, a 2.07 goals against average and a save percentage of .928.
If the playoffs began today, all of these teams would qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Eight of the top ten in fewest goals against, except for the Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild, are seeded in the top eight, as of this writing. Even the Florida Panthers with a minus eight goal differential, squeak by the Caps, by virtue of being tied for the sixth lowest goals yielded overall. Conversely, eight of the top ten goal scoring teams are in the postseason, save for the San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars. Of the top ten in fewest goals allowed, the aforementioned Blackhawks, Penguins and Detroit Red Wings also rank in the top ten in goals scored as well. Pittsburgh is the only squad to rank in the top five in both.
So which top five would you take in figuring out a Cup winner? A top five offense of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Red Wings and Penguins or a top five defence of the Blackhawks, Predators, Kings, Jets and Penguins? If past is prologue, one may want to choose the latter. The defence rests its case.