Detroit Red Wings: Breaking Down Potential Playoff Foes


Heading into their matchup tonight with the Boston Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings sit firmly in a playoff position in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. According to Sports Club Stats, the Red Wings chances of making the annual post-season tournament sit at 97.9% with just six games remaining. Notwithstanding a colossal collapse, the Red Wings have unofficially clinched a playoff berth. Without much “will they/won’t they” uncertainty, we can turn our attention to pondering potential playoff opponents.

Also according to Sports Club Stats, the Red Wings have an 88.4% chance of playing either the Montreal Canadiens or the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. There does not even seem to be much uncertainty over who their opponent will be as the Red Wings are nearly twice as likely to play the Lightning (58.7%) as they are the Canadiens (29.7%). The only other possible opponent the Red Wings could face in the first round is the New York Rangers (9.5%).

Since the overwhelming likelihood is that the Red Wings see the Lightning or Canadiens, it is worth asking: How do the Red Wings match up?

I created a couple tables comparing the teams regular season ranks in a variety of selected categories to get a good sense of what teams excel at. In parentheses, I listed the value that is being compared in either a percentage or a per 60 minutes of playing time rate. Goaltenders are ranked among the top 30 in ice time at the position.

Starting with the less likely Canadiens, we can look across a variety of measures and how they compare to the Red Wings. Overall, the Canadiens are nine points ahead of the Red Wings have a game in hand. The Habs have also demolished the Red Wings in the season series winning in all three contests so far.

When looking at 5-on-5 skater play, you can see the Red Wings are superior in all four categories I have selected and this where you start to get a sense for how the Canadiens win games. Across score-adjusted possession and scoring chances (as calculated by War-On-Ice), it is clear that the Canadiens are among the worst teams in the league in the ability of their forwards and defenseman to generate and suppress scoring opportunities.

Most of the time you see teams with numbers like these, you are talking about a team near the bottom of the league or maybe fighting for the final playoff spot. The Canadiens this year however have been at the top of the Atlantic Division for most of the year and are the most likely team to finish at the top by the end of the season. Anyone who has paid any attention to the Canadiens know there is exactly one reason why this team has won so much this year: Carey Price.

The presumptive Vezina Trophy winner for league’s best goaltender is having himself a fine season and has nearly single-handedly kept the Canadiens near the top of the league. Whether you look at raw save percentage or adjust for shot quality (adjusted save percentage), Price has been the best goaltender in the league this year.

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For the Red Wings I selected Jimmy Howard as the starter because through this point he has played the vast amount of minutes in goal for the Red Wings and I think ultimately Coach Mike Babcock will end up giving the nod to the more experienced veteran. In any case, the Red Wings are unlikely to get the kind of performance from their goaltender as the Canadiens will expect from Price.

How do the Red Wings matchup? It looks like a first round matchup of these two teams would come down to the play of Carey Price. The Red Wings appear likely to control the puck most of the time (being one of the best possession teams in the league), the Canadiens can only hope cash in on their offensive opportunities and rely on Price remain and impenetrable force in front of the Canadiens’ goal. If Price turns out to be human or the Red Wings’ #2 ranked powerplay get enough chances, the Red Wings will have good chance at the upset.

At a 58.7% chance, the Tampa Bay Lightning are by far the Red Wings’ most likely opponent in the first round of the playoffs. Interestingly, the Red Wings and Lightning appear to be very similar teams by the numbers. Despite the Red Wings sitting eight points behind the Lightning (with two games in hand), they have a very similar set of strengths and weaknesses.

While the Red Wings possession and scoring chance numbers blew the Canadiens out of the water, the Lightning have the slight edge in this matchup. Interestingly, they accomplish superior possession over their opponents in different ways. The Lightning are near the top of the league in generating shot attempts and scoring chances while they are a middling team at defending them.

The Red Wings are the opposite in that they are the very best in the league at suppressing shots and scoring chances while generating a below average number in their favor. The result is the same: two teams who are among the best in the league at driving puck possession and out-chancing their opponents.

In goal, we find more similarity. One season after being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, Lightning goalie Ben Bishop has been unable to duplicate his performance. The numbers are so close, it is hard to call goaltending anything but a wash. Both teams can hope that their goaltender gets hot at the right time and can carry them to the second round. What is more likely is more inconsistency from both goalkeepers.

The Lightning have been an interesting powerplay team all year. Despite a deep and talented forward corps and some of the best 5-on-5 offensive numbers in the league, the Lightning have not been able to duplicate that prowess with the man advantage. The Red Wings #2 ranked powerplay could be a huge weapon in this series as the Lightning penalty kill is good but not great. With the teams so closely matched at even strength, special teams and goaltending will likely be the keys to victory in this matchup.

While both the Lightning and the Canadiens both have their share of strengths and weaknesses I would much rather face off against the Canadiens. Even though hot goalies in the playoffs have been the demise of the Red Wings in the past, when I look at the Canadiens, I see a one man team. Compared with a deep Lightning team that can beat you many ways, I will take an Original Six matchup with the Habs.

What do you think?

*statistics shown courtesy of and

Next: Mike Babcock's Coaching Future

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