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Behind The Numbers

Handicapping Flyers', Red Wings' fight for wild card

Philadelphia's power play, Detroit's defense key factors in battle for playoff berth

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

There's a fierce battle for the final wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference between the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings, who entered play Thursday with 83 points apiece. The Flyers hold the tiebreaker by virtue of having one game in hand.

If the Red Wings miss the playoffs, it would be for the first time since the 1989-90 season. For the Flyers, it would be for the third time in four seasons.

Who has the edge? Statistically there are very few distinctions between the Red Wings and Flyers. Whether weak or strong, these teams are well-matched in most categories, including goaltending, penalty kill and coaching experience.

Each team has gotten solid goaltending. The Flyers have a .934 save percentage in even-strength situations, No. 2 in the NHL behind the New York Rangers (.936), and slightly ahead of the Red Wings (.930), who are in a five-way tie for eighth.

On the penalty kill, they equally are average. The Flyers rank No. 15 in the NHL by allowing 98.0 shot attempts per 60 minutes while shorthanded, just ahead of the Red Wings, who are No. 17 with 99.1.

The coaching staffs equally are inexperienced relative to the rest of the League. Each has a first-year NHL coach, Jeff Blashill in Detroit and Dave Hakstol in Philadelphia, and began this season ranked No. 29 and No. 30 in the NHL in terms of the fewest games of head coaching experience at any level on staff.

If either team has a slight edge over the other, then it's Philadelphia's potent power play and Detroit's stronger defense.

Philadelphia's advantage: Power play

Offensively, Philadelphia has an advantage against Detroit, but it is a slim one that only becomes clear when isolating each team's effectiveness with the man-advantage.

In traditional terms, the Flyers are No. 17 in the NHL with an 18.2 power-play percentage, just ahead of the Red Wings, who are No. 20 at 17.6 percent. But in terms of generating shot attempts per 60 minutes, the Flyers are No. 6 with 106.8, well ahead of the Red Wings, who rank No. 14 with 96.9.

The key to Philadelphia's scoring is center Claude Giroux, who has been among the best power-play specialists in the League for several seasons. He leads the NHL with 159 power-play points in 357 games since 2011-12, ahead of Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who has 145 power-play points in 355 games.

Video: ARI@PHI: Giroux nets power-play goal for 500th point

Jakub Voracek ranks No. 14 in that time span with 104 power-play points, and Wayne Simmonds is No. 24 with 97. This season, those three players have combined for 64 points with the man-advantage.

The power play has been reinforced by defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who leads NHL rookies with 20 power-play points in 54 games, and Brayden Schenn, whose 18 power-play points in 70 games is within one of his single-season NHL high.

Detroit's advantage: Defensive play

The fact Detroit is the superior possession-oriented team isn't clear using shot-based metrics. The Red Wings are No. 11 in the NHL with a shot-attempt percentage of 51.8 (meaning they take 51.8 percent of all shot attempts in their games), and the Flyers rank No. 16 at 50.0 percent.

When considering zone time, in the form of the percentage of faceoffs each team starts in the offensive zone relative to the defensive zone, the Red Wings' advantage becomes clear. They have a 54.0 zone start percentage, which ranks No. 2 in the NHL behind the Los Angeles Kings (55.5 percent); the Flyers are No. 20 at 49.4 percent.

Regardless of how they are measured, puck possession metrics are the start of a conversation, not the end of one. Detroit may have an edge in this area, but where does it come from?

Video: DET@PHI: Datsyuk's wrister cuts the lead to one

Though it's helpful to have players like Pavel Datsyuk, arguably the best puck-possession player in the NHL, the real distinction between these teams is in the defensive zone. Detroit has allowed 2,825 shot attempts this season, the second-fewest in the NHL behind Los Angeles with 2,815, and the Flyers rank No. 16 with 3,180.

The problem could be Philadelphia's defense, which has been impacted by age and injuries, including a season-ending wrist injury sustained by top-four defenseman Michael Del Zotto on Feb. 13. Even at full strength, Philadelphia wasn't built for shot suppression.

The Boston factor

There is one scenario where the Red Wings and the Flyers make the playoffs. If each plays well down the stretch, and the Boston Bruins, who just got swept on a four-game road trip (0-4-0), continue to lose, then the race might end quite differently.

Otherwise, the Flyers and Red Wings are very well-matched, and even the smallest advantage could make the difference in a playoff race that might not be decided until they play each other, April 6 at Joe Louis Arena, and through to the final game of the season.

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