The first round of the 2014-15 NHL playoffs is over and there is no shortage of unanswered questions. Will the duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ever win another Stanley Cup? Why can’t the St. Louis Blues succeed in the postseason? And whose bench is Mike Babcock chomping gum behind next fall?
These questions and more are better suited for offseason analysis. Right now, the hockey world is instead focused on eight teams battling it out in hopes of advancing further into the playoffs. Each second round series has dropped the puck and the questions just keep on coming.
1. HOW DO TEAMS PERFORM IN A PLAYOFF SERIES AFTER THEIR OPPONENT OUSTED THEM FROM THE PLAYOFFS THE PREVIOUS TWO SEASONS?
The Montreal Canadiens won their second and third consecutive Stanley Cups in 1977 and 1978 at the hands of Don Cherry’s Big Bad Bruins. But Boston was determined to end their playoff misery versus the Canadiens in 1979. Again, the Bruins met the Canadiens in the playoffs, only this time it was the Semifinals. Boston was certain to avenge the previous two seasons in Game 7 as they led Montreal 4-3 in the dying minutes. You know the rest. Something about too many men on the ice, Guy Lafleur’s flow and a subsequent overtime winner. In a moment, the Bruins were submerged into heartbreak yet again.
The Minnesota Wild’s two previous playoff forays versus the Chicago Blackhawks were not as deep into the postseason, but that doesn’t lessen the hurt. But then there is the salt on the wound. Minnesota’s deep-seated hatred for the Blackhawks goes back years to the days of the North Stars, to the chants of “Secord Sucks” and to the ’82 and ’83 playoffs when Chicago captured series over Minnesota in the old Norris days. However, they met again in 1984 and the North Stars prevailed.
Considering there were so many great rivalries that reunited in consecutive playoffs, I decided to look back to the dawn of the expansion era in 1967-68 and determine what is most prevalent – do teams more often take the path of the 1979 Bruins or do they rebound like the 1984 North Stars?
The pie chart above indicates that 35% (or 7 of 20) teams won their playoff series against an opponent who eliminated them during the previous two playoffs. The data shows that some teams just have your number. It can be difficult to get around the mental aspect of believing you can overcome.
This scenario didn’t occur as much over the past two decades as it did in the divisional playoff alignment of the 1980’s. However, the Wild need to look no further than the most recent example from only a few years ago. The Vancouver Canucks got over their two-year hurdle with Chicago back in 2011 and rode that confidence all the way to the Cup Final. Minnesota hopes to seek similar success or, even better, raise Stanley. But, if so, they will be going against the trend.
2. ARE THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS SUCCEEDING BECAUSE THEY ARE BENEFACTORS OF MORE BALANCED SCORING?
Joel Ward is Mr. Clutch come the playoffs. Evgeny Kuznetsov looked like a seasoned sniper on his series winner over the Islanders. Even Karl Alzner has two goals. Could the 2014-15 Washington Capitals finally have that legitimate secondary scoring everyone has been waiting for since Alex Ovechkin stepped onto the ice in D.C.? This added dimension may just dictate how deep Washington survives this spring.
I wanted to prove that playoff success in the U.S. capital is tied directly to the proportion of team goals scored by Ovechkin in the regular season and playoffs. The chart below shows this allocation for each season the Capitals reached the playoffs.
Washington had the most playoff success in the Ovechkin-era in 2009, 2011 and 2012. In two of these three seasons (2008-09 and 2010-11), a regular season with more balanced output was followed by playoffs in which Ovechkin was relied on more often to fill the net. In contrast, some of their quick exits in 2008 and 2013 were the exact opposite proportion.
The 2014-15 regular season and playoff (up to the end of the first round) numbers resemble last year’s allocation between Ovechkin and his teammates. The only difference is the Capitals have advanced to the second round this season – a strong argument for the importance of their secondary scoring. However, Ovechkin’s proportion of goals scored exceeds 20% indicating that the team hasn’t had stable secondary scoring throughout the 82-game regular season. Washington fans will hope the rest of the postseason plays out in one of two ways: The balanced attack is a new trend here to stay, or Ovechkin will start producing just in case the first round was an anomaly. After Games 1 & 2 versus the Rangers, Ovechkin is at least holding up to his end of the deal.
3. HOW UNLIKELY WAS IT THAT THE CALGARY FLAMES WON A PLAYOFF SERIES THIS SEASON?
We have been hearing it all year. The Calgary Flames are likely luckier than they are good. Why? It has to do with puck possession. The Flames would have been competing for Connor McDavid, not Lord Stanley, if points were never awarded and standings were determined based on puck possession analytics alone. Of course, this fact is even further magnified since they have beaten the Vancouver Canucks and advanced into the second round.
I decided to demonstrate how improbable their season and playoffs have been using 5-on-5 Corsi data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com and basic statistical models. Corsi is a team’s ratio of on-ice shots (hit, missed or blocked) to the total on-ice shots both for and against. Therefore, the more shots taken, and the fewer shots taken against you, are indicators you are controlling the game (i.e., possessing the puck).
Calgary’s 2014-15 regular season 5-on-5 Corsi was 44.5% which, in theory, means they were controlling the game 44.5% of the time during all 5-on-5 situations. Detractors will argue that 5-on-5 Corsi doesn’t account for the Flames incredible luck or their stellar 4-on-4 and shootout success. But no one can deny how unlikely it is to have playoff success with puck possession numbers like Calgary does this season.
I have compared the 2014-15 Calgary squad to every team’s regular season 5-on-5 Corsi since the 2007-08 campaign. This Flames team is at the 4th percentile, meaning that only nine teams (out of 240) since 2007-08 have had a more ineffectual puck possession season. I also separated the data of those teams that won opening round playoff series to demonstrate how unlikely it is that the Flames made the second round.
The orange bar represents all NHL teams since 2007-08. The 2014-15 Flames are shown in red and, as indicated, are significantly below the mean at the far left tail of the curve. The blue line represents those teams advancing to the second round over the same period. Calgary is at the very edge of this distribution with the lowest 5-on-5 Corsi to go this deep into the playoffs.
The other feature of this graph is its ability to demonstrate how strong puck possession influences playoff success. The shift of the blue curve to the right signifies that teams advancing into the second round have better Corsi results than those that don’t. The shift to the right may look minor, but this curve is tall and skinny, which means that only small changes in the results can still have statistically significant variability. This just proves that the Flames are indeed lucky – that is, lucky to be in the second round.
I will return next week as the second round of the playoffs continues. In the meantime, let me know what burning questions you have and I will try my best to include them in upcoming analyses.
Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.