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Three Important 2015 NHL Playoff Questions Answered - Week 3


The second round of the 2014-15 NHL playoffs continues to roll along and not a day passed without teams looking for answers. The Calgary Flames would like to know more about the latest goal line video replay technology, the Minnesota Wild will be searching for what it will take to defeat Chicago in the playoffs and Montreal wants details of the Kings 2014 playbook for coming back from a 3-0 series hole.

These answers are not easy to come by. Answers to the most important, do-or-die questions never are. This week, I identified three more questions that we are all wondering about. I’ve dug up the data back to the 2005-06 season, analyzed the numbers and determined the answers for you to share at the water cooler.

1. WHAT WILL THE RANGERS/CAPITALS SERIES WINNER NEED TO IMPROVE ON?

Compared to the rest of the series, Game 6 between the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals felt more like free-flowing 1980’s hockey than the tight-checking sport it is today. The score was only 4-3 in favor of The Blueshirts, but the two squads had only combined for 15 tallies in the five previous games. Combine this with each team’s offensive struggles in first round series victories and you have playoff goal-scoring droughts that will give either Alain Vigneault or Barry Trotz sleepless nights depending on who advances to the Conference Final.

To illustrate each team’s offensive struggles, I have charted below the average goals per game in the 2015 playoffs for the teams who qualified for the second round. Look down and to your right to see how far the Rangers and Capitals trail the rest of the pack.

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Minnesota averaged below 2.5 goals/game and Montreal is on pace for even fewer. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Wild lost in four and the Canadiens narrowly avoided a sweep themselves. Anaheim, for example, has averaged nearly twice as many markers as both these teams. Those having trouble filling the net with pucks usually don’t advance in the playoffs, unless, of course, they meet up with another team mired in a slump. But, regardless, it isn’t a good sign looking ahead to the next round.

The results above only represent this season’s playoffs. Perhaps scoring is just up this year and a two-goal per game average isn’t a concern. To understand this, I compared New York and Washington’s scoring rate to all playoff teams since 2005-06 who have qualified for the Conference Semifinal round. The percentile graph below demonstrates how relatively poor both offenses have been.

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I’ll give you an example of how this graph works. The 50th percentile line is the dividing line by which half the teams had goals per game above and half goals per game below. It follows then, for example, that 90% of all playoff teams since 2005-06 are represented above the 10th percentile line. In other words, both the 2015 Ranger and Capital squads fall in the bottom 10%. In fact, only the 2007 Vancouver Canucks had a worse goal-scoring drought among teams making the second round since 2006. And that’s after New York put four past Braden Holtby in Game 6.

2. HOW IMPORTANT IS SPECIAL TEAMS TO MAKING A DEEP PLAYOFF RUN? 

Even after winning two, everyone in Montreal is talking about how ineffective their powerplay is. In the Big Apple, Vigneault and the Rangers are trying all they can to solve the Capitals penalty kill. Special teams seem to make such a difference in the postseason. But how is this analyzed to best understand where its success can lead to Stanley Cups?

I reviewed the special teams data for all playoff teams since 2005-06 who qualified for the Conference Semifinals. In the chart below, I plotted each team’s powerplay success rate along the horizontal axis and their percentage of powerplay goals given up along the vertical axis. Therefore, franchises with the most complete special teams (i.e., strong powerplay and penalty killing) can be located at the bottom right of the graph. Teams struggling in both facets are located in the top left.

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I have also color-coded the dots in two ways. The red dots reference the 2015 playoff teams and the green dots are the Stanley Cup champions dating back to the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes.

There are four noteworthy red dots among the teams remaining in the playoffs. The first two squads that jump out are the Ducks and Canadiens – and for completely different reasons. The Ducks are in the bottom-right zone indicating they have their special teams clicking; the Habs, on the other hand, couldn’t be further away. Both teams are such an outlier that there are no comparables over the past decade.

Washington and Chicago are the other two teams with unique results. Wouldn’t you have expected an Alex Ovechkin-led powerplay to be further right and the notoriously staunch Blackhawks penalty kill to be down a number of points? However, both teams will take what they can get. The Capitals must be ecstatic that their kill has only given up two goals in 28 attempts. And the Blackhawks have a 20% powerplay success rate in this year’s playoffs; enough success to overshadow all the powerplay goals given up against Nashville and Minnesota.

Should Chicago be concerned? That’s where we turn to the green dots. No Stanley Cup champion since 2006 has allowed goals on more than 16.7% of penalty kills. The Blackhawks currently sit at 27.3%. They would need to kill off 21 consecutive man advantages to align themselves with past Cup winners. At this rate, and considering Anaheim’s unparalleled playoff powerplay dominance, Chicago may not survive deep enough to find out.

3. DO TEAMS WHO END SERIES EARLY HAVE AN ADVANTAGE WITH THE EXTRA DAYS OF REST?

After every sweep, all the pundits proclaim how beneficial extra rest is. Players can rest up, heal some wounds and recharge in time for the next challenge. But is there really an advantage? Anaheim swept Winnipeg in four then proceeded to dispose of Calgary in five after enjoying three days more rest. But for every Duck team, you find examples like the Canadiens who waited patiently for Tampa Bay and Detroit to settle affairs before meeting up with the Lightning in the second round. And that hasn’t gone too well for Montreal to this point.

Again, I looked back to historical playoff data following the2005 lockout and analyzed the data for each Conference Semifinal, Final and Stanley Cup series. I divided up the results into buckets based on the days of rest each team had prior to the series. Some had less rest and some had more. The chart below summarizes my findings and all the pundits will be surprised.

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The results are dramatically in favor of less rest. I realize that Joel Quenneville isn’t about to tell his team to go out there and extend the Wild series, but understanding the historical evidence might prove beneficial to teams that advance sooner than their competition. Teams that have two or more days of rest in comparison to their opponents are successful in 35-40% of their playoff series. Likewise, those continuing to play two or more days advance 60-65% of the time. In fact, no team resting more than four days more than their opponent has won a series in five occurrences over this period.

I also wondered how consistent this phenomenon is. Would the figures change much from year to year? I charted each winning team’s average additional days of rest by playoff year dating back to 2006. By now, we should no longer be surprised at how consistent the results favor teams with less rest.

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Since 2008, series winning teams went deeper, on average, into their previous series than their opponents. Results below zero (i.e., in pink) indicate that the series winners had less rest. Those maroon bars above zero are the opposite and represent playoffs in which the series winners had, on average, more rest. The 2006 and 2011 playoffs are great examples of how rest is not all it’s cracked up to be. All seven series after the 2006 Conference Quarters were captured by the team with less rest and it was six of the seven in 2011.

Each series must be analyzed on an individual basis. Perhaps an extra couple of days off will mean your star player can regain top form. But those teams enduring seven game battles will contend that they would rather get right back at it, keep up the momentum and continue without a break in routine. After all, who could argue with last year’s Stanley Cup champions from Los Angeles? The Kings took seven games to eliminate their first three opponents and entered each subsequent series with three fewer days to rest. And they turned out just fine.

I will return next week as the Conference Finals get going. 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.

 



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