The Stanley Cup playoffs are about to start and fans and the media alike will offer their predictions. Usually people will look at two sorts of numbers when forecasting the playoffs. They will look at the head-to-head numbers between teams facing each other in the 1st round or they tend to focus on the overall regular season numbers. (EDIT: Big Picture Guy has a fanpost showing that head-to-head series are not a strong predictor) (also click here for the Western Conference)
There are problems with either approach. The head-to-head numbers contain a tiny sample size and therefore they can be skewed by injuries, streaks or random luck. On the other hand, the full season numbers can also be deceptive because none of the playoff teams will find the Islanders or Colorado on their post-season schedule. From this point forward every post-season game will be against a quality opponent.
My approach to this problem is to look at a slice of data that falls in between these two extremes. What if we looked at those games in which a club faced another playoff qualifier? For most NHL teams, roughly half their regular season games were versus another playoff club. With the start of the playoffs the NHL drops from a 30 team league to a 16 team league. If we look at the P-NHL (playoff NHL) which teams look strong and which ones look weak?
Before we look at the actual numbers for the P-NHL, it is important to note that in the post-season there are no bonus points for an Over Time Loss or a Shoot Out Win. So I have eliminated these extra points to make the regular season as comparable as possible to the playoffs. In other words the "old school" NHL Standings system.
Beating the Tough Opponents
The table below contains three columns showing three different ways to assess the East playoff teams. In column one we find the official regular season standings. In column two we see those same standing with the "bonus points" stripped away. In column three we see each team's win % against only playoff teams projected over a full 82 games (with no bonus points for OTL or SOW)
Final East Standings
with SOW and OTL
without SOW and OTL
Versus Playoff Team
without SOW, OTL
Analysis: Once you remove the bonus standing points for Shoot Out Wins and Over Time Losses and look only a playoff team versus playoff team contests the standing begin to look quite different. The top teams Boston and Washington stand well ahead of the pack. In the middle we find Carolina, New Jersey and Pittsburgh. Bringing up the rear are Philadelphia, Montreal and the Rangers. The Flyers in particular played rather poorly against the better teams and in the PNHL they would have have finished last 8th instead of tied for 4th.
Offense and Defense
If you simply look at the overall point standings for the East, those numbers fail to convey how badly the Flyers beat up on non-playoff clubs. To get a better sense of this pattern, the table below shows the Goals For (GFA) and the Goals Against Average (GAA) and Goal Differential (GDiff) for each Eastern Club broken down into games played against other playoff teams and those played against non-playoff teams.
||GFA VS Playoff Teams||GAA VS Playoff Teams||Goal Diff VS Playoff Team||GFA VS Non-Playoff Teams||GAA VS Non-Playoff Team||Goal Diff VS Non-Playoff Teams|
Analysis: The Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals torched both playoff teams and non-qualifiers. On the other hand, the Flyers and Devils really loaded up on standings points while taking on the weaker NHL clubs. Only the Bruins, Caps and Penguins managed to accumulate a positive goal differential when playing other playoff clubs.
Team Efficiency and Special Teams
We can take this a step further and look at a breakdown of how each playoff club did with respect to stopping shots (SV%) and converting shots in to goals (ST%) versus other playoff clubs. The same goes for special teams--which clubs were able to generate PP Goals even against good teams?
||Versus||Save Percentage||Shot Percentage||Power Play Percentage||Penalty Kill Percentage|
Analysis: The secret to the Bruins success against the better teams in the NHL was outstanding goaltending. As a team, the Bruins posted an outstanding .933 SV% against other playoff clubs. This is the best in the East by a long shot, 2nd place Carolina posted a .917 SV% against playoff teams.
One big warning sign in the SV% column can be found next to the Rangers. The club posted an excellent .923 SV% against the bottom teams but a very pedestrian .904 SV% against the top teams.
Another potential warning sign is that both the Rangers and Devils really struggled to convert shots into goals when facing playoff qualifiers. The Bruins and Penguins had the best ST% numbers versus playoff teams.
On the Power Play the Devils, Penguins and Flyers fared much worse on the man advantage when facing tougher opposition. The Flyers were an extreme case of this scorching non-playoff teams to the tune of 27% on the Power Play but posting a 19% number versus the playoff teams. The Devils also had an extreme split (23% vs 15%). The Rangers PP struggled no mater who they faced.
On the PK there are no huge splits--it would seem that a good PK works against about as well regardless of the quality of the opposition. The Ranges were outstanding while killing penalties no matter who they faced.
Summary: If we look at games in which playoff teams faced each other the Captials and Bruins clearly stand above the other Eastern Conference teams in these games. At the other end of the scale, the Flyers really struggled during the regular season when playing against teams that would go on to make the post-season.