What can previous playoffs series tell us about what’s going to happen in the second round, and beyond?

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 3:01 am by Cam Lewis

The playoffs are crazy. There’s no other way to put it. And of course, this year has been no different. Although the playoff are wacky and unpredictable, there does appear to be a pattern over the past couple of seasons that suggests what it takes to win. Underlying stats would suggest that generally, the team with the better Corsi For percentage wins the playoff series, but when that doesn’t happen, what’s the deal? Is it luck? How far can that carry a team? What can the last two years of first round playoff match ups tell us about where the teams in this year’s playoffs are headed? 

Let’s take a look. 

Even Strength, Goal Adjusted Stats from the first round of the 2015 NHL Playoffs

Screen shot 2015-05-05 at 11.28.40 PM

Even Strength, Goal Adjusted Stats from the first round of the 2014 NHL Playoffs

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Even Strength, Goal Adjusted Stats from the first round of the 2013 NHL PlayoffsScreen shot 2015-05-05 at 11.28.54 PM

*On net percentage means the percentage of unblocked shot attempts directed that made it on net

* Bolded are teams that also went on to win their second round series 

Is there a pattern here?

So, what’s the pattern here, if there even is one? At first glance, it’s pretty obvious that the team with the higher Corsi For percentage, meaning the team who tends to drive possession and creates the most offensive opportunities, wins the series. But then you have these teams who get shelled in the possession game and still manage to win. You see any combination of really, really good goaltending willing a team through their series, or an unreasonably high shooting percentage or poor opposing goaltending, or even dominance on special teams help push the weaker team through to the next round. 

In 2013, three of the eight series winners led their opponents in Corsi For percentage by a substantial amount, three had the exact opposite fate and still managed to win, while two teams came out on top in a tight possession series. In 2014, seven of the eight winning teams won the Corsi battle, with two of them winning by a pretty big margin, while only one team didn’t win. This year is a little bit unique, as no series winner truly dominated in Corsi at all, while two teams were shelled pretty heavily. So, all in all, we have 24 series winners through those three years, 18 on which either had a better Corsi For percentage, or won a series where the difference was relatively negligible. Just six teams of the 24 won their series while having a significantly lower Corsi For percentage than their opponents. 

I figure this suggests the importance of strong even strength play in the playoffs. You’ll see some winners in which a team is clearly the benefactor of strong play on special teams, which, ultimately comes down to a combination of luck and skill. I mean, you can’t say converting on 33 per cent of your power play opportunities is luck, there’s obviously skill and some “getting the job done” involved, but getting power play opportunities in the first place isn’t something you can rely on in a playoff series. 

What does this mean?

One conclusion I did come to, though, is that luck seems to come to an end after the first round. Teams who either ride really hot goaltending, a high shooting percentage, or special teams play, tend to fizzle out in the second round. Take a look at the bolded teams above, the ones who advanced to the Conference Finals in their respective years and what they did in the first round. 

In 2013, the Rangers took down Washington on some incredible goaltending by Henrik Lundqvist, but they went on to lose to Boston who played a dominant possession game in the first round. Same goes for San Jose who couldn’t keep up their high on net shot attempt percentage against the Kings, who like the Bruins, played a strong possession game with strong goaltending. The only real outlier here is the Penguins and Senators series, in which both teams had below 50 Corsi For percentages in the first round, but Ottawa’s shooting and save percentage were much more unrealistic than Pittsburgh’s, which would explain that series win. The trend continues in 2014, although Minnesota appears to be an outlier, but their strong statistics are likely more a testament to how weak an opponent Colorado was in the first round more than anything. 

Anyways, it’s pretty difficult to come to black and white conclusions about the playoffs. Goalies get hot, power plays go nuts, players over perform, but generally, luck tends to die out after the first round. The teams that ride high shooting or high save percentages to veil their poor even strength possession game get hammered by the law of averages when they face a really good team in a seven game series. So we can kinda predict where this round is going to go. Minnesota is pretty clearly at the end of their luck, as are the Flames, although I have a hell of a lot more faith in Calgary coming back from 2-1 than Minnesota from 3-0. I mean, I’m not saying the better team has to win every time, Calgary can certainly win this series, but it’s going to take a lot, because objectively speaking, they just aren’t the better team. On to the Eastern Conference. While there isn’t a lot to say about the Rangers and Capitals series, which appears very evenly matched, and as amazing as Price is, Montreal can’t maintain this unbelievable save percentage forever. 

Thanks to nhl.com and War on Ice for the stats.