Taking a look at what factor luck plays in being a “Cinderella Team”

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

Since the 2005-06 lockout, we’ve seen quite a few memorable Cinderella Runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In fact, there have been so many, it almost seems inevitable that a seventh or eighth seeded team is going to make a deep run into the playoffs while a top seeded team is knocked out in the first round. The stage was set in 2006, the first year into the new era of the NHL, when the eighth seeded Oilers made it to within one game of winning it all. Since then, we’ve seen the seventh seeded Flyers make it to the Finals, the eighth seed Canadiens to the Eastern Finals, the eighth placed Kings win it all, and many other upsets. 

What goes into being one of these so called Cinderella teams? Are these teams really actually even underdogs? In the case of the Los Angeles Kings, no, not at all. To a lesser extent, same goes for the 2006 Oilers. Sometimes, these are mediocre teams who ride luck all the way through season and into the playoffs. Other times, actually, pretty commonly, these are examples of good teams who had an unlucky regular season, resulting in them being way lower in the standings than they should have been. 

Let’s take a closer look.

Screen shot 2015-05-08 at 12.56.50 AM

  • All stats are at Even Strength, Score Adjusted. 
  • Bolded are teams that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. 

I was actually planning on doing a thing comparing the 2006 Oilers and the 2012 Kings, but it led me to this. Here are all of the seventh and eighth placed teams since the lockout who have advanced past the first round (not counting this year’s playoffs). So what’s the pattern here? For the most part, these teams winning first round series aren’t really upsets. These aren’t hack teams squeezing their way into the playoffs, they’re teams who have strong possession games at even strength and tend to either have a pretty good shooting or save percentage that pushes them to being at least a middle of the pack PDO team. The one real outlier here is the Canadiens team from the 2010 playoffs, who are actually kinda similar to this year’s team, in that they’re towards the bottom of the league in even strength possession metrics, but they were carried by strong goaltending. 

So it doesn’t really seem like many of these teams had terrible luck per say. By luck, I mean PDO, which is a metric that essentially determines a team’s luck. It adds together one ice shooting percentage and on ice save percentage, which are two things largely based on luck, over the given course of time to determine how lucky the team is. Here’s a good rundown if you need a further explanation on PDO. Of these teams who made it past the first round as a seventh or eighth seed, the ones who failed to get any further than the second round were the ones with the highest PDOs throughout the regular season. That suggests that these teams, although they may have had good underlying metrics and a good possession game, were rolling on the success of a volatile stat, either a hot goalie, or unreasonably good shooting percentages. The other day, I took a look at patterns of how teams have tended to fare in the second round based on their first round stats over the past couple seasons. What I concluded was that teams who rely on “luck” tend to fizzle out after the first round. The case is similar here, for the most part.

The Oilers, Kings, and Flyers, the three teams of the bunch who made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, have quite a bit it common. These three teams each have the lowest PDO of any of the nine teams in the group, they all have pretty good Corsi For percentages with mediocre Goals For percentages to go along with them. Of course, since they had pretty low PDOs, none of these three teams had a particularly unreasonable or unsustainable “luck” stat like the other teams did. I mean, eventually Colorado’s 11.6 shooting percentage was going to come up short. So why did these teams finally get it together then? Obviously there must be countless examples of good teams with bad luck losing in the first round that couldn’t get it together. 

That’s the part that’s difficult. What creates luck? How can you predict when it’s going to go away? I can go a hell of a lot deeper and look at more examples, but for now I figure that the law of averages would suggest that teams who ride good luck, or a high PDO throughout the season are going to be relatively inconsistent. On the flip side of that, the teams like Edmonton and L.A. who had poor luck throughout the year, but were still good teams with all things considered, were likely much more consistent. I’m not going to go and try to generalize every team here, or the playoffs, or the phenomenon of luck here, but the conclusion I came to is that average-to-good caliber teams who rely on luck for their success are more likely to fizzle out in a seven game playoff series than an average-to-good team who managed to win games throughout the regular season without good luck. If you look back over the past few years, the teams who made it deep into the playoffs are generally the ones who weren’t towards the top in the league in PDO.

All I know is that hockey is weird, and the playoffs are even weirder. 

Thanks to War on Ice for the stats.