Right around this time every year I like to take a look at how teams that have clinched playoff spots or are in postseason contention fared against one another during the regular season.
For one thing, it tends to be fantastic playoff preparation. We know, to some degree anyway, that there is correlation between how a team fared against an opponent during a regular season and how that same matchup ended during the postseason. Qualitatively, this makes sense. No two teams are created equal and each playoff club has varying strengths and weaknesses. If you believe that these skill sets create unique challenges for some teams (and not so much for others), then analyzing how regular-season games played out has real value.
The tricky part is that we’re looking at only a handful of games, which means relatively small samples of data. To really tease out how teams have performed against one another, we can look at two varying measures – the percentage of total scoring chances in a team's favour and the percentage of total goals in a team's favour.
I think this can isolate teams that were truly outplayed. If you were outchanced and outscored in four to six games against an opponent, it seems more plausible that you have a suboptimal matchup. It’s not an exact science – it’s blind to injuries, mid-season acquisitions and so on – but it does provide us with something of a playbook.
Below, I have created a data table for each conference based on the remaining possible playoff candidates. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference. Each table should be read horizontally – start with the team you are looking at and see how they grade out against each of the other playoff hopefuls vertically (all numbers 5-on-5).
Not that this is surprising to anyone but it’s pretty clear that Tampa Bay and Boston are the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay has had the better of Washington, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Philadelphia year-to-date. Boston has had the better of Tampa Bay, Toronto, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. Any time you have outplayed such a large portion of the playoff field, it’s really encouraging.
Where it gets really interesting is behind the top two teams in the East. Toronto and Pittsburgh are two teams in two very different playoff environments despite having successful regular seasons. Thanks to the playoff format, Toronto will likely have to beat both Tampa Bay and Boston to just reach the Conference Final – two teams who have had the Leafs’ number all year. Pittsburgh has the same matchup disadvantage but can avoid one or both because they’ll play to get out of their respective division first. And, no team divisionally has had a decisive advantage over the Penguins this year.
The number that stood out most to me though was the fact that the one team that’s outplayed Boston head-to-head this year is New Jersey. The teams have met three times but the ice has been demonstrably tilted in each match. The Devils have outchanced the Bruins 69 to 44 and came out a goal ahead – not an easy feat considering how many teams the Bruins have obliterated this year. There are pretty low odds that these two meet in the playoffs either way, but maybe something to watch going forward.
I’ll end on a positive comment – keep an eye out for Columbus. I’ve mentioned this over the last few weeks but the Blue Jackets are posting some scary numbers of late and have a torrid winning stretch to match their territorial dominance. As it pertains to this piece, only Tampa Bay has truly had the better of them this year – a team that, again because of the playoff format, they wouldn’t see until at least the Conference Final.
Let’s check out the Western Conference now:
The top two teams in the West – and one could argue the top two teams in the NHL – in Nashville and Winnipeg have played some incredibly competitive hockey head-to-head and I think everyone wants to see what a long series looks like there. The Predators did win three out of five but were marginally outchanced by the Jets at 5-on-5. Score effects or not, I think it’s fair to say that Winnipeg may be one of only a handful of teams who can really skate with this Nashville juggernaut.
Although the Predators will likely be the series favourite against any opponent come playoff time, it’s worth mentioning that no Western team has truly outplayed Winnipeg this year. They are the only team out of the 19 remaining that can say that at this point in the season.
The most interesting data point here though is in the Pacific Division. Vegas is going to win the division and has owned Los Angeles and Anaheim all season long. But there are traps here. Note that three potential crossover teams – including Minnesota, St. Louis, and to a lesser extent Dallas – all have a shot at drawing the Golden Knights in the first round. Vegas’ most effective weapon all year has been speed and balance, but they have posted some ghastly head-to-head numbers against this trio. Having 46 per cent of chances against the Wild and 40 per cent of chances against the Blues is, in a word, concerning.
Though Dallas has the worst odds of any team I listed (and will likely miss the postseason at this point), I’m not sure a team shows worse here than Randy Carlyle’s Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks have had a miserable go against the tougher competition in the West all season long – Winnipeg, Vegas, and Colorado have more or less dominated them at evens and most of the other teams appear pretty comfortable against them too. Three years ago, this Anaheim team was as scary as any club in the league. Now, they appear to be in that dreaded spot of mediocrity where they are perhaps good enough to make the playoffs (and maybe win a round!), but otherwise punching up at a bunch of teams within the conference.
A thousand words later and I’m ready for the playoffs. Right now. The last week of the regular season can’t end soon enough!