We often hear coaches and players talk about the need to "play the right way"; to keep the tempo and quality of play high so it translates into success when it matters most. Bad habits creeping into a good team, at the wrong time, is a death trap.
Is this just rhetoric, or do the numbers support these hockey cliches?
To answer this question we decided to compare winning percentage ("down the stretch"; or March 1st to the end of the season), against the most important metric in hockey - playoff series wins.
What we looked at:
We looked at all the teams that made the playoffs from 2014 to 2017. That's 4 seasons, 16 teams per season; that's 64 occurrences we can measure for any sort of correlation. We divided the teams in to 3 groups:
The "Hot Teams" with a regular season winning percentage of .600 or higher from March 1st onward.
The "Warm Teams" with a regular season winning percentage between .500 & .599 from March 1st onward, and
The "Cold Teams" with a regular season winning percentage below .500 from March 1st onward.
Explore the interactive data viz below at your leisure.
Here is what we found:
The chart below shows the percentage of teams from each group that exit by round. The second chart shows the number of teams represented by that percentage.
The Hot Teams
This group had the best rate of success winning in the first round, winning 62% of the time (or as the chart above shows, losing 38% of the time). This group made the 3rd round and beyond 31% of the time. Again, at a higher rate than the other two groups; the "Warm Teams" 24% and the "Cold Teams" 13%.
The Warm Teams
The Warm Teams? Well they were very middle of the pack. But two important observations:
They lost in the first round (57%) at a similar rate to the "Cold Teams" (60%).
But they had a better rate of winning in subsequent rounds - compared to the "Cold Teams" - including winning 2 Stanley Cups (2 of the 4 during the course of this study).
The Cold Teams
There were 15 teams that entered the playoffs playing below .500 hockey. Of those teams, two made it deep into the playoffs. Nashville made the finals in 2017 and Tampa lost in the conference final in 2016. However, of the 15 teams in this group, 9 (64%) lost in the first round and the other 4 teams (27%) lost in the second round. Nashville and Tampa were very much outliers here.
This is strong evidence that going into the playoffs "cold" correlates with losing early. This correlation is even stronger if you remove the 2 outliers (Nashville 2017 and Tampa 2016); 69% of teams lose in the first round, and 100% are gone by the end of the second round. Needless to say, no Stanley Cup winners from this group.
Stanley Cup Champs
Teams that win the Stanley Cup all have strong winning percentages "down the stretch"; the lowest during this period was .571 by the Penguins in 2017.
So the common, current wisdom says "make the playoffs, anything can happen". This study proves that there should be an asterisk at the end of this statement that says "if you are playing well". The numbers clearly show that the stronger you are playing entering the playoffs, the better your results will be. So, play the right way. All the time.
Lastly, a reminder that numbers lie. There are so many factors that can affect results including injuries, resting players down the stretch and of course lots of luck. Outliers can really affect the numbers. So we always like to provide interactive charts for you to come to your own conclusions. Please share and debate on social media and comment below. Your feedback helps us define and refine our research. Thank you!