The Key to the Cup
*This article first appeared in No Dangle Zone March 9th 2018.
Now that the trade deadline is gone and the clocks have told us that Winter is apparently over, it’s time you'll hear players, coaches, GM’s, and media all echoing the same thing: the Playoffs are coming. And with that, teams who haven’t shipped out their entire roster just to miss out on the #1 draft pick will all want to put everything they can into gearing up for the post-season. But what does it mean to get ready for the playoffs? Is every game a must-win? Does every team want to be 2015-Ottawa-level hot as they head down the stretch? Does a final winning streak heading into the 1st round lead to more success? Well, it’s time to look at the data for teams who have made it to the post-season and find out what the best strategy is while preparing for the playoffs. Taking data from NHL.com for every year from the 04-05’ lockout to the end of the 2015 season, I put together a set of every playoff teams’ record over the last 25 games of the regular season and their ensuing post-season results. To start, let’s look at a team’s final streak right before the big show and see just how far they were able to ride that wave. Quickly, a streak works the way you’d think, so if a team won their final 3 games before the playoffs started, their streak would be +3 and if they won 3 then lost 1, their streak would be -1. To simplify things, all shootout or overtime wins will simply count as wins, and any form of loss will count as a loss.
The colours on the graph go from blue-cold on the left to red-hot on the right to show how hot a team’s streak was prior to the playoffs. From this graph, we can see that the hottest teams coming into the playoffs survived the 1st, 2nd and 3rd rounds most often, but oddly enough never won the Cup. In fact, it was the colder teams who managed to make it through to the finals that came away victorious most often. To make these numbers mean more, I added a control bar to the graph. This demonstrates the fact that only 8 of the 16 playoff teams survive the 1st round, 4 move-on past the 2nd round, 2 make the finals and finally 1 is crowned league champion. While puzzling to say the least, it seems that the fire always burns out on the hottest teams. Whether it be the 05-06’ Devils (final streak +11) or the 07-08’ Capitals (final streak +7), we can see that no significant final winning streak has led to a Cup in the last 10 seasons [as of the time of this research]. So if blazing success during the final dash to the playoffs isn’t enough to predict who will win the ultimate prize, maybe we should look back a little further. If the mentality after the trade deadline is that every game is a must-win, then perhaps winning percentages over the last 25 games will be better predictors of postseason success. Below is a graph of all 160 playoff teams (keep in mind that Detroit of 05-06’ is a separate data line from Detroit of 06-07’ and so on) and their percentage of wins over the final stretch of the regular season. Note that I am not looking at the teams’ winning percentages over the entire season, but strictly counting how many wins they had in the last 25, 20, 15, 10 and 5 games respectively, and putting these on a line. So for example, if over the last 25 games a team had 10 wins, their winning % at this point would be 40%. And if they recorded 7 of those wins during the last 20 games, their % would drop to 35%. By graphing a line for each team’s winning percentage like this, we can get a greater picture of how hot teams were entering the playoffs and see if this led to a triumphant run. For illustration purposes, you can see that the 10 Cup winners’ lines are coloured gold to differentiate them from the dotted-black non-Cup winners’ lines below.
So what does this super-graph tell us? To start, I really need to transfer my data to Tableau! But also, almost all teams maintain winning above 30% as the post-season nears. This is pretty intuitive, because if you’re losing more than 70% of your games then you’re not going anywhere but the golf course come springtime. Next, from games remaining 25-10, the Cup winners seem to hover between 45-75% (somewhat above the midline of the pack), whereas the non-Cup winners range from roughly 30-80%. There aren't really any points on the graph that show the Cup winners standing apart from the rest though, and it seems that during the last 10 games, everything gets even more chaotic. To get a better sense of which teams are winning the Cup and why, next we have a graph of just the Cup winners and how they performed down the stretch, without all the noise from the rest of the teams.
At 25 games, the winners range from about 55-75% and these numbers only widen as the end of the season nears. We can see here that half of the teams who hoisted the Cup came into the playoffs above .500 in their final games, while half of them came in with lower percentages. Interestingly, only Chicago 09-10’ came into the playoffs winning 4 of their last 5 (80%). And beyond that, along with Carolina 05-06’, the last 4 teams to win the Cup by 2015 (LA 11-12’ / 13-14’ and Chicago 12-13’ / 14-15’) all had poor final 10-game performances to their seasons. Reasons for this can be widespread. Good teams will often clinch earlier and might rest their stars or take their feet off the gas a little. As there isn’t much of a pattern here, we can try one more approach with teams’ winning percentages. If we clean up the graphs from above and average them by each teams’ playoff-round exits, we can see a bit more of a trend (below). Teams who win the Cup average around 59% wins the whole way through, until this final 10-game nosedive.
Other interesting points about this graph are that 2nd round exits (purple) average a better percentage of wins to end the season than teams who lose in the 1st round. The 2nd round exits are also surprisingly similar to the Cup winners up until the 10-game mark. And lastly, 3rd round exits, on average, come in hottest over the final 15 games. Given that this graph doesn’t show much in terms of who will ultimately bring home the Cup (unless you buy the premise that tanking in the final 10 games of the season is a recipe for success), we will need to come up with a new argument. So far, we have seen that racking up the most wins doesn’t help and coming in supernova-hot has always led to a fizzle-out, but maybe the key then is what fellow McGill-Alum, Mike Babcock, believes in: Consistency. Let’s see if teams who were more consistent over the final stretch accomplished any more in the playoffs compared to their less-consistent counterparts. To define consistency, I split the final 25 games of the regular season into five sets of 5-games. Next, we can ask the following: In each of these 5-game stretches, how consistently did a team win more times than it lost? So if a team plays 5 games, how often did they win at least 3 (60%) of them vs how often did they win only 2 (40%) or less? From this, we can say that a team had a consistency level (or Babs-Score) of 5 if they managed to win at least 3 times in every one of the 5-game stretches. A team will have a Babs-Score of 4 if they went at least 3-for-5 in 4 of their 5-game stretches. And so on until a Babs-Score of 0, with a team having no 5-game stretches winning at least 60%. By doing this, we can try to differentiate between highly consistent teams versus the teams who struggled to find it late in the season.
Not surprisingly, only 1 team managed to make the playoffs with a Babs-Score of 0 in this time frame. That would be the (formerly) Atlantic Division winning (yes, they still won the division somehow) 2010-11’ Philadelphia Flyers. In case you don’t remember (or haven’t looked it up doing this research), the Flyers went through 7 in-game goalie changes during their 11 playoff games that year and used 3 different goalies before getting swept by Boston in the 2nd round. Omitting them from the graph above allows us to better see the importance of playing consistent hockey. Teams who had Babs-Scores of 1 (going at least 3-for-5 only once in the final 25 games) only made it past the 1st, 2nd or 3rd rounds 20% of the time and more importantly, never won the Cup. Teams going at least 3-for-5 twice in the final 25 games (Babs-Score of 2) survived the 1st round a little more often (around 35%), but that’s about it. The significance starts with the teams who were more consistent and so below we will look at this more clearly.
In this graph, we have grouped together Babs-Scores of 1-2, 3-4 and then 5, and compared them with the control. Noting the differences, we can see that teams who went at least 3-for-5 in all of the 5-game stretches (red) survived the 1st round more than 80% of the time, survived the 2nd round 50% of the time, and the 3rd round 25% of the time. Looking at just the 4th round survivors (Cup winning teams), consistency remains a major factor.
With the dark vertical line splitting the graph into a consistent side and an inconsistent side, we can see that 9 of the 10 last Cup winners as of 2015 came into the playoffs with Babs-Scores of 3 or higher over their final 25 games. Our only exception here was 05-06’ Carolina, who if you remember were down 2-0 in their 1st round series, losing twice at home, heading back to Montreal, when Saku Koivu went down with an eye injury and rookie goalie, Cam Ward, entered the playoffs and stole the show. Ward posted more wins in the playoffs than he had all season, eventually earning him the Conn Smythe trophy along with his team’s first Stanley Cup in franchise history. So with the exception of this miraculous goalie change and significant injury, which can completely turn around the dynamics of any series, every Cup winning team from the lockout to 2015 has played consistent hockey down the stretch.
To summarize, if you come into the playoffs riding a big winning streak or with higher winning percentages, unless you have attained them through consistency, don’t count on them to last. Chances are that the bubble will burst, and it’s the teams who reliably put together at least 3 wins in each of the final 5-game stretches who have the highest chance of ultimate success.