The Carolina Hurricanes are riding into the playoffs on the back of their hottest streak of the season. By contrast, the Calgary Flames have slid from a commanding double-digit lead for the division lead to a spot above only those teams clinching in the final weekend of the season. Does this bode well for the Hurricanes and badly for the Flames? Have the Hurricanes peaked too soon and the Flames are due? Does it even matter?
To answer these questions, I examined all playoff teams in the past three seasons, grouped them by the number of points they won in the season's final twenty games, and studied the number of combined series they won and lost in the subsequent playoffs. We should expect to see the teams who scored more points down the stretch to have won more playoff rounds than they lost either because they were better teams or were on hotter streaks.
P20: Points in the final 20 games
Num: Number of teams with this many points
SW: Playoff series won by these teams
SL: Playoff series lost by these teams
2nd%: Chance of advancing past the first round
P20 NumS W SL 2nd%
30+ 10 8 9 50.0%
27-29 11 12 11 72.7%
24-26 11 13 10 54.5%
21-23 11 10 10 36.4%
20- 5 2 5 20.0%
With the exception of the very hottest of teams, playing well down the stretch seems to be directly related to your chances of advancing past the first round but doesn't seem to translate into any further success beyond that. In this small sample, teams scoring 27-29 points in their final 20 games had twice the chance of advancing than teams scoring 21-23. In other words, the hot teams advance out of the first round but, after that, all bets are off.
As for the cold teams, only five teams in the past three seasons failed to play better than .500 in their final 20 games and of them only one advanced past the first round, the Dallas Stars in 2007-08. If that pattern holds true, you had better not invest in any Calgary Flames in your playoff drafts this year.
The hottest two teams in the past three seasons were the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06, who scored 35 points in the final 20 games, and the San Jose Sharks in 2007-08, who bagged 34 points. Detroit was knocked off in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup finalists the Edmonton Oilers, who had limped in with only 22 points in the final 20 games, and the Sharks were knocked around in the 2nd round last season by the aforementioned Dallas Stars.
Going into these playoffs this year, keep your eye on the Carolina Hurricanes and the even hotter Pittsburgh Penguins, who find themselves in the hottest group. The Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues, Columbus Bluejackets and Washington Capitals are the other hot teams – all but a couple of them should advance. The Calgary Flames are the only truly cold team, but the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers have both been quite cool.
In conclusion, I wouldn't be surprised if the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins were to advance past the cool Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, nor if the ice-cold Calgary Flames were dropped by the Chicago Blackhawks, but I'll reserve all judgment for the second round and beyond.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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