Part of what makes NHL Stanley Cup Playoff hockey so exciting is the nonstop action combined with close scores at the end of each games. This year the NHL will see one of its highest totals of overtime games in the league’s history (25). The record is 28 in 1993. It has also been a year in which two goal leads have evaporated more times than in the past. Teams seem to be clawing their way back into games.
The playoffs are usually the time of year when coaches and players are paying attention to every detail and commitment to defending is at its peak. So what gives?
Watching teams come back game after game has led me to my hypothesis, score effects seem to be more prominent in playoff hockey than in OT hockey.
By in large the mentality in hockey is still stuck in its old school ways, even at its highest level. When the game is on the line coaches would still rather see the “safe” play of a player chipping it high off the glass or hitting the red line and dumping the puck in. Both of these strategies have a time and place, but neither should be the go to play on a consistent basis. By consistently making those choices you are making an active decision to give a hungry and offensive minded team the puck and another chance to attack your own end. The teams trailing in this year’s playoffs have taken advantage of that and have found themselves climbing back into hockey games.
By “playing it safe” coaches have effectively dumbed down the advantage they have when they put out their more skilled players. Instead of continuing to do what makes them great, they fall in line with the “playing it safe” mentality and no longer make skilled plays that separate themselves from the average to below average player. If a skilled player were to make a mistake that led to a goal there would most likely be severe consequences. In some instances they may even be viewed as selfish, even though if they continued to play that way the team would see way more positive results than negative ones. Coaches would rather take their chances with forfeiting any and all offensive pressure while their goaltender gets shelled instead of pressing play and maybe giving up a scoring chance or two. The reality is if the puck is always in your end you are allowing many scoring chances. Shot quantity is just as dangerous as shot quality, just think about how many lucky and unintentional deflections go in the net.
You can see in the data that “playing it safe” is a real thing, but is “playing it safe” more pronounced in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
The sample size is limited to the 2011-14 range because Extra Skater is the only site that has both regular season and playoff data and their database starts in 2011-12.
As the data shows, it does appear that teams leading in the playoffs by two or more goals are not as good at driving play as they are in the regular season. When the stakes are higher, less” risks” are taken. I believe this is the driving force behind the amount of two goal leads that we see vanish in the playoffs.
Do we see a similar trend with teams defending a 1 goal lead?
The difference in possession is slightly smaller than when teams have a 2 goal lead. However it is still well below the 50% mark.
One reason that we may see possession numbers lower in the playoffs vs the regular season is that teams in the playoffs are more likely than not to be better possession teams and have a stronger ability to control play when trailing. Teams that go into a defensive shell are even less likely to get the puck back for extended periods of time because of the oppositions proficiency at controlling the puck.
However, the smaller sample size of the playoffs makes things a little bit more difficult to compare and draw definitive conclusions when comparing playoffs vs regular season. Perhaps in the future as more playoff seasons are played and more data is mined we can feel stronger about conclusions drawn from the data.
One conclusion that can be drawn is that it might be time for coaches to put more emphasis on attacking even if it may lead to some odd man rushes against. The current model is a breeding ground for comebacks and doesn’t seem to be “safe” at all. Possession is well under 50% in both the regular season and the playoffs when playing with the lead and that doesn’t seem like a recipe for success to me. Safe hockey isn’t really safe at all.
Ryan Wilson contributes to Hockey Prospectus, writes for HockeyBuzz.com and HockeyHurts.com