Monday, February 20, 2012

Does regular season advantage translate into postseason success?



The final two months of the NHL season are rapidly approaching, bringing with it the added anticipation and excitement from fans all around the league. Teams across the NHL that are fortunate enough to still be in playoff contention are gearing up for their final push in the battle for playoff positioning.

As the playoff picture slowly begins to come into focus, experts and fans around the league begin to dissect all of the possible first round matchups that may take place come mid-April. One of the most prevalent things that people look to help dissect a possible playoff series is the regular season series between the two respective teams. How did they stack up against one another, and what sort of impact does the outcome of the regular season series have on the series in the first round of the playoffs?

Since the 2003-2004 NHL season, there have been 56 different series in the first round of the playoffs. Thirty-five of those 56 matchups involved a team that had beaten its first round opponent in the regular season series of that same year. Did the regular season success benefit those teams in the first round matchups? The statistics show that it really depends on the conference.

Twenty-one of the 35 teams that won the regular season series also won the first round matchup between the two teams in the playoffs. In the Western Conference, however, the regular season series seemed to be meaningless. Of the 12 Western Conference teams that held a regular season advantage on their first round opponent, only six of them were able to win the postseason series against that same opponent.

The regular season series winners in the Eastern Conference had more success, however. Thirteen of the 21 teams that won the regular season series also won the matchup in the first round of the playoffs.

Today's NHL has perhaps as much parity as any other league on the planet. Because of that parity, there isn't much difference in the talent level from team to team. Twenty-one of the 56 matchups in the first round of the playoffs since the 2003-2004 season have been between two teams who split the regular season series. So, which team has the advantage in the first round when the teams have split the regular season series? Again, it depends on the conference.

In the Western Conference, 11 of the 15 matchups in the first round of the playoffs between two teams that had split the regular season series have been won by the team with the higher seed. For example, the Detroit Red Wings and the Phoenix Coyotes split the regular season series in the 2010-2011 NHL season. However, Detroit won their first round playoff series against Phoenix in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a three seed.

The Eastern Conference matchups between two teams that had split the regular season series were more unpredictable. Of the six matchups in the first round of the playoffs between two Eastern Conference opponents that had split the regular season series since the 2003-2004 season, the higher seed only won three of those postseason matchups.

After taking a look at the stats, it's pretty easy to see that the Western Conference has a little more parity than the Eastern Conference. Since the 2003-2004 season, there have been 15 first round matchups between two teams that split the regular season series in the Western Conference. There have only been six in the Eastern Conference.

As the Nashville Predators continue to march toward the playoffs, these statistics may be important to remember when, and if, they make the postseason. If the playoffs started today, and the Predators were matched up against the St. Louis Blues, you could pretty much throw the fact that the Predators have already won the regular season series against St. Louis out the window. If recent postseason statistics hold true, the regular season advantage over a team means absolutely nothing in the first round of the playoffs.

By the same token, if Nashville draws a first round opponent that they have split the season series with, the recent advantage in the Western Conference has gone to the team with the higher seed.

There is still a long way to go before the first round matchups in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are set in stone. The standings change on a daily basis, and there is no way to determine how the rest of the season will transpire. Once the matchups are determined however, these statistics may paint a better picture of who really has the advantage going into the series. But as we all know, anything can happen in the playoffs once the puck drops. That's why the game isn't played on a piece of paper.

(Photo Credit: Leanne Charles)

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