The NHL playoffs have historically been competitive – until now
The NHL had a high-scoring regular season in 2021-22, led by an exceptionally strong group of top teams. But the NHL playoffs are where goals — and predictability — usually go to die. Could regular season trends translate to the wild world of the Stanley Cup?
A thrilling first round later, we have an answer – or at least a better idea of where this playoff is headed. And it looks like many of the most interesting wrinkles from the regular season are still very much alive.
On the one hand, we can confirm that the attack was well served in the first round. After the league scored the most goals per game (3,145) in the regular season since 1993-94, the first round saw even more fireworks, with teams averaging 3,216 goals. per game. This made it the ninth best first-round score since 1987, when the first round was expanded to its current best-of-seven format; the best score since 1995, period; and only the sixth time since 1987 when goals per game actually increased from the regular season to the first round of the playoffs:
|Year||Goals per game
in round 1
Of the teams still alive in the playoffs, all but one – the confusing New York Rangers – were above average in goals per game during the regular season, and the remaining team averaged +0.46. goals per game better than the league norm in attack (compared to +0.36 in defense). So don’t be surprised if the goals keep coming in the second round and beyond.
As for the crowded group of elite teams in the regular season, that seemed to carry over into the playoffs as well…in a sense.
It was clearly one of the most competitive first rounds in recent memory, with five of eight series going to a do-or-die seventh game, and two others going to six games. (The only series that lasted less than six games saw the Colorado Avalanche roll the Nashville Predators in a sweep.) Since 1987, only the first round of 1992, which saw six series go to a Game 7, featured more win-win contests. . Additionally, two of five Game 7s this year have gone to overtime — both happened on Sunday night — which tied the 2022 playoffs with 2011 and 1997 for the most OT 7 games in the first round since. 1987.
All of this means the average first-round streak lasted 6.38 games this year, which is tied with 1991 for the second-longest streak in a first-round since 1987:
|Year||7s game||OT 7s game||Games/series average|
The only thing stopping this from being arguably the greatest first-rounder in modern history was the fact that the games themselves weren’t particularly close. Only 25% of first round matches were decided by a single goal – by far the lowest share of any first round since 1987 – while 31% were decided by four or more goals (the largest such share since 1987). As a result, the average first-round game was decided by 2.71 goals, giving 2022 the widest average winning margin of any first-round since 1987:
|Share of games with margin of …|
|Year||1 goal||2 goals||3 goals||4+ goals||Avg. Margin|
This was partly because trailing teams pulled their goalkeepers earlier than ever, turning single-goal deficits into multi-goal final margins. (Of the 328 goals scored in the first round, 29 came with an empty net — the most in a first round since at least 2014, according to Hockey-Reference.com data.) But the teams also just traded a lot of blowouts to get to seven games, especially early in their streak. We’ll have to see if this particularly odd feature continues into round two.
Either way, the clashes only get tighter from here. According to our Elo prediction model, each second-round underdog has at least a 33% chance of causing an upset.
|Edmonton Oilers||Calgary flames||45%|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||Florida Panthers||44|
|New York Rangers||Carolina Hurricanes||39|
|St. Louis Blues||Colorado avalanche||33|
Two of those pairings are de facto draws: the epic Alberta battle between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers — in some ways, their first playoff encounter since 1991 — and the hotter Florida battle ( but perhaps just as bitter) between the Florida Panthers and the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Although the Panthers and Flames have stronger Elo ratings, no one would be surprised if either team fell to their rival in the second round. Meanwhile, the Rangers and Blues are slightly heavier underdogs, with St. Louis only having about a 3-shot to topple the mighty Avalanche. But New York has a penchant for playing better than its underlying stats, and St. Louis wouldn’t exactly join an exclusive club if it upset Colorado in the second round.
In other words, all the ingredients are there for another classic set of playoffs – especially if round one was any indication of how this postseason is going to pan out.
Discover our latest NHL Predictions.