Coming off of Saturday night’s convincing loss to the Florida Panthers, there was a lot of concern around the Devils’ fanbase about the team looking shaky in this tough part of their schedule that was supposed to be a proving ground for their bona fides against top competition. The Devils had lost three straight, two of them against fellow postseason near-lock Tampa Bay. Of course, on the heels of that grumbling, the Devils turned around and pasted those same Tampa Bay Lightning in Amelie Arena 5-2 Sunday night, with the score every bit reflecting the deserved outcome, and the Devils bombarding Tampa in the final 40 minutes of that game in particular.
I don’t think Devils fans are especially unique when it comes to this “what have you done for me lately” sort of response to team results. Take two teams with identical records and make one 1-4 in their last five games and the other 4-1, the tone and tenor of those respective fanbases will almost certainly be worlds apart. This is understandable and I’m no stranger to wild swings in attitude based, for instance, on whether or not the Devils won the NHL’s various post-regulation gimmicks to secure an extra standings point, even if that extra standings point has little relation to the quality of the team in a typical hockey game. Either way, by Saturday night, the Devils had lost their previous three games and the mood was turning predictably sour.
Whether the grumbling was warranted in the first place, given that the Devils only really had one game I’d call a truly poor performance (against FLA) and had a shootout loss in which they looked like the better team in general, it got me thinking about the idea that teams need to be ‘clicking’ heading into the postseason to expect to go far. The idea makes sense, you of course want to be playing your best hockey when the postseason rolls around, but how much of that bit of common sense/conventional wisdom is actually reflected in the postseason results when we look at the way teams close out their seasons?
To try and answer this, I went trawling through the pages of Hockey Reference to look at how the teams that recently have had deep playoff runs actually generally look as they head into the postseason. The methodology that I landed on was selecting the four teams that made it to the conference finals or beyond in each season and taking a look at their form entering the postseason. This is not a rigorous scientific analysis, but I think it illustrates a point that probably won’t be that surprising: it doesn’t seem to matter all that much how the final few weeks of a team’s season go if you’re looking to predict their performance in the postseason.
It’s hard to define what frame of games one might consider important to determine a team’s form going into the playoffs, but I settled on the final 10 games, since that is a typical measure of how a team is going of late (enough so that it shows up as a column in the NHL’s official standings). I also made note of some trends in the last 5 or so games when they seemed novel or worth mentioning. I looked at the last 10 non-bubble seasons (since how teams were playing in the final 10 of the bubble season couldn’t be considered that relevant to the playoffs that started four months later) and highlighted the scenarios where a team was “hot” (won 7+ of their final 10) heading into the postseason or, conversely “cold” (NHL .500 or worse). Here is the full rundown of teams that made the conference finals and their records over the final 10 games (plus their season points percentage as an additional reference point):
In the last 10 seasons, 11 conference finalists limped into the playoffs with a bad to mediocre record in the last 10 games of their regular season. Conversely, 15 teams finished the regular season well, winning at least 7 of their final 10. At first glance, no obvious evidence emerges that teams that go deep are playing notably well heading into the postseason. Most are winning more than they are losing, but that is consistent with the fact that these are all playoff teams and the baseline expectation is that they would win more than they lose.
Of the eleven teams that finished on a .500 or worse run, three of them ended up winning the Cup (2022 Colorado, 2017 Pittsburgh, and 2015 Chicago each having lost 6 of their final 10 games). Some teams closed the season winning the last handful of games and a few teams (2022 Colorado, 2021 Montreal, 2015 Chicago) really skidded their way in with losing streaks/downturns. Perhaps different trends show up if you look specifically at the first round, but nothing here gives the impression that it is critical to be piling up points in the final weeks of the season. Separately from this group, one of the greatest playoff flameouts of all time (2019 Tampa Bay) didn’t really show any evidence of wobbling in the results of their final 10 games, in which they were 7-3-0, before their ignominious sweep at the hands of Columbus.
In fact, teams in this group had a slightly lower points percentage over the final 10 games (.630) than they did for the season as a whole (.644). This could probably be attributed to teams resting some guys or taking their foot off the gas if they are locked into playoff spots, but the point holds that the teams going deep in the postseason aren’t much connected to whether or not they were overperforming or underperforming in the standings as the season came to a close.
Part of this is likely the maddening nature of the sport of hockey, where fortunes for any team can turn in an instant and margins in the playoffs in particular are razor-thin. Looking at record alone also doesn’t necessarily fully capture how a team is actually playing, but results are also what fans fixate on, which was really the impetus for this piece. I think the main takeaway is that yes, we should be hoping the Devils are generally playing solid hockey as they head towards the season’s end, but we should also be cognizant of the fact that it probably doesn’t make much difference when the puck drops in the postseason whether they went 4-4-2 or 7-2-1 over the final few weeks in the leadup.