After years of consistent disappointment in the early stages of the playoffs the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues finally came through. The Sharks bested the Kings in five games, while the Blues needed seven to oust the Blackhawks. That’s something not many people expected. More than 70 percent of participants in NHL’s Bracket Challenge picked the Kings and Blackhawks. You can’t really blame them either after all the clutch performances from the Kings and Blackhawks and all the previous letdowns by the Sharks and Blues. But do either of those hold any bearing for future series or is it just a narrative crutch placed on these teams until they prove otherwise? We don’t need to recap what they did to earn those reputations; all that matters is that everything changed in Round 1. The Blues and Sharks finally exorcised their demons. Or maybe it’s just two teams finally getting the bounces they never got during their previous playoff appearances.
Hockey is a game of bounces, which you’ve surely heard a lot. That’s especially true in the playoffs because every team is just so close in talent that a single bounce could be the difference between glory and failure, between clutch and choker. Watch any game for the rest of the playoffs and look at how the big moments are orchestrated. Sure there are some plays that work exactly as designed, but there are many other instances where a skip and hop by the puck changes the outcome of the game. The Blackhawks felt that feeling late in Game 7 against the Blues when a shot that hit the post teetered along the goal line only to hit the other post and come out. It was a shot that would’ve tied the game. A couple millimetres to the right and the Blues and Blackhawks likely leave with the same reputations that they started it with. Narratives are built on these very moments, and on this ability to simply get more bounces than the other team. That’s how teams ‘turn it on’ for the playoffs: they score timely goals and make timely saves, things teams that ‘don’t know how to win’ simply can’t do. When it counts, the clutch teams execute and they get the bounces they need to win. So let’s measure that ability to see if there’s any truth to the narratives. To measure a team’s execution level, I looked at the difference between actual and expected goals, or a team’s goals above expected. (For those that don’t know, expected goals looks at the probability of a shot going in based on a few factors including location and shot type.
Here’s an explainer from one such model created by Emmanuel Perry). I then compared that number to their regular-season output, since a team that ‘turns it on’ for the playoffs is generally one that exceeds what they did during the season. The difference between actual and expected should show which teams are capitalizing on their chances. A team that can ‘turn it on’ will score when they need it most. If two teams played an even game, they should have an even expected goals total, but the team that wins the game made those chances count. That’s the difference in a playoff series. Here’s what side of the bounces these four teams have been on in every playoffs since the 2010 playoffs, the first Stanley Cup of the Toews-Kane era. I added the Bruins to the mix as well since they won the Cup in 2011 and made it to the Final in 2013.
Unsurprisingly, every Cup but one was won by a team that got the better share of puck luck in the playoffs compared to their regular-season play. They capitalized on their chances and when you combine that with their ability to create or suppress those chances, you get a Stanley Cup champion. The lone exception was Chicago’s win during the lockout-shortened season where they were getting a better share of puck luck too, just not as much as their dominant regular season. On the opposite side of the spectrum is San Jose and St. Louis, who clearly wilted come playoff time. When a big goal was needed, they couldn’t score. When a big save was needed, they didn’t get it. They may have had the lions share of chances during some of those playoff exits, but that doesn’t mean much when you’re not turning chances into goals. It seems as if the numbers fit the narrative. The Kings and Hawks were clutch and that’s how they won their Cups (along with being very good teams, of course). The Sharks and Blues couldn’t execute and that’s why they went home early. When you look at the entire league (1000+ playoff minutes) during the timeframe, the Kings are at the top, the Blackhawks in fourth and the Sharks and Blues bring up the rear. Above them is another notorious choking team, the Vancouver Canucks.
So we’ve got a pretty good idea of who’s been clutch and who’s choked. But does this indicate who will be clutch and who will choke in future series? As it turns out, not at all. The relationship between playoff goals above expected one year to the next is pretty much non-existent.
And yet, conclusions will be drawn based on these past results even though they have almost zero bearing on the future. A team may have been clutch before, but it won’t mean they’ll be clutch again. A team may have choked in the past, but it doesn’t mean they’ll choke again. In fact, saying a team is clutch or choked doesn’t seem fair at all considering what we’re measuring here is which teams got the bounces. Who gets the bounces is an act of the hockey gods and not a tangible ability that can be willed to existence by teams with the most mental fortitude. It’s not enough to just be good in the playoffs, the bounces have to go your way too. And where bounces go, so too does a narrative about the team, deserved or not. Now, not all narratives are bad. That the Sharks and Blues finally pulled it off is definitely an interesting storyline. It’s the lazy narratives built off thoughtless analysis that create reputations based off sheer randomness that are the issue. It was those narratives that had the majority of hockey fans picking the ‘proven winners’ in Round 1. Chicago and Los Angeles just knew how to win and they’d do it again against two teams that didn't, St. Louis and San Jose. The last few seasons proved that. Until they didn’t. And that’s the thing about playoff narratives. Clutch or choke, they’re both dictated by luck and hold no bearing on a team’s actual ability. The Blackhawks and Kings are great teams. The fact that they won all those Cups is not surprising. But they needed a little bit of luck to get there too. It’s not because they were more clutch than the Blues and Sharks, far from it. They were either the better team or the luckier team. Sometimes they were both. That’s what it comes down to in a seven-game series in a sport as chaotic as hockey where the margins are razor thin. Sometimes it’s a couple puck bounces that dictate how the series ends and how the narratives for each team unfolds. This year, the Sharks and Blues flipped the script.