Who's the Best Against the Best in the NHL?

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistApril 7, 2014

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 19: David Krejci #46 of the Boston Bruins and Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks face off to start Game Four of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 19, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There are a lot of fundamental differences between the playoffs and the regular season in hockey, but one of the most impactful is that in the postseason every game comes against an opponent who is at least average.

No longer can teams pile up wins against the Buffalos and Edmontons of the league. Sure, some of the first-round opponents are on the underwhelming side, but as the playoffs carry on those teams too are weeded out, and soon all that’s left in the race for the Stanley Cup are the NHL’s elite clubs.

Given that, it’s interesting to look and see which teams have done well against elite opponents.

ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 10:  David Backes #42 of the St. Louis Blues defends a pass from Ryan Getzlaf #15 of the Anaheim Ducks during the game on December 10, 2008 at Honda Center in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)
Debora Robinson/Getty Images

How does one define an elite team? I’ve used goal differential, taking the NHL’s top seven teams (Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, Anaheim, San Jose, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles) in that category as the league’s elite clubs. Some may prefer a definition that excludes Los Angeles (only 96 points) or includes Colorado (107 points), but likely most fans would agree on a group made up of roughly the same six-to-eight clubs.

The chart that follows treats overtime wins and losses as straight wins and losses (just like the playoffs) and shootout wins or losses as regulation/overtime ties (since the shootout isn’t used in the postseason, including it here would only obscure the results). Here’s how the NHL’s team stack up against elite clubs:

Records Against Elite NHL Teams
5San Jose78447.4%
14Los Angeles710242.1%
16New Jersey610037.5%
17St. Louis510336.1%
23NY Islanders411229.4%
24NY Rangers411229.4%
25Tampa Bay411229.4%

Chicago, unsurprisingly, sits at the top of this list, but teams No. 2 and No. 3 caught me by surprise. Colorado was the second-worst team in the NHL last season; this year it has excelled against the league’s top teams. Anaheim fell in the first round last season and relies a lot on the percentages to such a degree that I was hesitant to include it in this list of elite teams, but it's been very good against top opponents this year.

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 3:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates the puck around Torey Krug #47 of the Boston Bruins during NHL action at the Air Canada Centre April 3, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

Other positive surprises include Nashville and Toronto, two teams who crack the top 10 despite real problems this season.

On the negative end of the scale, the highly touted St. Louis Blues have not been an effective team against top opponents, and the Kings and Penguins have been only average.

There is, however, a big caveat to this kind of consideration.

It’s fair to wonder how predictive this kind of look is. In taking only games against elite opposition, it’s true that we’re focused on the toughest tests for each of these teams, but we’re also nixing a huge sample of work, and it isn’t clear that the things that help a hockey team beat Edmonton or Columbus are different than the things that help it beat Chicago or St. Louis.