NHL Playoffs: Numbers That Hold the Key To the Stanley Cup Champion

Charles StanleyContributor IIMarch 16, 2011

NHL Playoffs: Numbers That Hold the Key To the Stanley Cup Champion

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    When people talk about who is going to win the Stanley Cup, a lot of stats get thrown around. Some fans analyze special teams play. Some put a lot of stock in goals against. Some just cheer for the team with the cutest ice girls.

    What stats should we really be looking at when predicting a Stanley Cup winner? There are some that I think are overrated (not to be confused with irrelevant), and some that are not given enough consideration.

    Granted, these are regular season statistics I’m talking about here. I know that the game (and a player’s behaviour) changes come playoff time. However, you still can’t dismiss over 1,000 games played over 6 months. 

    There is also more than one way to build a Stanley Cup winner. The 2007 Anaheim Ducks played a very different style than the 2008 Red Wings. That being said, there are some stats that transcend a team’s style of play.                   

    Whether you’re making a bet, drafting for your playoff pool or just want to look smarter—here are five regular season stats that are overrated when picking a Stanley Cup winner...and five that don’t get enough consideration.

Overrated: Power Play Percentage

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    In just about every pregame show, the “keys to the game” will include special teams play. The theory is that without a great power play, you just can’t win. The numbers suggest that’s not necessarily the case. 

    This is a bit of a “feast or famine” stat among Cup winners. Five of the last 10 years, the champ has been in the top three in regular season power play. In the other five years the champ has been in the lower half of the league.

    In the last two years, Chicago has finished 16th in regular season power play and Pittsburgh 20th. New Jersey was dead last in power play in 2002-2003. We know all about the stifling defensive system the Devils played back then—but dead last? 

    The top five this season, through games played March 14:

    1. Vancouver
    2. Chicago
    3. San Jose
    4. Anaheim
    5. Detroit

Underrated: Five-on-Five Play

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    So if you don’t necessarily need a top flight power play to win in the playoffs, what do you need?  The short answer is—dominance while playing five-on-five. This really does make sense when you think about it (most of the game is paid five on five, after all), but not many people seem to talk about this when deciding who to pick to win the Cup.

    This is quite possibly the most underrated of all. In eight of the last ten years, the champ has been in the top 10 in five-on-five play. In five of the 10 years, the champ is in the top five. 

    The top five:

    1. Boston
    2. Vancouver
    3. Chicago
    4. Philadelphia
    5. Phoenix

Overrated: Face off Percentage

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    How many times have you heard an announcer talk about a goal being scored because someone won a “crucial draw?”  To listen to them, there hasn’t been a goal scored in the history of the NHL that hadn’t started with winning a face-off.

    For teams that play a possession game, like Detroit, face-offs are obviously crucial. Are face-offs a must-have in order to win a Cup? The Penguins (#19 in faceoff percent in 2009), Lightning (#16 in 2004) and Devils (#16 in 2000) say not necessarily.

    The top five:

    1. Vancouver
    2. San Jose
    3. Washington
    4. Detroit
    5. Columbus

Underrated: Shots on Goal

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    This may seem obvious—I mean, the more you shoot, the more you score, right?  However, I’ve rarely had a discussion about who the Stanley Cup favourites are going to be with any mention about shots on goal.

    The only time the Stanley Cup champion was not in the top 7 in regular season shots on goal was in 2009 (Pittsburgh finished 18th). In six out of the last ten years, the champ was in the top three.

                The top five:

    1. San Jose
    2. Detroit
    3. Buffalo
    4. Boston
    5. Tampa Bay

Overrated: Winning Percentage After Scoring First

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    Another colour commentator staple is the importance of scoring the first goal of the game. The theory says that if you score first, you control the style of game that is to be played. Up until the year 2007, the regular season stats showed this to be true. 

    The last two champions proved that scoring first does not automatically mean that you’ll win the game.  Pittsburgh finished 21st in win percentage after scoring first and Chicago finished 11th last year in the regular season. Anaheim was number 13 in 2007. 

    I don't think this one is not as overrated as some others, but it seems like something else you don’t have to be “the best” at to win.

    The top five:

    1. Dallas
    2. Vancouver
    3. Minnesota
    4. Philadelphia
    5. Carolina

Underrated: Win Percentage When Trailing After One Period

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    When it comes to seldom discussed stats, this one is way up there. You’ve always heard about a team’s record when they’re leading after two periods. What happens when they give up that “all important” first goal and fall behind? Do they have the character, maturity and skill to come back and win? 

    Yes, it’s harder to come back in a playoff game than a regular season game, but consider this: no team in the last 10 years has been lower than ninth in this statistic in the regular season. Half of the time, the eventual champion is in the top five.

    What’s more important than scoring the first goal? How you play when you don’t.

    The top five:

    1. Washington
    2. Detroit
    3. Philadelphia
    4. Tampa Bay
    5. Buffalo

Overrated: Penalty Minutes Against

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    If there’s one playoff maxim that is older than Chris Chelios, it’s that you can’t take penalties in the playoffs. You have to stay disciplined, people say and not give the other team the chance to beat you on the power play. I’ve already discussed how the power play is an overrated stat come playoff time—and I think penalties are, too.        

    In four of the last ten seasons, the Stanley Cup champion was not in the top 10 in penalty minutes against. New Jersey was 21st in 2000. Pittsburgh was number 13 in 2009. Anaheim had more penalty minutes than any other team in the entire league in 2007 and still went all the way. Yes, this was a team built with Brian Burke style “truculence,” but that’s still pretty incredible to me.

    They say you can’t take penalties in the playoffs. Maybe you can—just not stupid ones.

    The top five:

    1. Florida
    2. Detroit
    3. Nashville
    4. Chicago
    5. New Jersey

Underrated: Winning Percentage When Outshot

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    If you’re among the league leaders in shots you won’t get outshot very often—but occasionally it will happen. Whether a team is just not having a good night, or they’re up against a desperate squad on the brink of elimination—every team will have to face this pressure on their way to the Cup. Does your team have the poise and maturity to weather the storm? 

    Eight of the last 10 years, the eventual champion has been in the top 10 in this stat during the regular season. In six of those eight times, they were in the top five. 

    Of course, Detroit finished dead last in this category in 2008 and won it all—but we won’t mention that.

    The top five:

    1. Vancouver
    2. Los Angeles
    3. Philadelphia
    4. Anaheim
    5. New York Rangers

Overrated: Goals Against Average

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    Defence wins championships. It’s one of the oldest and most believed phrases in all of sport. That’s mostly because it’s true. 

    There’s no denying it—you can’t win a Stanley Cup without good goaltending. NHL history is littered with stories of great goaltending performances in the playoffs. I think there’s a little too much focus on goals against, though, when handicapping the playoffs. Just because a team is not in the top three in goals against during the regular season, doesn’t mean they can’t win it all. 

    In six out of the last ten seasons, the Cup champ has not been in the top five in goals against average.  Carolina finished at 20th in 2006 and Pittsburgh came in at number 17 two years ago. 

    Defence does win championships.....but not all by itself.

    The top five:

    1. Nashville
    2. Vancouver
    3. Boston
    4. Washington
    5. Pittsburgh

Underrated: Goals Scored

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    Yes, people discuss offence when trying to pick their Cup winner before the playoffs, but they generally put much more stock in defence and goaltending. They shouldn’t.   

    The winner of the Stanley Cup has been in the top ten in regular season in goals for in nine of the last ten years. The only exception was New Jersey (14th in 2003) and we all know how they won their championships. To take it a step further, in seven of the last ten years the champ has been in the top five in this category. 

    Many people say that defence wins championships. That may be so, but in the last 10 years offence has won more championships.

    The top five:

    1. Chicago
    2. Detroit
    3. Vancouver
    4. Philadelphia
    5. Boston