When looking at an entire season in the realms of the NHL, every team, from the biggest dynasty to the smallest cellar club, plays through more than just a few matches of each game type. Each squad will have its tightly matched games and its routs, its overtime thrillers and its decisive pull-away third periods.
However, how often a team wins its games of each type is the true divider between the upper class—the playoff teams—and the lower class, the golf-course-in-April teams.
One game type in particular is consistently a great deciding factor in how a squad fares over their entire campaign that year. The ratio of blowouts tends to eventually even out; it's how much success a team has in tightly-matched contests that separates the good from the bad.
One perfect example is the Ottawa Senators, who may have had more of a rollercoaster ride over the past three seasons than anyone.
In '08-'09 and '10-'11, when the Sens finished 11th and 13th, respectively, in the Eastern Conference, they had the 26th-best winning percentage in the league in games decided by just one goal both times. On the other hand, when Ottawa captured the fifth seed in the East in '09-'10, they were third in the NHL in that regard.
This trend is, by no means, only applicable in Canada's capital, though. In fact, the winning percentage of a team in matches ending in a one-goal difference has proven to be an uncannily accurate predictor of any club's overall success over the entire season.
Still not convinced? Well, here are some numbers.
Three seasons ago, during the '08-'09 year, nine of the 10 top-ranked teams in this statistic made the playoffs. Included in those nine postseason-qualifying squads were all four teams who eventually made it to the conference finals: Carolina (No. 2 in this stat), San Jose (No. 3), Detroit (No. 4) and Pittsburgh (No. 10).
During the '09-'10 season, the success-to-success comparison
between close games and overall record was even more apparent: every single one
of the top nine teams in terms of close game winning percentage made the
postseason. And last season, once again, the trend continued with seven of the
top nine teams in that regard making the playoffs come April.
Nonetheless, in addition to the correlation between a high winning
percentage in one-goal games and a high winning percentage for the season as a
whole, the same is true from the opposite angle. Indeed, franchises who
struggle the most to come out victorious in tight games also end up as the
bottom feeders of the league in general.
Looking back the aforementioned three most recent seasons, this
also holds true. In '08-'09, just two of the worst 10 teams in terms of this
statistic made the playoffs. Included in those eight non-postseason teams were
the five worst teams in the East during that season.
Is this statistic the hidden key to predicting the success of a team over the course of an entire season?
In '09-'10, 10 of the worst 11 at winning close games missed the
playoff cut line. Not surprisingly, the seven worst NHL teams that year all
found themselves lodged in this group with some fellow un-clutch squads.
Last season, as would be expected as this point, not much changed
as a mere one team out of the worst eight in this statistic played more than 82
games on the year. That one team, Chicago, was no stalwart either, as they
barely made the cut in the West and then lost their first round series.
So are these results absolutely stunning? Not entirely, since a
decent-sized portion of every team's games over a season end up being decided
by one-goal, and winning them gives a pretty nice boost to their record to
start with. Still, the ability to hold small leads and score clutch goals - two
readily evident abilities in teams that rank well in one-goal game records -
seems to be much more vital than, say, having the skills to rack up some
runaway 5-1 wins here and there.
Teams that get good results quite often in close games also enter
the postseason with an edge on the competition.
The parity of the NHL playoffs leads to lots of intense third
periods and overtimes often capped off by a buzzer beater goal. The clubs that
move on from the regular season already experienced at winning these types of
games, no matter what their seed is, are usually fantastic candidates to go
deep into the playoffs.
And to think that all of that just comes from one almost-hidden
(until now) statistic: winning percentage in one-goal games.