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We’re closing in on the end of the first round of the NHL playoffs so it’s about time this blog started talking about something again. How about we look into some perceptions about the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs?

Perception: Crosby & Malkin had a brutal playoffs. Reality: the first round exit by the Penguins wasn’t completely unexpected. After all, the Flyers were an exceptional team that matched up well versus the Penguins during their regular season series. But nobody seemed to expect the Flyers jumping out to a 3 games to none lead, something that has almost always assured an eventual series victory. But now it’s time for the media to point fingers. Sidney Crosby looked frustrated, so he mustn’t have been playing well, right? Evgeni Malkin (the likely Hart-trophy winner) didn’t show up like he had all season, so this is his fault right?

ESPN’s Scott Burnside suggested, “The Penguins’ stars, seemingly so much bigger and brighter, simply didn’t deliver enough.” In another article, Burnside asked “Should the Penguins blow it up?” He then remarked, that the Penguins might consider seriously altering the core of their roster. He writes, “Neither Crosby nor Malkin had a memorable series, even though they combined for 16 points and both were outshone by the work of Claude Giroux. That’s what happens when you’re two of the best players in the world: When you don’t win, the tough questions get asked.”

Really?

We need to ask tough questions of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin despite the fact that they (and Jordan Staal) carried the Penguins through the entire series? Let’s put the top Penguins’ playoff performance into a bit of perspective. Both Crosby and Malkin had 8 points in the 6 game series, or 1.33 points per game. Since the lockout, only 31 players have played in at least 4 games and averaged 1.33 points per game in the playoffs (at the time of this writing). So Crosby and Malkin (along with Claude Giroux and Jordan Staal) are in some pretty elite company with their output from that series. That’s hardly the disappointing production that “Penguins forwards failed” storylines would have you believe.

But you may suggest that this kind of examination is a bit disingenuous, perhaps thinking that Crosby and Malkin couldn’t keep up this kind of production over a 2nd round matchup. It’s not all that out of character, and both guys have the playoff resume to back it up. Malkin’s career playoff points per game is 1.19, and Crosby’s 1.32. Quite literally there are only 3 guys in the whole NHL who are at their playoff production since the lockout: Crosby, Malkin and Alex Ovechkin. Or maybe you want to see a more inclusive list: They’re still two of the top three. Even a correction to their averages wouldn’t be a very precipitous drop in the next series for Crosby or Malkin, and they were having mind-blowing career years in the regular season. It’s not hard to imagine that they would continue or improve on their excellent play in the first round.

Or if you like advanced stats, let’s look briefly at the Corsi stats for both Crosby and Malkin. Malkin was absolutely dominant in generating shots and Crosby wasn’t awful. A six game series does not a good sample make, but we heard so much about how Flyers rookie Sean Couturier was shutting down the likely Hart-winner Malkin. If Malkin was actually being limited (and there’s no evidence to suggest he was considering both his Corsi and his actual point production), can you imagine the kind of historic performance #71 would have had if left unwatched?

Quite simply, the Penguins were doomed by the abysmal goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. Since 2000, only 18 goalies have played 4 or more playoff games in a year and had a save percentage less than .880%. Fleury is the worst of all with his disgustingly poor .834%. There is simply no way to think that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal could have shouldered enough of the load to overcome the sort of goalie and defense they were playing in front of. Any suggestions that the Penguins should blame their superstar centers are just wrong.

Perception: You have to be hot in going into the playoffs to succeed. Reality: The early exit by the Vancouver Canucks at the hands of the LA Kings is pretty shocking. Despite the perception that the Presidents’ Trophy winner is somehow cursed, they just aren’t. But another narrative that the US hockey coverage has pulled out is the idea of momentum coming into the playoffs. Paraphrasing Barry Melrose from commentary on the late-night April 22nd edition ESPN’s SportsCenter, “you gotta be hot coming into the playoffs to win.” He used this to describe why LA had defeated the Canucks.

Ignoring the fact that this analysis is incorrect for the LA-Vancouver series (the Canucks were 8-1-1 in their last 10 regular season games, the Kings 5-2-3), I couldn’t help but ask: do you actually need to be strong closing out the year to succeed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? In order to test this, let’s look at the records of the Cup Finals teams for since 2001 in their last 10 regular season games and find the average last-10-games record. Here’s what we get:

W L T OTL
Cup Winner Avg 5.3 2.6 0.9 1.2
Runner-Up Avg 5.5 3.4 0.3 0.8
Cup Final Avg 5.4 3 0.6 1

The average record last-10-games record of a team appearing in the Cup Finals is 5.4 – 3- 0.6 – 1. That’s a point percentage of 62% over the last 10 games of the regular season. Comparing that just to this year, only 9 teams managed to carry that kind of point production. I think it’s fair to say a team clicking at 62% of points to close out the year is reasonably hot. So Mr. Melrose isn’t wrong in his general assessment.

Of course that doesn’t really give much predictive power this year. Of the 16 teams that made the playoffs, 8 clubs fit the 62% or greater criteria. Those teams were Boston, New Jersey, Washington, Vancouver, Phoenix, Chicago, San Jose, and Los Angeles. If we lower the standard to 60% over the last ten games, the number increases to 11 of the 16 teams (and in fact, only 2 of the teams earned less than 50% of the possible points in their final 10 games: Florida and Ottawa). The odds of a “hot” team going deep in the playoffs seems pretty good thanks to the sheer number of those clubs.

As a final interesting aside, we might see all but one of the “62 point percent hot” teams in the East eliminated in the first round (if the Devils lose to Florida, only the Boston/Washington winner would remain). These kinds of outcomes feed into the (true by default) mantra: you can’t win the Cup if you don’t even make the playoffs. So at least for this year, getting there might just be more relevant than how you get there.

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