Sports fans are talking about the upsets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Upsets? Well, maybe. And maybe not.
The reality is that there is tremendous balance between National Hockey League teams.
This is largely because of the salary cap, which limits the amount of money teams can pay their players. This means that a team can only afford to pay two or three stars and the good players are spread fairly evenly among the 31 teams.
Each team plays 82 games in the regular season, and since a win is worth 2 points, teams can finish with anywhere from 0 to 164 points. But no team comes close to those extremes, and most of the teams are bunched together in the middle of the spectrum.
Okay, there was one series (and maybe one other) that could be legitimately called an upset in the first round of the NHL playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning even though Tampa Bay was 30 points better than Columbus in the regular season. But Tampa Bay is the exception. The Lightning were by far the best team in the regular season, finishing 21 points ahead of the next best team.
The other series that might be called an upset was in the Western Conference, where the 8th place Colorado Avalanche (with 90 points in the regular season) beat the first place Calgary Flames (with 107 points) despite the 17-point gap between them in the regular season.
All of the other playoff teams were bunched very closely together. In the Eastern Conference, there were only 9 points between the 2nd place team and the 8th place team. In the Western Conference, there were only 11 points between the 2nd place team and the 8th place team.
Consider the other first round playoff matchups.
In the Eastern Conference, there were:
· 5 points between the Washington Capitals (100 points) and Carolina Hurricanes (93 points)
· 3 points between the New York Islanders (103 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins (100 points)
· 7 points between the Boston Bruins (107 points) and Toronto Maple Leafs (100 points).
In the Western Conference, there were:
· 7 points between the Nashville Predators (100 points) and Dallas Stars (93 points)
· No points between the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues (each had 99 points)
· 8 points between the San Jose Sharks (101 points) and Vegas Golden Knights (93 points).
Consider that since teams can earn up to 164 points, these margins are relatively small. Even Tampa Bay was only about 18% (30/164) better than Columbus in the regular season, and Calgary was only about 10% better than Colorado. The difference between the teams in every other first round playoff matchup was less than 5%. Such small margins are statistically insignificant and can be accounted for by injuries and luck. In the playoffs, the balance can be tipped by further injuries, luck, confidence, lack of confidence, interpersonal conflicts on a team, and late season trades made at the trade deadline just weeks before the playoffs. (It is arguable that Columbus closed the gap on Tampa Bay by adding stars Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel and several other players through trades late in the season.)
Furthermore, of the non-playoff teams, four were within 8 points of making the playoffs and five more were within 16 points. That means that those nine teams (of the fifteen non-playoff teams) have to improve by only 5% to 10% to make the playoffs. And even that is misleading since teams that are not going to make the playoffs fall farther back because near the end of the season they get discouraged, trade veteran players for draft choices, rest good players, send players for off-season surgery early, and try out rookies. Many of them are closer to the playoffs than it seems.
Take the case of the Vancouver Canucks, a team which missed the playoffs by 9 points. Forty-two of the Canucks’ 82 games were decided by one goal, including 25 losses. The team would have had to turn only about 5 of those losses into wins to make the playoffs.
Consider the element of luck. The outcome of a game can depend on as little as an inch in only one or two plays. During any game, it is not unusual for one or more players to hit the goalpost when they are shooting at the net. A puck may hit the post and bounce away from the net. If the trajectory of the puck is another inch to the side, it will hit the post and deflect into the net. A couple of inches can also make the difference in many other plays—such as passes, offsides, deflections, and saves.
Looking at the issue in another way, we see that each team dresses 20 players per game. If one of those players has an argument with his wife, stubs his toe, or catches the flu, it can mean the difference between his team winning and losing.
The bottom line is that not even experts can predict the outcome of hockey games, and anyone who bets on hockey games is a fool.