With the Canucks having suffered a pair of ugly losses to the Blackhawks to turn a 3-0 lead into a 3-2 lead and the Canadiens having pissed away a 2-0 lead earned on the road in Boston, times look dark for the teams carrying Canada’s banner in the playoffs. Or so you’d think if you buy into the idea that the narrators of sport push upon us, that there’s a sort of cut and thrust to a playoff series, with momentum swings driving success and failure, subject to any history between the teams that can be used to tell a more interesting story.
In reading the writing about the Canucks-Blackhawks series, I’ve noticed an awful lot of discussion about past Vancouver teams falling apart against Vancouver. This is the sort of stuff that drives me nuts because it’s utterly unfalsifiable. While understanding the history can help us understand what members of the team might be thinking about this, it’s not really evidence that helps us understand what might happen going forward. I’m not really a fan of this sort of writing – it’s context that helps us put this specific moment in the context of the broader history of the Vancouver Canucks, as opposed to context that helps us understand what 7-2 and 5-0 losses mean in the context of this series. Media in general, and sports media in particular, are good at producing the former but they have an irritating tendency to try and pass it off as the latter.
I dug into some data from playoff series played between 1987 and 2010 to test this idea. I chose 1987 as my baseline because that’s the year that the NHL went to having all playoff series be best of seven. I’ve excluded series that weren’t played in the 2-2-1-1-1 format from my dataset – basically, that leaves out the Oilers-Bruins series in 1988, a Caps-Pens series in 2000 which appears to have been set up as 1-2-1-1-1-1 for reasons that I can’t uncover and some series played during the 1990s when the NHL flirted with 2-3-2 for some series.
Let’s start by looking at things from a great distance. What’s the record of the higher seed in specific games? It’s in the table at left. The higher seed plays games 1, 2, 5 and 7 at home, of course. Unsurprisingly, it has a better record in those games, with a .613 winning percentage in games played at home and a .510 winning percentage in games played on the road. I’m actually sort of surprised at the size of the home ice advantage, to be honest – you would think that the travel factor would be somewhat neutralized in the playoffs, as most games are against teams that have had similar travel to you.
There’s some fluctuation there but nothing particularly out of the ordinary – a .624 winning percentage in G2 isn’t that surprising in the context of a .613 winning percentage overall. Some math in Excel tells me that we’d expect .624 or better to happen with a true talent of .613 in a 338 game sample more than 35% of the time. It’s well within what could be random. Same thing goes for the record of .500 in G6 – we’d expect a winning percentage of .500 or lower over 87 games for a team with a true talent of .510 more than 41% of the time. It’s all pretty tight.
What if we look at the record of the higher seed in terms of the score in the series? That’s in the table at left. I have, for the sake of clarity, colour coded the deviations of the higher seed from the expected winning percentage based on whether it was home or away. Blue means a deviation of less than +/- .010 from the expected winning percentage, orange is between .010 and .020 and yellow is in excess of .020.
It’s the boxes coded with yellow that are most interesting, I think. Higher seeds have much higher winning percentages than expected when down 1-0, down 2-0, up 3-0 and up 3-2. They have much lower winning percentages than expected when down 3-0 and down 3-2.
It’s tougher to pull what that means from it. If I was a sportswriter, my explanation would probably be something along the lines of teams performing with their back to the wall. While there might be something to that, I wouldn’t arrive at that as a conclusion on the evidence presented. It might also be that coaches of the higher seed tend to coach more desperately when they’re down 1-0 or 2-0. This might, for example, take the form of shortening the bench earlier in the game or just generally directing more minutes to their stars. In other words, it might be desperation, but desperation driving the manner in which the team is coached, rather than motivating the higher seed on the brink to do more or the lower seed having been lulled into a sense of “We got what we came here to get” after a win. This is something that could be checked – if anyone’s interested, I have some ideas.
The deviation at 3-0 and 0-3 is probably pretty easy to explain as well. I would suspect that, in those cases, .510 is probably not the expected winning percentage for the higher seed. If they’re up 3-0, they’re probably significantly stronger than the average higher seed or facing a significantly weaker lower seed. The converse is probably true when you talk about higher seeds being down 0-3 – odds are that they’re either a weak higher seed or facing a strong lower seed.
The difference in winning percentages at 3-2 and 2-3 is more difficult to explain and, to be honest, I can’t think of a plausible reason for why it might be the case, as opposed to simply being some randomness. Changes in coaching style are all I can come up with – maybe coaches tend to empty the tank to win it in game six when they’re up 3-2? It’s not particularly compelling.
Implicit in the argument that the Canucks are in trouble now is the idea that the Canucks that a 3-0 lead in the series that has now turned into a 3-2 lead in the series is worse than a 3-2 lead earned in some other way. If the series hadn’t unfolded, from the Canucks’ perspective, as WWWLL (with the two Ls being ugly), nobody would be talking about this. Chicago’s a pretty good team despite having committed roster seppuku immediately after winning the Stanley Cup. Their goal differential was north of +30 this year. They’re a good, but flawed, team. It’s the manner in which this has unfolded that has people talking about the Canucks collapsing.
Does going from 3-0 to 3-2 tell us something this series that simply knowing that it’s 3-2 doesn’t? 119 higher seeds have gone into a sixth game of a series, leading the series 3-2. Their record in those games six is 67-52, good for a .563 winning percentage. Of the 52 teams that lost game six, their record in the following game seven is 30-22. That means that higher seeds leading a series 3-2 heading into game six have a record of 97-22 in the period I’ve looked at, an .815 winning percentage.
We can break this down a bit though, in order to look for some evidence that teams feel their collars tighten as a lead disappears heading into that game six on the road or gain confidence as they storm back from an early deficit in the series. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to find much of anything in the numbers. Teams that went up 3-0 have done well in game six on the road, despite having lost two in a row. Going back a step further, teams that opened 2-0 have a very strong record as well, despite having lost two of three heading into game six. You’d be hard pressed, on the evidence, to make any sort of an argument that the recent history supports any sort of an argument that the Canucks are in any sort of a different position than the typical higher seed that leads 3-2 simply because they went WWWLL.
That leaves only one thing to consider: is there evidence to support an argument that the Canucks are in a worse position than the typical higher seed because the roof has completely fallen in over the past two games, with the Canucks losing by a combined score of 12-2? As it so happens, there does not appear to be an example, in the past 23 years, of a higher seed losing consecutive games by a total of ten goals. This series is unique.
There are plenty of examples of higher seeds losing back to back games by at least six goals though – 55 in total. Higher seeds haven’t done well in those series, winning just 9 of the 45 series in which this has occurred, a 20% rate. Curiously, they’ve done better when they’ve taken the beatings early on in the series: 3/7 teams that lost the first two games by a combined 6+ goals won the series, 1/12 for games two and three, 3/15 for games three and four, 0/8 for games four and five (troubling if you’re a Canucks fan), 2/10 for games five and six and 0/3 for games six and seven. The samples on that stuff are all tiny, of course. It’s tough to know what to make of it though – even if you push it late in the series before taking a whipping, things haven’t usually ended well.
One final piece of data: I mentioned above that higher seeds leading 3-2 win the series 81.5% of the time. According to the implied odds from Betfair, the Canucks have about a 75% chance of winning the series.