Why are second-round Stanley Cup series so one-sided? (Trending Topics)

Why are second-round Stanley Cup series so one-sided? (Trending Topics)

In theory, each round of the postseason in any sport is supposed to be what separates out the weak teams from the strong. In theory, it's hard for a worse team to win four games against a better one, even if the margin between them is thin. It doesn't always happen that way, of course, but that's how it's supposed to work.

Consequently, as you advance through the playoffs the series are supposed to be closer; teams that win — even handily — in the first round shouldn't have quite so easy of a time in the second, and so on. And yet, here we are on the verge of a pair of sweeps, with two more series looking like they ought to wrap up pretty quickly themselves. And if you look at the numbers, all the teams that “should have” won their series are cruising. 

A large part of this is that it was a weird year in the NHL. It seemed that a lot more teams got by on PDO — the Flames, Canadiens, and Rangers all fit that description, and you could make an argument for the Wild as well once Dubnyk came aboard — than usual, and that will help to make their matchups against better teams look even uglier than many might have expected.

In every single second-round series, for example, the team with the lower possession numbers for the 82-game season is the one getting belted pretty good, and in all cases the gaps are sizable enough that you'd say it's not really a toss-up.

If you picked the series in the last round based on nothing but CF% for the entire season, you'd have gone 1-7 (only Chicago over Nashville worked out “right” in this regard, and even that was a bizarre series), but this time around it looks like you'd be 4-0. That's not to say it's regression or correction or anything like that, but just kind of a quirk of how things go in hockey. Even seven-game samples get weird, especially when you break them down to smaller levels; for instance, Calgary outpossessed Vancouver in all situations that didn't involve the Sedins, but when the twins were on the Canucks attempted about 72 percent of the shots. They had far fewer goals than that.

We know by now that 40 percent of results are driven by percentages, which is to say, “Things not necessarily within a team's control.” Teams generally cannot sustain high (or low) shooting percentages over time, but PDO can often be clouded by elite goaltending; you'd expect teams with Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist to have some of the highest save percentages in the league over the long term, which in turn drives PDO, but at a sustainable level. Those teams, consequently, led the league in that stat.

But even if you have world-class goaltending and only middling offense, the likelihood is that you're going to struggle, especially against very good teams. Going into the postseason a reasonable observer would have deduced that the Canadiens' success this season was due entirely to Price's MVP-worthy performances from October to April, and so for them to draw and consequently demolish the Senators didn't really show you anything. But Tampa was fourth in possession, scored more goals than anyone, was around the middle of the pack in goals allowed, and shot perhaps a little too effectively (their entirely unsustainable team-wide 9.1 percent led the league).

And yes, that series has been closer than 3-1. One Tampa win required a double-overtime winner and another a goal at the buzzer. Things have been a little unfair to the Habs, you might say, especially because they've actually dominated in possession and scoring chances for the bulk of this series. But the good thing you can say about the postseason is that the best team usually wins. Not always, but usually. And Tampa is a much better team than Montreal. 

This is true for Chicago as well, where Minnesota got clobbered because Corey Crawford has ascended into a higher plane of being while Devan Dubnyk has turned back into a merely pretty good goaltender. Consequently, Patrick Kane and Co. ran that series offensively and were given little to worry about at their own end in return. Minnesota's league-leading PDO of 103.4 since the Dubnyk trade is what got them here, and while the Wild are a good and improving team, they're learning full well that they're not on the level of one of the league's elite. This was probably the outcome that was easiest to predict. Minnesota's getting nowhere near the net because Chicago has been down this road so many times in the past, and that lethal attack is carving up a D corps that just isn't close to championship caliber.

Meanwhile, in the series that probably should be the closest, a lot of talk has come about “What's wrong with the Rangers?” and a lot of that has been filtered through “What's wrong with Rick Nash?”

I don't even think this is necessarily a systemic problem for Alain Vigneault; Nash, Martin St. Louis, Chris Kreider, and the other guys who are supposed to drive the Ranger offense are getting to the net pretty effectively, and just running into a damn brick wall. What's wrong is the Caps are blocking a lot of shots and Braden Holtby has been well beyond great (a bananas .961 at 5-on-5), and Henrik Lundqvist has merely been really great (.939).

NHL
NHL

The Rangers have attempted 224 shots in this series at 5-on-5 — the most of any second-round team by a wide margin — and just three of them have gotten by Holtby. As you can see above, it's not for lack of trying or an inability to get into high-percentage areas. Sometimes you just face a white-hot goalie.

As for Anaheim and Calgary, no one was ever going into this under the illusion that the Flames were looking at a series they “should win.” They're not very good — and advanced this far by playing the third-worst team in these playoffs — and only won Game 3 because of a bizarre set of unrepeatable circumstances. They are otherwise being systematically picked apart by what is clearly the best Ducks team since they won the Cup. At 5-on-5, Calgary is being outscored 9-2, and it's still 12-5 overall even after the four-goal Game 3. This is no accident.

And really, if you'd said before the playoffs started that we'd be looking at probable Conference Finals featuring Chicago vs. Anaheim and Tampa vs. Washington, I don't think anyone could have really looked at you too sideways about it. These are teams that could have very plausibly made it that far, and their chances to do so were far less reliant on luck than most other clubs.

You have to say it all time and again, but this stuff matters, a lot.

Maybe it seems overly simplistic to just say that the better teams are winning their series because they're better, but it really does appears as though that's what's happening here. High percentages come back down, and teams that proved all year they can keep the puck in the other team's end eventually win. That's not 100 percent reliable, as the first round showed repeatedly, but it's the case far more often than not.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.