Three days of NHL playoff hockey are on the books, and we now have 12 data points to try to decipher and understand some trends. On Wednesday, three of four series were tied by the team that lost Game 1. The NHL playoffs are arguably considered the most competitive playoffs of the four major sports, and it’s been proven so far.
However, one thing hockey fans aren’t used to is high-scoring, open playoff hockey. It is generally expected that as games get bigger, teams will tighten up defensively and every inch on the ice will become that much harder to win. However, this last NHL regular season ended up being the most successful season since 1996 and this trend continued until the start of the playoffs. Overs cash in better than 58% rate to start playoffs. What is the reason for this, and can we expect it to continue?
It was a high scoring season
Not too long ago, the average total in an NHL game was pegged at 5.5 goals per night by bettors. You would often see flat five goal totals as well. You would almost never see totals set at six or more goals. However, in recent seasons, that has changed.
During the regular season, totals are now often set at 6.5 goals. Very few teams still see 5.5 goal totals as this is usually reserved for defensively structured and offensively challenged teams like the Dallas Stars and New York Islanders. I haven’t seen a total of five fixed goals in the regular season for at least three years now. At times during the regular season, you’ll see totals in games featuring teams like the Florida Panthers or Toronto Maple Leafs eclipse seven goals.
On Thursday’s program, the total for the Rangers-Penguins is set at 5.5, which makes sense given that the game features the probable winner of Vézina in Igor Shesterkin. Flames-Stars are also pegged at 5.5, which also makes sense considering Game 1 ended 1-0. However, the Capitals-Panthers and Avalanche-Predators games go with a total of 6.5 goalssomething we would almost never see in the playoffs just a few years ago.
Bettors have adjusted, and for good reason. This past regular season was the best-performing regular season since 1996, and individual production soared to heights it hadn’t reached in over 25 years.
Last regular season, six teams averaged at least 3.5 goals per game – Florida, Toronto, Colorado, Calgary, St. Louis and Minnesota. Unsurprisingly, all six teams are in these playoffs. What’s remarkable about this stat is that over the previous 15 seasons, six teams combined have averaged over 3.5 goals per game in a single season.
Another interesting note is the general trend line of last season’s scores. In most normal NHL seasons, there are high-scoring games in October, and then as goaltenders settle in and teams perfect their systems, the scoring steadily drops throughout the season. However, that was not the case last season. There was an average of 5.74 goals per game in October 2021, but games in April 2022 averaged 6.54 goals.
However, the score generally decreases
When we imagine playoff hockey, we think of intense, hard-hitting hockey where players sacrifice their bodies left and right to help their teams win. People often say that trying to outplay your playoff opponents in a run-and-gun type game is not what wins in the playoffs. You need to be able to play hard, defend and be a goalie. Pennies are usually a good betespecially in a Game 7.
Statistics support this theory. According to Jeff Donchess of DRatingsplayoff hockey has averaged 4.4% fewer points than regular season hockey since 2008. Only three times since 2008 has the playoffs averaged more goals per game than the regular season of that year.
Through 12 games in these playoffs, the score is essentially where it was during the regular season. We are seeing an average of 6.2 goals scored per game so far. So far, nine of 12 games have featured at least six goals. The saying went that three goals should be enough to win a hockey game. However, in the 12 games so far, the winner has scored at least four goals in 11 of them.
What causes high score matches?
Through these playoffs so far, I think there are three main factors influencing high-scoring games so far.
Power games: It feels like the early days of the NHL playoffs feel like the preseason every year from an officiating perspective. It’s almost like there’s some kind of mandate coming out of the league before the playoffs to their officials to remind them to call the close games and treat them like a normal game. Eventually, human nature returns and these officials realize that they don’t want to influence important games and they swallow their whistles. Over the three days of the playoffs, teams averaged 4.5 power play chances per game. For comparison, during the regular season, Colorado led the league in powerplay per game with 3.4 chances per night. The league average was 2.9 power plays per team per game. Soon the parries to the penalty box will stop. We already saw it in the triple overtime game at Madison Square Garden. There were no penalties in 2.5 overtimes, and for some reason I don’t think it was the cleanest game ever.
Goalkeeper issues: It looks like we could now have up to three third string guards that will impact this playoff. In Game 1 of the Penguins series, Louis Domingue relieved Casey DeSmith, who started in place of the injured Tristan Jarry, after DeSmith was injured in the second overtime. Domingue will start in Game 2. Carolina is on Pyotr Kochetkov after losing Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta to injury. Nashville looks like it could go with Connor Ingram, after David Rittich failed miserably in Game 1 when trying to replace Juuse Saros. That doesn’t even mention Boston, who will turn to Jeremy Swayman in Game 3. We see a lot of secondary and tertiary options in the blue paint in these playoffs.
One way games: Seven of the 12 games so far have been decided by three or more goals. The less tight a game is from a score perspective, the less tight it is from a verification perspective. We’ve seen teams cut their goaltenders by three goals, which we don’t usually worry about in the regular season when the handicap adds up. The further we get into these playoffs, the closer I expect these games to be, which could lend itself to tighter bodychecking and more defensive hockey. However, this means Betting on puck lines has been a profitable business so far.