Does winning close games predict success?

Something troubling me about the Canes modest success under Kirk Muller was the amount of one goal games they were winning. As it turns out, this wasn’t as big of a worry as I thought because the Canes are currently 6-6-7 in games decided by a goal and have accumulated only 42.9% of their points that from them. That isn’t a very high or low number compared to other teams and the Canes are out of the race which makes this is a moot point. However, it did get me thinking about whether or not winning close games is a predictor of long term of success.

The Canes team that won the cup in 2005-06 won 28 of their games by only one goal, which was over half of their wins (53.8% if you want to get specific) and the 9th most in the league that season. It wasn’t as extreme as the Columbus Blue Jackets of that year who had 68.8% of their wins come in close games but still a pretty high number. What about since the lockout? Did other teams who had a lot of wins in close games go on to have success in the playoffs? Can we use this information to predict anything this season?

We’ll explore this after the jump

Most people look at how well teams are controlling possession or driving the play to see how good they are, but another way to judge success is looking at how many of their wins come from one goal games. A lot of close games, especially ones decided in overtime or the dreaded shootout, are heavily dependent on luck. Some team might get a powerplay with time winding down or a fluky goal to go-ahead late in the game and we all know how much luck is involved in overtime and the shootout, so finding out which teams are getting more decisively will help us find out which teams might be better in the long run.

I thought the best way to go about this was to look at how many wins each team had in a year and figured out how many of those wins came in close games using the goal-game information available on NHL.com. For points, multiplied their 1GG wins by two and added the number of OT/SO losses they had in one goal games since they “earned” points. The results paint a grim picture for teams who have relied heavily on long-term games.

Here are the 10 teams since the lockout that had the highest percentage of their wins come in close games and how they did in the post-season (if they made it). 

Team Yr W% Pt% Playoffs
Avalanche 2009 0.688 0.71 No
Blue Jackets 2006 0.686 0.703 No
Avalanche 2011 0.667 0.706 No
Islanders 2008 0.657 0.696 No
Devils 2007 0.653 0.682 2nd rd.
Thrashers 2011 0.647 0.7 No
Panthers 2011 0.633 0.694 No
Wild 2010 0.632 0.667 No
Ducks 2011 0.617 0.636 1st rd.
Canucks 2007 0.612 0.638 2nd rd.

Only three of these teams made the playoffs and the ones who did were knocked out in the second round or earlier. One of hte most notable names on here is last season’s Anaheim Ducks, who were a horrible possession team but made the cut due to a miraculous run at the end of the season. They are now sitting near the bottom of the Western Conference and are about to have a fire sale. The issue with the list here is that most of the teams who did not make the playoffs were awful squads and the fact that they were winning a ton of close games was at the bottom of their worries. A more telling stat would be that only two of the top 50 teams that had their wins come from one goal games got past the second round of the playoffs. Yikes. 

Something we can do concerning the awful teams in the table above, is look at which teams have been relying the most on close game wins and overtime points. This will give us an idea of which teams are more likely to fall apart before the season is over. If I remmeber correctly, the Avalanche of last year were in the playoff picture until around December before their collapse. The Thrashers were also leading the Southeast in December, as well before they tanked in the second half. This doesn’t mean that a colllapse is inevitable, but there is a greater chance of a team falling out of the playoff picture if they are struggling to control possession and win games decisively. Who are our main culprits this season?

Team W% Pt% FenTied%
Avalanche 0.652 0.66 49.8
Ducks 0.636 0.714 43.4
Kings 0.600 0.66 52.2
Devils 0.591 0.609 51.9
Lightning 0.588 0.622 45.9
Wild 0.571 0.625 43.1
Senators 0.571 0.604 50.5
Predators 0.571 0.609 43.2
Islanders 0.571 0.647 47.8
Sabers 0.556 0.6 47.9

I don’t know what it is about the Avs and one-goal games, but they sure do win a lot of them. They are a borderline team in terms of possession and are 15-5-1 in games decided by a goal. They’re also sitting at 10th place in the West despite being 8-2-0 in their last 10 games. Will they make the playoffs? It’s not improbable because two of the teams sitting in their way are the Nashville Predators and the Minnesota Wild who are horrible at dictating the pace of play and have won 12 one-goal games a piece. If I’m going to bet money, I would take either Colorado or Los Angeles to make the playoffs over Minnesota and Nashville. Although, the Preds have the benefit of playing in front of one of the best goalies in the league and have a couple games in hand so that helps their cause. There’s also the Ottawa Senators who have won a lot of games in dramatic fashion and they aren’t exactly on the edge of a downfall but luck has played a slight role in their success this year.

The Devils and Kings are in a similar boat. They aren’t blowing teams away but they are at least creating a good amount of offense and shouldn’t be worried about too much going forward. Well, the Kings have an abysmal on-ice shooting percentage that hasn’t picked up yet so that could hurt them but I still think they will make the playoffs. They’ve actually improved their territorial game under Darryl Sutter and that was one thing that was lacking when Terry Murray was the coach. As for the Devils, they are hanging onto a playoff spot right now and have a decent chance of making it. They’ve won a lot of games via the shootout this year so their chances in the post-season don’t look that bright.

What about teams who get the least amount of their wins and points from close games? Are those teams more likely to have success in the post-season and in the long term? History says yes.

Team Year W% Pt% Playoffs
Stars 2008 0.333 0.381 3rd rd.
Red Wings 2008 0.333 0.374 Cup
Capitals 2007 0.321 0.457 N
Islanders 2007 0.318 0.404 N
Kings 2008 0.313 0.38 N
Blackhawks 2009 0.261 0.346 3rd rd.
Bruins 2006 0.259 0.376 N
Sharks 2007 0.255 0.29 2nd rd.
Senators 2006 0.227 0.293 2nd rd.
Senators 2007 0.208 0.276 Final

All of the bottom-10 teams who got the majority of their wins from close games made it past the first round and two of them made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. The ones who didn’t make the playoffs were awful teams and didn’t win a lot of games but the ones they did win were decisive victories. Regardless, it does appear that teams who are blowing out their opponents are more likely to go further in the post-season than ones who are involved in more tight games. If you want some further evidence, the two most recent teams who had the lowest one goal game win percentage were the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins of last season.

Let’s condense this study to only playoff teams and see what we get starting with the top 10 teams in one goal game win percentage.

Team Year W% Pt% Playoffs
Devils 2007 0.653 0.682 2nd rd.
Ducks 2011 0.617 0.636 1st Rd.
Canucks 2007 0.612 0.638 2nd rd.
Predators 2010 0.596 0.62 1st rd.
Devils 2008 0.587 0.616 1st rd.
Coyotes 2010 0.58 0.607 1st rd.
Rangers 2009 0.558 0.6 1st rd.
Canadiens 2006 0.548 0.591 1st rd.
Ducks 2009 0.548 0.582 2nd rd.
Lightning 2007 0.545 0.57 1st rd.

We’ve got seven first round exits here and the team with the highest win percentage that got past the second round were the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes who come in at 15th on the list. We all know what happened to that team in the playoffs so there are definitely some exceptions here. A strange thing I noticed is that 2006 Edmonton Oilers rank one spot lower than them.

The Hurricanes team from that season are an exception to the rule, but most teams who were successful in the playoffs got that far by winning most of their games forcefully.

Team Year W% Pt% Playoffs
Red Wings 2006 0.345 0.387 1st rd.
Rangers 2006 0.341 0.42 1st rd.
Canadiens 2008 0.34 0.404 2nd rd.
Bruins 2009 0.34 0.397 2nd rd.
Stars 2008 0.333 0.381 3rd rd.
Red Wings 2008 0.333 0.374 Cup
Blackhawks 2009 0.261 0.346 3rd rd.
Sharks 2007 0.255 0.29 2nd rd.
Senators 2006 0.227 0.293 2nd rd.
Senators 2007 0.208 0.276 Final

We have only two first round exits and at least four of these teams made it past the second round. That’s not too high of a number but from the looks of it, teams who do not rely a lot on close game wins are more likely to get past at least the first round of the playoffs. That doesn’t mean that a team like the Anaheim Ducks from last year are doomed to a first round exit, it just means that one is more likely to happen to them than a team like the Vancouver Canucks. 

I know most people say that “wins and points are all that matter in the NHL” and that is true for making the playoffs, but if we’re going to predict success in the future, diving deeper into how a team acquired most of those wins can be very useful. It’ll be something to keep an eye on this year with so many teams still in the playoff picture.

 

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