Three days of NHL playoff hockey are in the books, and we now have 12 data points to try and decipher and figure out some trends. On Wednesday, three of the four series were evened up by the team that lost Game 1. The NHL playoffs are viewed as arguably the most competitive playoffs of the four major sports, and that's been on display so far.
However, one thing hockey fans aren't used to is high-scoring, wide-open playoff hockey. The expectation is usually that as the games get bigger, teams tighten up defensively and each inch on the ice becomes that much harder to earn. However, this past NHL regular season ended up being the highest scoring season since 1996 and that trend has carried into the start of the playoffs. Overs are cashing at better than a 58% rate to begin the postseason. What's the reason for that, and can we expect it to continue?
It was a high-scoring season
It really wasn't too long ago where the average total in an NHL game was set at 5.5 goals on a nightly basis by oddsmakers. You would often see totals of a flat five goals as well. You would almost never see totals set at six goals or higher. However, over the last few seasons, this has changed.
During the regular season, totals are now often set at 6.5 goals. Very few teams see totals of 5.5 goals anymore, as that's usually reserved for defensively structured and offensively challenged teams like the Dallas Stars and New York Islanders. I haven't seen a total of a flat five goals in the regular season for at least three years now. At times during the regular season, you will see totals in games featuring teams like the Florida Panthers or Toronto Maple Leafs eclipse seven goals.
On Thursday's schedule, the total for Rangers-Penguins is set at 5.5, which makes sense considering the game features the likely Vezina winner in Igor Shesterkin. Flames-Stars is also set at 5.5, which also makes sense considering Game 1 finished with a 1-0 score. However, both the Capitals-Panthers and Avalanche-Predators game are set with totals of 6.5 goals, something we would almost never see in the playoffs just a few years ago.
Oddsmakers have adjusted, and for good reason. This past regular season was the highest-scoring regular season since 1996 and individual production reached heights it hasn't reached in over 25 years.
Some fascinating stats on the season from @PR_NHL
• Averaged 6.3 goals per game, highest in 26 years.
• 78% of the goals were at even strength, 2nd-highest percentage in expansion era.
• 8 players had 100+ pts, most in 26 yrs.
• 17 players scored 40+ goals, most in 26 yrs
— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) April 30, 2022
This past regular season, six teams averaged at least 3.5 goals per game — Florida, Toronto, Colorado, Calgary, St. Louis and Minnesota. Not surprisingly, all six teams are in these playoffs. What's remarkable about that stat is that in the 15 seasons prior to this past one, six teams combined averaged over 3.5 goals per game in a single season.
Another interesting note is the general trend line of scoring this past season. In most normal NHL seasons, there are high-scoring games in October and then as goalies settle in and teams perfect their systems, the scoring steadily decreases throughout the season. However, that wasn't the case this past season. There was an average of 5.74 goals per game in October 2021, but games in April 2022 averaged 6.54 goals.
However, scoring usually comes down
When one pictures playoff hockey, one thinks of intense and hard-hitting hockey where players are sacrificing their bodies left and right to help their teams win. People often say that trying to outscore your opponents in the playoffs in a run-and-gun type of game isn't what wins in the playoffs. You need to be able to play heavy, defend and get goaltending. Unders are usually a good bet, especially in a Game 7.
The stats support that theory. According to Jeff Donchess of DRatings, playoff hockey is on average 4.4% lower scoring than regular season hockey since 2008. Only three times since 2008 have the playoffs featured more goals per game on average than in that year's regular season.
Through 12 games of these playoffs, scoring is basically at the level it was at during the regular season. We are seeing an average of 6.2 goals per game scored so far. Nine of 12 games so far have featured at least six goals. The saying used to be that three goals should be enough to win you a hockey game. However, in the 12 games so far, the winning has scored at least four goals in 11 of them.
What's causing the high scoring games?
Through these playoffs so far, I think three main factors are influencing the high scoring games so far.
Powerplays: It feels like the first few days of the NHL playoffs every year feel similar to the preseason from an officiating standpoint. It's almost like there's some kind of mandate that comes out from the league prior to the playoffs to their officials to remind them to call the games tight and to treat it like a normal game. Eventually, human nature comes back and these officials realize they want no part of influencing important games and they swallow their whistles. Through three days of the playoffs, teams are averaging 4.5 powerplay opportunities per game. For comparisons sake, during the regular season, Colorado led the league in powerplays per game with 3.4 chances a night. The league average was 2.9 powerplays per team per game. Soon enough, the parades to the penalty box will stop. We already saw it in the triple overtime game at Madison Square Garden. There were no penalties called in 2.5 overtimes, and for some reason, I don't think that was the cleanest game of all time.
Goaltending issues: It appears we might now be up to three third-string goalies making an impact on these playoffs. In Game 1 of the Penguins series, Louis Domingue relieved Casey DeSmith, who started in place of the injured Tristan Jarry after DeSmith suffered an injury in the second overtime. Domingue will start in Game 2. Carolina is onto Pyotr Kochetkov after losing both Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta to injury. Nashville looks like they might go with Connor Ingram, after David Rittich failed miserably in Game 1 attempting to fill in for Juuse Saros. This doesn't even mention Boston, who will turn to Jeremy Swayman in Game 3. We're seeing a lot of secondary and tertiary options in the blue paint in these playoffs.
One-sided games: Seven of the 12 games so far have been decided by three goals or more. The less tight a game is from a score standpoint, the less tight the game is from a checking standpoint. We've seen teams pull their goalies down three goals, something we don't usually worry about in the regular season when handicapping totals. The further we get into these playoffs, the closer I expect these games to be which might lend itself to closer checking and more defensive hockey. However, this does mean betting puck-lines has been a profitable endeavor thus far.