Over the past few years, we've seen a strange trend developing in the NHL playoffs, and I've never been quite sure how to explain it, but I'm going to take a stab. Every single year in the NFL playoffs, you can count on some of the teams that had the best record in the regular season to drop out of the playoffs way too early. Based on the regular season standings, the best teamsnever seem to take it deep into the playoffs, and each year it seems to get stranger.
In 2008, the No. 1-seeded Montreal Canadians in the East and the No. 2 seed in the West, the San Jose Sharks, were both out by the second round. In 2009, the Sharks, this time the top seed in the West and the team with the most regular-season points, lost to the No. 8 Anaheim Ducks. Then the No. 1 seed in the East, the Boston Bruins, dropped out in the second round at the hands of the sixth-seeded Flyers. The No. 2 Caps also fell in the second round, setting up an Eastern Conference Finals between the No. 4 and No. 6 seeds.
This odd string of events has continued to an even greater extent in 2010, with not just the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference going down in the first round, but the No. 2 and the No. 3 seeds in the East dropping out as well. The No. 1 Capitals, the No. 2 Devils and the No. 3 Sabres are all sitting at home as we are currently in the second round of the playoffs.
Imagine if in this year's NBA playoffs, LeBron's Cavs, in addition to the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks, were all eliminated before the second round. Right now we would be watching the Milwaukee Bucks, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Chicago Bulls. The NBA world would be turned upside down, but for whatever reason, nobody really makes too big a deal of it in the NHL, probably because everyone is so used to the postseason crapshoot.
And this isn't only happening in the last few years. The 2007 postseason escaped without anything too crazy happening, but in 2006 the top four seeds in the West were all done by the end of the first round, and the No. 8 seed Edmonton Oilers played for the Stanley Cup. They took the series to a Game 7 before going down.
The year before that, the No. 2 Bruins in the East went out in the first round, and the No. 1 Red Wings were done by the end of the second round. I could go on and on; this happens basically every single year.
I can't believe this development does not receive the type of press it should (maybe just because it's the NHL), but I think analysts have to take a closer look at this entire picture. There's a reason this only happens in the NHL, and not the NBA (which is the only other major sport that has the same basic playoff format).
What I believe this comes down to is luck. Hockey, more than any other sport, is defined by arbitrary, random events. No other major sport gives the worst teams a better chance to win than hockey does.
This is not at all saying that hockey players are not good athletes. I'm sure they're as talented and hard-working as any other athletes in any other sport. But the nature of the game just allows luck to be an enormous factor.
There are two elements of hockey that I know allow luck to play a relatively large part of the game's outcome. This comparison might not be fair because each sport is so different, but at least on one level, hockey is the lowest-scoring sport of the major four. Naturally, that means the sport will have the lowest average margin of victory, meaning it is far more likely for an underdog to hang with a giant. Even if that team as a whole does play considerably worse than its opponent, it can scratch out a 2-1 win with half the shots and half the scoring opportunities if a couple cheap goals slip by. In the NBA, a couple cheap baskets won't get you nearly as far when it takes 30, 40 or more field goals to win a game.
And goals in general can be based on luck. The majority of NHL shots rely on a tremendous amount of luck to reach the back of the net because so many goals in hockey come off inadvertent deflections–with a huge chunk of those coming off players on the same team as the goalie. The number of scores in hockey that can be attributed to random chance, compared to basketball, football or baseball, is off the charts.
Those are the two best reasons I can come up with when thinking about this problem. Perhaps someone who watches much more hockey than I should be addressing this, but I felt something as unbelievable as what's been happening lately in the playoffs had to be addressed. More often than not, the better teams in the NHL beat the worse ones. But there is also no denying that in the NHL, lower-seeded teams have a better chance to defeat higher seeds than in any other major sport, and it's by a huge margin, which has to equal a great deal of chance.
Do you think Scott should give the NHLplayoffs more credit? Does luck play a bigger role in other sports? E-mail him at email@example.com.