The NHL’s second half is upon us. The break has ended, players have returned to their teams and we’ve already seen the puck drop as contests resumed on January 31st.
As if things weren’t interesting enough in the first half, the second half will feature a captivating run down the stretch as numerous teams battle for just a handful of playoff spots. The races really couldn’t be any tighter with the Eastern Conference separated by just 11 points from first through eighth. On the Western side the gap is 14 points from first through eighth.
With the races so close we take a brief look at a recent article from ESPN that analyzed the strength of schedule heading down the stretch for teams in the hunt and what advantages/disadvantages it might play for various clubs longing for the postseason.
As always, take any NHL analysis from ESPN with an enormous grain of salt – a boulder even. Their online content is a huge improvement over their TV coverage but it’s still clear that the network has no desire to cover hockey as evidenced by this recent DeadSpin article that proved SportsCenter devoted just 13 minutes to hockey during the course of January 7th and 18th.
The article, seen here, rates each team’s strength of schedule based on the combined points percentage of their remaining opponents.
New Jersey (.583)
St. Louis (.541)
San Jose (.543)
What’s important to keep in mind is that this theory/analysis fails to take in to account home and road games. The St. Louis Blues might have one of the easiest schedules based on the points percentage of their opponents but they will play 20 of their final 33 games away from the Scottrade Center. The Blues have been nearly unbeatable at home (21-3-4) while their play on the road has left a lot to be desired (8-10-3).
According to ESPN’s analysis, the Chicago Blackhawks have the 2nd hardest schedule remaining before we consider games at home and on the road. Like the Blues, Chicago also has 20 games on the road to finish out their schedule which allows a solid case to be made that the Blackhawks actually have the toughest path ahead of them before 2011-12 wraps.
In my opinion, the strength of schedule analysis is more fluff than it is substance. The hardest schedule, Nashville’s (.596) is just a handful of percentage points different than the easiest schedule held by Florida. It’s a fun group of facts to look at but it is important not to read too far into things. Too often the “strength of schedule” argument merely becomes an excuse for a team that fails to win the games they need to and falls short of the playoffs.
Regardless of opponent, teams that hope to make the playoffs need to win their games – it’s that simple. Percentages don’t mean much if you fail to top opponents you should be beating.