CHICAGO, IL – APRIL 25: Members of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators shake hands after Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on April 25, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Predators 4-3 to win the series. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Are the NHL playoffs really a “different animal” from the regular season?

The sports world is full of narratives, and hockey is not immune to their pitfalls. Narratives are woven so deeply into the culture of the sport that fans, broadcasters, and general managers alike fall victim to narratives without realizing it. We hear so often about “grit” and its cousins “sandpaper” and “determination,” etc. and their importance in the game. But they’ve never been defined or studied or conclusively demonstrated. Yet, fans become attached to “gritty” players, broadcasters cite it as a reason a team won or lost and general managers spend valuable salary cap dollars to buy it.

Ditto for “clutch” and “momentum.”

We must be vigilant about narratives. Any storyline we hear, even if we’ve heard it our entire lives and have come to accept it as truth, should be met bet with a critical eye if we want truly to learn about the game we love. One such storyline or narrative is that “the playoffs are a different animal” than the regular season.”

And they certainly feel different. Playoff games feel more intense, more dramatic. It looks as though the players are skating faster and shooting harder. Above all, it feels as though games are lower scoring.

But understanding hockey requires casting aside feel and look. It requires cold, objective, unbiased looks at data. Sometimes, the data supports gut reactions. Sometimes they don’t. In the case of the “playoffs being a different animal,” it appears to be a little of both (although I haven’t even cracked the surface of the data on this topic, and I encourage you to look into it yourself and post anything you find in the comment section or to Tweet at us).

Before we look at any data, let’s start with a few truths about playoff hockey, as it relates to the regular season:

  • Playoff teams’ rosters are almost exactly the same as their rosters were for most of the regular season. Coaching staffs are the same as well.
  • The objective of the game, the arenas, the ice surfaces (barring absurdly hot days in late May/June), the pucks, the sticks and the rest of the equipment are the same as in the regular season.

So despite what we feel, the game doesn’t inherently change. But perhaps players’ and coaches’ approaches to the game does. That would be the only meaningful variable that could make playoff games different than regular season games.

Quanthockey has some fascinating graphs about goal scoring in the regular season versus the playoffs. Overall, there are fewer goals scored in the playoffs, which lends support to the narrative that the playoffs are lower scoring and tighter checking. Additionally, it would seem as though defensemen score more goals per game, relative to forwards, in the playoffs than in the regular season.

However, I did some research of my own about Corsi events in the regular season using war-on-ice’s tables. Accurate Corsi data only goes back to 2005, so yes, this does represent a small sample size of information. It could be the result of statistical variance. However:

  • In the 2009-10 regular season, the average game saw 108 Corsi events. In that year’s playoffs, the average game saw 112 Corsi events.
  • In the 2010-11 regular season, there were 110 Corsi events per game. That year’s playoffs saw an uptick to 116 Corsi events per game
  • The number of Corsi events in the 2011-12 regular season and the 2012 playoffs was nearly identical
  • Last year’s regular season witnessed an average of 109 Corsi events per game. That year’s playoffs? 111.
  • This year’s regular season also averaged 109 Corsi events per game. So far, the 2015 playoffs have averaged 110 Corsi events per game.

The Corsi numbers would lead us to believe the playoffs are actually higher scoring than the regular season. But we know they’re not. Again, this is only the tip of the iceberg, and the data suggested the narrative is true—with a caveat. Maybe coaches and players play more defensively in the playoffs. If they do, though, why have there been more shot attempts per game in the playoffs than in the regular season recently? Does this mean goaltenders play better in the playoffs, and/or shooters shoot worse?

It’s hard to say, and it’ll take a hockey researcher much more advanced and with more access to data than me to arrive at a conclusion. At the very least, though, it’s worth questioning the accepted narrative and putting it to the test.

About Trevor Kraus

Born and raised in St. Louis, Trevor is a diehard fan of all the major sports (and even the non-major ones), but particularly hockey. He plays goalie in a local hockey league and is striving to become a hockey broadcasting pioneer: the first play-by-play announcer to incorporate advanced stats into his broadcast.