It turns out that a two-goal lead is the safest lead in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
A three-goal lead? Insurmountable. Falling behind in a game at all? Well then good luck.
The first week of the NHL playoffs was a stark contrast to the regular season, which was filled with multiple goal comebacks and furious finishes. The team that scores first has won a staggering 26 of 32 postseason games. Only one team — Pittsburgh — has come back from more than a goal behind. And 14 games were decided by two or more goals (excluding blank shots).
And there were many of them.
“In the first period, you can turn it off, which is a little unfortunate and a little unexpected,” said Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay’s two-time Stanley Cup winner. “That’s an anomaly for me because for me, in a sport that has the biggest two-month playoff action that any sport can offer, this was probably one of the most disappointing playoffs we’ve seen.”
Perhaps overwhelming from game to game as only three went into overtime as of Monday and only two more were decided by a goal on the third period’s final horn. But six of eight series have drawn 2-4 games — the most in league history in a single round.
An increase in penalties and power-play goals combined with the quality of the teams involved has contributed to an uneven start to the playoffs after a regular season in which 42% of games resulted in some sort of comeback win. All teams except the Philadelphia Flyers rebounded from a two-goal deficit, while teams overcame a three-goal lead 19 times.
“Good teams know how to end games,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said on Tuesday. “In the regular season you’re just not that dialed in and you have some teams that just don’t do it that often. At this time of year the boys know what to do: you have to manage the puck at the blue line, you have to be ready to get to the shooting lane, you have to maybe take a hit in the head. I think that’s exactly what you do in the playoffs.”
With the notable exception of the rough-and-tumble Dallas-Calgary series, which more closely resembles old-school playoff hockey, goals aren’t hard to come by. The scoring rate has even increased compared to the regular season: 6.5 goals per game compared to 6.2, which was the highest since the beginning of the salary cap era in 2005.
However, how goals are scored is drastically different.
Almost a quarter of all goals have come from the power play, versus 19% in the regular season. The league reported that 78% of goals during the season were of even strength – the second highest since the expansion era began in 1967 – compared to just 62% in the playoffs.
When asked why so many games have gone lopsided, Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said, “We see a lot more power plays in the postseason than we used to. Maybe that’s one of the factors.”
The 8.22 power plays per game is a significant increase from the 6.39 average over the last five playoffs and 5.78 during the regular season. This is a direct result of the infliction of smaller penalties: more than 10 per game, versus under 6.5 during the season.
That made strong power play and penalties even more important than is usually the case this season.
Take Colorado for example. The Avalanche hit seven power play goals on 16 chances that led the playoffs en route to defeating the Nashville Predators and becoming the first team to advance to the second round.
So far they are the exception. Although the games combined score was 156-54, empty goals have inflated margins and made many tight games look like they got out of hand.
“You can kick the points,” Minnesota coach Dean Evason said midway through his team’s series against rival St. Louis. “Every game was tight. There was a split after the end of the game was over but I can tell you from our end of the games we won, it was close to the end.”
Viewership shows it. According to Turner Sports, ratings are up nearly 50% over last year and 2019, and ESPN also reported a surge in eyeballs on playoff hockey last week.
However, tight games have not meant many comebacks. Known as the “Comeback Cats” during the season, the Florida Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy, have only done it once, although it came at a crucial time to even their streak against Washington.
Falling behind is simply not a first-round recipe for success, which could be explained by the fact that all eight teams in the Eastern Conference are putting up 100-point seasons and most of the West is balanced.
“The elite teams are playing now,” said Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour. “Harder to come back.”
AP Sports writers Dave Campbell, Aaron Beard and Will Graves contributed.
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https://www.local10.com/sports/2022/05/10/first-week-of-nhl-playoffs-full-of-fast-starts-and-blowouts/ First week of the NHL playoffs filled with fast starts and blowouts