Cutting Through the BS of Playoff Narratives
...While not spoiling the fun
Part of the fun of the playoffs is that it's a lot more communal than the regular season. Everybody's watching the same games (yes, even the analytics users) and so the overarching narratives become more concrete and fun to argue about. The post-season is the best part of hockey, and I have constantly argued that any reforms of it (picking your opponent, a play-in round, etc.) are totally unnecessary. But there’s a lot of contradictions in them that can be tough to navigate, namely the idea that their seven-game series 100% determines who the best team is.
We know - objectively - that hockey is an extremely luck-driven sport. Last November, I wrote a full rundown of how heavily random shooting and goaltending outcomes can have distorting effects over an 82-game season, punishing or rewarding teams and players for results out of their direct control. These effects are even more pronounced, as you might imagine, in a four- to seven-game series where a few pucks off the post or deflecting off a defenceman’s ass into the net can be the difference between an otherwise championship-calibre team going home after the first round.
Here’s where the narratives come in. In the logic of how we talk about the playoffs, every outcome is fully explainable by some combination of skill, grit, heart, preparedness, poise, and clutchness. The league’s best team gets knocked out early? They play a soft regular season style that just doesn’t work in the gritty postseason. They need to rethink things entirely and maybe fire their coach. An underdog pulls off a big upset? They wanted it more, they came to play, all those grinders in their bottom six willed them to win, proving all the doubters wrong. A star scores 3 points in 6 games? He just doesn’t have it, he can’t deal with the playoff matchups, he doesn’t deliver when it counts. Any other explanation for these things happening are just “excuses.”
Let’s take McDavid in the first two games of the Oilers’ first round series against the Jets as an example. The favoured Oilers are down 2-0 in the series and have scored only one goal, McDavid has zero points. Ergo, we all valued McDavid’s historic regular season results too much and, once again, we might get to go through the “Is Connor McDavid the Best Player in the World” crap for yet another summer.
Anybody who has actually watched the series or gone a little bit deeper than just looking at the scoresheet should know better. The Jets aren’t shutting down the Oilers, Connor Hellebuyck is. Edmonton is out-shooting Winnipeg 65 to 52 at 5v5 and 71 to 58 in all situations, and winning the scoring chance battle by a large margin as well. The Jets’ defensive numbers are worse than they were in the regular season - which is saying something. When McDavid has been on the ice at 5v5, the Oil have had over 60% of the shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances.
Why are 97 and the Oil in the position they have been? Because the best goalie of the past two seasons is clearly playing out of his mind! Hellebuyck has a 98.6% save percentage and has saved 4.9 goals above expected in only two games. With McDavid on the ice, Hellebuyck has a save percentage of over 97%. Anybody who knows anything about hockey could tell you that those numbers are not sustainable. But because it’s the Playoffs, it’s clearly due to a failing on McDavid’s part. Meanwhile, MacKinnon having an on-ice shooting percentage of 17.8% or Kucherov’s 18.9% are perfectly indicative of their Playoff-Ready and Clutch play.
This narrative is clearly bullshit, and yet even after only two games it is already in full swing. If the Jets win this series, as they are now 81% favoured to do by The Athletic’s model, we are in for a whole new conversation of whether McDavid, who scored 105 points in 56 games, is the best player - or even centre - in the league. This only makes sense if you maintain the objectively false idea that everything that happens in the playoffs is a perfect reflection of players’ skill, heart, and clutchness.
This applies to teams as well. What we want as hockey fans is for one team to deserve to win and the other to deserve to lose. The 2010 Montréal Canadiens deserved to win their first round series against the Washington Capitals because Jaroslav Halak is a member of the Habs and he played one of the best three-game stretches in NHL history. Did the Caps “deserve” to lose? Hell no! They were obviously the much better team in that series and would have won it running away if Halak’s power coma had been even a little less super-charged. The organization’s over-reaction to that loss set them back years when the answer was just “we ran into an insanely hot goalie.”
At the same time, I do recognize that we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. Once you start pulling the percentage-luck thread, there is a risk of the logic of the playoffs unravelling a bit, which I think is a bad outcome because the playoffs rock and nobody likes a buzzkill. The Maple Leafs, based on pre-series odds in the past five years, have had only an 8% chance of not making it out of the first round; if the Habs beat them, it will have be a 1.4% chance. Against Columbus, they clearly lost because an otherwise crappy goalie went sicko mode (97.8% save percentage). Should 30 other fanbases let the Leafs off the hook because of that misfortune? No, because it’s hilarious. Where I fall is that we should be able to recognize and appreciate that random chance plays a massive role in the playoffs, and we should enjoy that fact because it’s part of what makes them so exciting to watch and follow. And to a certain extent, we should keep up the kayfabe that the playoffs are mostly a test of team quality and will and all that for the same reason. But questioning the character and skill of a dominant player who just can’t catch a break is both stupid and shitty to do.