NHL Handicapping: Tight Playoff Races
by Trevor Whenham - 3/11/2011
The NHL playoff races are very intense right now. The East is a typical race, but the West can really only be called insane. As I write this there are eight teams within four points of each other, and room for only five of them in the playoffs. There are going to be three very disappointed teams once the dust settles. That settling of the dust is as many as 15 games away for some of the teams in the battle, so there is a lot left to do.
For a few teams -- like Calgary and Chicago, for example -- getting into the battle position they are in has required a long, intense rally after a slow start that put them in a deep hole. They obviously can’t let up or what they have accomplished so far could be for nothing.
For NHL handicappers, playoff races like this create some concerns and some opportunities. Here’s a look at three of each:
Relentless intensity - The teams that make the playoffs after a tight race will have been involved in the race for a couple of months. They’ll have gone from out of the playoffs to back in several times, and gone through more ups and downs than a roller coaster. They’ll have played game after game that seems like the most important of the season at the time. Needless to say, teams can be physically and mentally worn down by these pseudo-playoffs that have already stretched months before the actual playoffs even start.
The NHL playoffs are already the most intense, grueling challenge in major sports, so adding a couple more months of brutal intensity before they even start can’t be good for teams.
Chances are good that a team that is embroiled in a race like this are going to be seeded in the bottom half of the playoff bracket and are already going to be playing a team that could be better than them in many ways. Add in the fact that the lesser team is weary before things start and it could be even harder for the lower ranked team to come out on top.
Injuries - The harder teams have to play, the more likely a player is going to be hurt. Because the games are so important, players are not as likely to take the time they need to heal the bumps and bruises that they suffer because they feel they can’t afford to miss a game. That means that players are going to head into the playoffs in worse shape than they might otherwise, and that can lead to issues in the playoffs.
Teams can let up after achieving first goal - Teams cannot afford to fall into a hole when the playoff starts -- you can come back from a two-game hole, but it’s far from ideal. A team can fall into a hole like that, though, if they go into the playoffs at less than full focus.
The surest way for a team to lose focus is to feel like they have already accomplished a goal and deserve a break. Coming out alive after a long and brutal playoff struggle could easily cause a team to let up.
Teams know what it takes to win - The playoffs in any sport are complicated. The best team doesn’t always win. In fact, the best team often doesn’t win. The team that wins is the one that knows what it takes to win, and is willing to make the sacrifices required to get to the top.
Not all teams are capable of doing that -- in fact, most aren’t. When a team has gone through a tough playoff battle and survived then we at least know that they are capable of accomplishing a challenging goal. That puts them ahead of some teams, and can answer one very tough question when it comes to evaluating them and their toughness.
Knowing that they are tough is valuable information for handicappers.
Easier for handicappers to get a sense of what teams are capable of at full strength - If a team cruises into the playoffs after securing their position weeks before the playoffs get underway then they have to start playing at full force again after taking a working vacation down the stretch.
There are many cases in which a good team has lost in the first round because they couldn’t find their top gear. When a team has been in a playoff race we know that they are less likely to have a rough transition into the playoffs. We have a much better sense than we might of the top teams when it comes to what their top gear is capable of when the playoffs start.
Team chemistry - Chemistry is a challenging concept, but what we can be fairly certain of is that teams that win championships seem to have good chemistry -- however you want to measure that.
Chemistry can be built through surviving adversity together, and coming out on the right side of a particularly tough playoff race certainly qualifies as surviving adversity. Their chemistry could easily be better at the start of the playoffs than a team that followed a much easier path to the postseason.
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