I was talking recently to a friend about how teams are bunched tightly in the NHL Playoff races. On January 5th the #1 and #9 seeds in the West were separated by 8 points (pending the LA-Phoenix result) and 10 points in the East. This friend was saying how the Leafs have had a great first half of the season and yet are barely holding on to a playoff spot. Indeed, if you look at the Leafs on January 5 they are 1 point over the line.
This conversation made me think about the importance of the start of the season. Does a good start greatly increase a team's chances of making the playoffs? I came across an article written by John Kreiser on nhl.com that discussed the percentage of teams holding a playoff spot at Christmas that make the playoffs. As tight as the races are amazingly over the last 10 years 80% of teams that were in the top 8 spots in their conference at Christmas went on to make the playoffs. I was a little surprised by the high percentage of teams able to finish what they started.
Holding Down Playoff Spot at Christmas a Good Sign - NHL.com
This is good news for those teams in the top 8. While teams are breathing down their neck to pass them by it will be important to stay focused on continuing to rack up points. Avoid long losing streaks and the playoffs are likely. The New York Rangers, which only have a 10 point lead over the #9 seed Devils for all of their great work in the first half of the season, will have to continue to notch points despite sitting on top of the conference. Ten points does not seem that secure; that is only 5 wins. However, if you extrapolate that out to a full season that is a 20 point difference between the Rangers and the Devils. So, while the race is tight things will space out as the schedule goes in to February and March. So, the Red Wings flimsy 6 point lead on the Kings and Avs will be a hearty 12 points if the teams hold pace. Of course, they often do not hold their pace!
What about those teams barely below the playoff line? Of the 32 teams in the last 10 years that did overcome a slower start and make the playoffs 12 were within 2 points of the #8 spot at Christmas. Thus, if you want to make the playoffs starting fast is very important. Teams have overcome larger deficits to make the playoffs, however, the odds are clearly working against teams in the bottom of the standings. It is difficult to jump 3, 4, or 5 teams just to have a shot at the #8 seed. Therefore, the games in November matter just as much as the games in March. Get those points early so you don't have to count on a team winning in regulation time in early April.
The way I look at it is in 5-game increments instead of trying to focus on the big picture of reaching 96 points (which is about what you need to safely secure a playoff spot these days). If a team can consistently gain 6 of 10 points over the second half of the season they will significantly raise their chances of making the playoffs. That would come out to 48 points in 40 games. Add to that an extra 4 or 5 points by having a few very good 5 game stretches and unless a team had a terrible first half they will be in range of making the playoffs. Thinking of it in this incremental manner versus the big picture makes the goal of making the playoffs seem much more realistic and achievable despite sitting outside the top 8 at Christmas.