First in a two-part series about how much harder it is to make the playoffs after a slow start to the season then if a team had a similar slump mid-season. Part Two will be available tomorrow:
PHILADELPHIA - For three months now, the Flyers have been keeping some really elite company.
From Nov. 8 through Feb. 8, the final game before the Olympic break, the Flyers played 44 games. That’s about 54 percent of the season as a whole. Even more so, it’s 75 percent of the 59 games they’ve played thus far.
In those 44 games, the Flyers have amassed 57 points (26-13-5). Only four teams have collected more – St. Louis (62), Pittsburgh (61), Anaheim (60), Chicago (60). Boston is tied with the Flyers at 57.
And yet, there is one thing that those five teams have in common that the Flyers do not.
They know now that they are in a comfortable enough position that they will absolutely be in the playoffs.
The Flyers still have a war of attrition once the Olympics are over and the NHL resumes, over the final six weeks to try and guarantee a spot, something that very likely will not be decided until the final games – or game – of the season.
The disparity is incredible. The other five teams are, on average, 19.6 points ahead of the ninth place team – or first team on the outside looking in for the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Flyers hold just a three-point cushion.
And while the schedule favors the Flyers in terms of travel – 14 of the final 23 games will be at the Wells Fargo Center, and of the nine road games, only one is outside the Eastern Time zone (St. Louis, April 1) And they are all one overnight and back home until a three-game swing in the final week of the season (at Florida, at Tampa, at Pittsburgh) – the level of competition is fierce.
Consider 21 of the 23 games will be against teams currently in a playoff position (16) or against teams scrapping for a playoff spot and are within five points of one (5).
Only two games currently are scheduled against teams playing out the string (vs. Buffalo and at Florida consecutively in April).
So, why is it that the Flyers find themselves still needing to play every game almost like it’s the postseason, while the other teams on their level could technically go on cruise control until mid-April?
Well, part of it is the Flyers own fault – Prior to these 44 games, the Flyers were 4-10-1. Even worse, the opening eight games of the season they were 1-7.
Coming back from such a bad start is really hard to do in the NHL, even if it’s less than a tenth of the season.
The reason is the “loser point.”
It’s the common term for the extra point that is afforded to losers of games in either overtime or a shootout.
This season alone, 25 percent of the NHL’s games (223 in 880 played so far) have awarded an extra point to a loser.
That’s a lot.
And it’s likely only going to get higher as games get tighter and more competitive down the stretch and teams scratch and claw for every possible point, even in a loss.
And that’s the problem here.
You see, it’s harder to overcome a slow start in eight games than it is to suffer in the standings for a lengthy struggle.
Here are a few examples:
Let’s start with the Detroit Red Wings.
In that same time span as the Flyers excellent run, Detroit has played 41 games, winning just 17 of them. It’s the worst record of any team currently holding on to a playoff spot, ranking 22nd in the league in that span.
But why are they still a playoff team, when for half the season they haven’t been very good, compiling a winning percentage of .415?
Well, because their points percentage in that same time frame – the number that is often misleadingly presented as a winning percentage – is .524.
The difference? Nine losses in overtime or shootouts in that span. For the season, they have 12 total. Detroit is 2-4 in games that end in overtime and 4-8 in shootouts. That means that in nearly a third of their games (31 percent) there has been an extra point awarded, which is 5.7 percent higher than the league average (25.3 percent).
Detroit isn’t the most egregious. That title is shared by the Washington Capitals and the New Jersey Devils who have each had 21 of 59 games (35.6 percent) draw an extra point, but it should be noted that six teams have had more than 30 percent of their games result in an extra point for losing teams.
The Flyers? They are chugging along at 16.9 percent, 8.4 percent below the league average, which is third-lowest in the NHL.
How about another example…
When the Los Angeles Kings were able to defeat Columbus last Friday night in overtime, it “improved” their record in the last 14 games to 4-9-1. It’s one fewer game than the Flyers 4-10-1 start, but it included a stretch of 1-8-1, which is worse than the Flyers start of 3-7.
Yet the Kings didn’t fall out of a playoff spot. They definitely brought teams that were trailing closer, but they still hold a four point edge for a playoff position.
It’s not like they had an overwhelmingly hot start, but they were solid at 10-6-0 through the first 16 games.
What does this prove?
Only that the converse of what everyone believes is true: While most people think the games in March and April are paramount because they have more riding on them when it comes to making the playoffs or not, the fact is, the start of the season, under the current format, seems to have more impact.
How else do you explain the Flyers being one of the best teams in the sport for the past 75 percent of the season and barely being in a playoff spot, while the Kings can simply be a .500 team in the same time span (21 wins in 42 games) and have a stretch worse than anything the Flyers endured even during their worst portion of the season, and not fall out of a playoff spot?
It’s why statistics prove that it’s so hard for teams to make up such small gaps – like six points, which is the equivalent to being three games behind in baseball or basketball – in a 25-30 game span.
It makes the start of the season actually mean more, no matter how the matchups play out at the end of the season.
Example No. 3 is the Vancouver Canucks.
They were going to be example No. 1 until their seventh consecutive loss Saturday finally dropped them out of a playoff spot. Nevertheless, it just goes to show how bad things have to go to fall out of playoff positioning no matter how well other teams do around you.
The Canucks are one of just five teams to record less than 40 points in the past three months (They have 39 having won just 16 of the past 42 games). The only teams worse? Calgary, Edmonton, the New York Islanders and Buffalo… A.K.A. the 2014 NHL lottery teams.
And yet, it took until Saturday for the Canucks to not be in a playoff spot. Why? Because they got off to a decent start at 11-5-2 through Nov. 8. But thanks to that loser point, they’ve accrued an extra seven points since then in games they’ve lost, which significantly softens the blow of this seven-game losing streak. Meaning that they have been hovering around .500 otherwise and it’s why they are only one point back of a playoff spot during the Olympic break.
Just another team with an extra point made available to them three times every 10 games.
Meanwhile, the Flyers get it about half that time. The only teams that are involved in extra point games less than the Flyers are the New York Rangers (13.6 percent) and Boston (15.8 percent). The other teams in the bottom five? Pittsburgh and Columbus (Both 17.2 percent).
Not surprisingly, they are five of the top six teams in points in the Eastern Conference in the past three months and the one exception – Montreal – is also below the league average in extra point games (22 percent).
So what does this mean?
Find out in Part 2 tomorrow...
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @InsideTheFlyers
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