The NHL Playoffs Have Been Historically Competitive — So Far
The NHL featured a high-scoring regular season in 2021-22, led by an unusually strong group of top teams. But the NHL playoffs are where goals — and predictability — usually go to die. Could the regular-season trends translate to the wild world of the Stanley Cup?
One exciting first round later, we have an answer — or at least a better sense of where this postseason is headed. And it looks like many of the most interesting wrinkles from the regular season are still alive and well.
For one thing, we can confirm that offense was indeed served in Round 1. After the league produced its most goals per game (3.145) in a regular season since 1993-94, the first round saw even more fireworks, with teams averaging 3.216 goals per game. That made this the ninth-highest scoring first round1 since 1987, when Round 1 was expanded to its current best-of-seven format; the highest-scoring since 1995, period; and only the sixth time since 1987 when goals per game actually increased from the regular season to the first round of the playoffs:
Scoring doesn’t usually go up in Round 1. It did this year.
Top 10 scoring averages by goals per game in the first round of the NHL playoffs and 10 highest increases from the regular season to the first round, 1987-2022
|Year||Goals per game|
in Round 1
Among the teams still alive in the postseason, all but one — the puzzling New York Rangers — were above average in goals per game during the regular season, and the average remaining team was +0.46 goals per game better than the league norm on offense (compared with +0.36 on defense). So don’t be surprised if the goals keep coming in Round 2 and beyond.
As for the crowded group of elite regular-season teams, that also seemed to carry over to the playoffs … in a certain sense.
This was clearly one of the most competitive first rounds in recent memory, with five out of eight series going to a do-or-die seventh game, and two more going to six games. (The lone series that took fewer than six games saw the Colorado Avalanche steamroll the Nashville Predators in a sweep.) Since 1987, only the 1992 first round, which saw six series go to a Game 7, featured more winner-take-all contests. Further, two of this year’s five Game 7s went to overtime — both happened on Sunday night — which tied the 2022 postseason with 2011 and 1997 for the most OT Game 7s in a first round since 1987.
All of that meant the average first-round series went 6.38 games this year, which is tied with 1991 for the second-longest set of series in an opening round since 1987:
This was one of the closest first rounds in recent history …
Most games per first-round series in the NHL playoffs by year, 1987-2022
|Year||Game 7s||OT Game 7s||Average Games/Series|
The only thing keeping this from being arguably the greatest first round in modern history was the fact that the games themselves were not particularly close. Only 25 percent of opening-round games were decided by a single goal — by far the lowest share for any first round since 1987 — while 31 percent were decided by four goals or more (the largest such share since 1987). As a result, the average game in Round 1 was decided by 2.71 goals, giving 2022 the widest average margin of victory in any first round since 1987:
… but it was also filled with blowouts
NHL playoff first rounds with the largest average margin of victory, 1987-2022
|Share of Games w/ Margin of …|
|Year||1 Goal||2 Goals||3 Goals||4+ Goals||Avg. Margin|
Some of that was because of trailing teams pulling their goalie earlier than ever, turning single-goal deficits into multi-goal final margins. (Of the 328 goals scored in the first round, 29 came with an empty net — the most in a first round since at least 2014, according to Hockey-Reference.com’s data.) But teams also just traded a lot of blowouts to get to seven games, particularly early in their series. We’ll have to see if that particularly odd characteristic continues in Round 2.
Either way, the matchups are only getting tighter from here. According to our Elo forecast model, each second-round underdog has at least a 33 percent chance to pull off an upset.
Which team is likeliest to knock off a favorite in Round 2?
Most likely second-round upsets in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast model
|Edmonton Oilers||Calgary Flames||45%|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||Florida Panthers||44|
|New York Rangers||Carolina Hurricanes||39|
|St. Louis Blues||Colorado Avalanche||33|
Two of these pairings are de facto coin flips: the epic Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers — somehow, their first playoff meeting since 1991 — and the warmer (but perhaps just as bitter) Battle of Florida between the Florida Panthers and the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Although the Panthers and Flames carry stronger Elo ratings, nobody would be surprised if either team fell to their rival in Round 2. Meanwhile, the Rangers and Blues are slightly heavier underdogs, with St. Louis having only about a 1-in-3 shot at knocking off the mighty Avalanche. But New York has a penchant for playing better than its underlying stats, and St. Louis would not exactly be joining an exclusive club if it upset Colorado in the second round.
In other words, all of the ingredients are here for another classic set of series — especially if Round 1 was any indication of how this postseason is going to play out.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.