Are teams that win a lot of one-goal games lucky, or do they have a special ability to win when the chips are down – that characteristic known as “clutch” or “killer instinct?”
It’s an important question to know the answer to. Teams like Dallas, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and New Jersey have built much of their impressive record this season on a strong record in one-goal games. On the other hand, different clubs – Columbus, Carolina, Phoenix, Edmonton and Winnipeg – have lost a lot of one-goal games this season. Is it a reflection of mental toughness or some other intangible? Or is it just a case of bad luck in the closest games?
Logically, if teams that win a lot of one-goal games boast those intangibles, we would expect it to show up in their playoff performance – if they can win in critical regular season situations, one reasons that they would be better in the most critical playoff situations than their opposition. Is that true?
To answer the question, I’ve looked up every team over the last five seasons to win 60% or more of their one-goal games. That list is as follows:
|Team||Season||1GG Win %||Playoff Results|
|Devils||2008-09||73.5||Upset in first round|
|Coyotes||2009-10||69.0||Upset in first round|
|Devils||2006-07||66.7||Upset in second round|
|Ducks||2010-11||65.9||Upset in first round|
|Stars||2006-07||65.1||Lost in first round|
|Predators||2009-10||65.1||Lost in first round|
|Senators||2009-10||64.5||Lost in first round|
|Penguins||2009-10||64.1||Upset in second round|
|Devils||2007-08||62.8||Upset in first round|
|Canucks||2006-07||62.5||Lost in second round|
|Lightning||2006-07||61.5||Lost in first round|
|Hurricanes||2008-09||61.5||Lost in third round|
|Sabres||2006-07||61.0||Upset in third round|
|Predators||2006-07||60.5||Upset in first round|
|Sharks||2007-08||60.5||Upset in second round|
|Ducks||2007-08||60.0||Upset in first round|
|Devils||2009-10||60.0||Upset in first round|
|Penguins||2010-11||60.0||Upset in first round|
If I were looking for a way to predict playoff upsets, I would have difficulty finding a better way. Eight of these teams were upset in the first round – including the Ducks last season, an upset I predicted based on their astonishing record in one-goal games. Four others were upset later on – the 2010 Penguins (beat 5th seed Ottawa in the first round, lost to 8th seed Montreal in the second round), the 2008 Sharks (beat 7th seed Calgary in the first round, lost to 5th seed Dallas in the second round), and the 2007 Sabres and Devils (the first and second seeds, respectively; both lost to 4th-seeded Ottawa).
If we ignore the three teams that missed the playoffs, we find the following breakdown:
- Upset in the playoffs: 12 of 18 teams (66.7%)
- Lost in the first round to a higher-seeded team: 4 of 18 teams (22.2%)
- Lost in the second round to a higher-seeded team: 1 of 18 teams (5.6%)
- Lost in the third round to a higher-seeded team: 1 of 18 teams (5.6%)
The two teams with some success are the 2007 Vancouver Canucks and the 2009 Carolina Hurricanes. The Canucks were the West’s third seed in 2006-07, and they squeaked out a narrow win in a seven game series over 6th-seeded Dallas before falling to the 2nd seed Ducks in round two. The 2009 Hurricanes are the only team we can look at and call a real success: they upset New Jersey (also on this list) in the first round, barely won a seven-game series over the first-seed Bruins in the second round, and then lost to Pittsburgh in round three.
Naturally, none of this is totally conclusive. I haven’t done a complex mathematical study to absolutely prove my point. However, based on the last five seasons of playoff results, I’m very comfortable believing that teams win a lot of one-goal games primarily because they’re lucky, not because they’re born winners that win the tight games because they just want it a little more than their opponents. If the latter were true, these teams wouldn’t constantly lose playoff series to lower seeds.
What does it mean for the teams of the Nation Network?
For some, it’s good news. Winnipeg is 4-8 in one-goal games, but 6-7 in games decided by more than one goal; their position in the standings is probably undersold a little. The Oilers are 9-7 in games decided by more than one goal, but 3-6 in one-goal games. Vancouver is 6-6 in one-goal games, and 8-5 in other games.
For others, the news is less good. Toronto is 7-4 in one-goal games, 7-7 in contests decided by more than one goal. Calgary is 4-4 in one-goal games, but just 6-10 elsewhere.
It also raises an interesting question: at the team level, does "clutch" play exist? If it does, how can we find it? I’m something of an agnostic on the question – while I acknowledge that some players are better in pressure situations, I’m not convinced there’s a big gap between given teams as a whole. If there were, I’d expect to see teams that fared well in close games also fare well in the playoffs.