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Why does playoff hockey hit differently?
We know it does, but why?
Playoff hockey hits different.
During the regular season the Pittsburgh Penguins led the NHL with an average of 27.88 hits per game.
In the postseason that would rank 15th. As of games played Wednesday, 13 NHL teams were averaging more than 30 hits per 60 minutes, with six teams averaging more than 40.
Here’s an idea of much teams are hitting in the playoffs.
If there’s a data point to backup the playoff hockey is a different game, that it’s more physical, this is it.
You could find hundreds of playoff montages to visual this point. ESPN and TNT are probably actively cutting playoff promos with hits as we speak.
But why does it happen?
I have a working theory that it’s a combination of factors. Intensity certainly ramps up, but I think there’s more to the familiarity of schematics and contempt.
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Playing the same team four to seven times in a row creates nastiness, but it also eliminates any hidden tendencies. In a series you’ll see a “feeling out” process in the first game or so, but typically by Game 2 both teams know everything about each other.
Teams also focus on other teams more often in the postseason. In the regular season, with 82 games and 31 opponents, coaches tend to focus more on the internal affairs. You aren’t going to overly focus on building a system to beat the Carolina Hurricanes forecheck when you only play them three or four times.
That shifts in the playoffs. Coaches actually have to coach in the postseason, it becomes a game-to-game chess match, and moving pieces (players) actually matters.
So the hits ramp up.
I ran this theory by some NHL scouts, analysts, and executives this week.
“You’re not wrong on familiarity. It’s definitely part of it,” one team analyst said. “It’s also part of the style of many teams, but you can’t execute without intensity factor. Both are tied to each other, they are not two separate things.”
An Eastern Conference scout offered this ideology over text.
“I believe it’s tied to all things that are related to competitive desire to reach the ultimate goal. Urgency/battle/passion to succeed/doing whatever it takes to win.”
A Western Conference scout, who played in the NHL, took a look at the player psyche of the playoffs.
“There is an understanding that this is a short time, you are going to play more physical hockey, and you are going to either get a rest soon or you’ll be playing a while and having the biggest moment of your life,” they said. “It’s easier to enter that battle every game and you can’t do that in an 82-game regular season, it’ll break you down.”
Knowing my past history covering the Stars, this scout turned his focus to Radek Faksa, who has shaken off a difficult regular season (albeit because of his cap hit expectations) and had a strong postseason.
“I look at a guy like that and it’s a bit easier for him to be so-called ‘playoff guy.’ For starters, he can be a bull, he can hit everything, he knows that these games mean more. But, it’s also a matchup thing, Faksa in the regular season has to adjust to a different matchup each game, his game doesn’t change, but his opponent does,” they said. “In the playoffs, he can be himself, be annoying, and annoy the same matchup each and every game. The game becomes simpler for the bottom-six guys like that, while it becomes more complicated for the top of the line players.”
Each playoff season we have the discussion about a regular season top performer that’s struggling in the playoffs. How their game doesn’t translate to the postseason. Up until Game 5 of the Dallas-Seattle series, Jason Robertson was the center of the discussion.
In the playoffs, as one coach explained to me, teams focus on the tendencies of the opposing teams top players. They have full film sessions about limiting those big names, they don’t care about the tendencies of the bottom-six players — the Faksas of the world — so there is self-fulfilling system in place where certain types of players become “playoff guys,” and others don’t.
It’s why teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and Seattle have had success this spring. Multiple people I spoke to about this topics looked at those two teams who specifically built with the playoffs in mind, and not the regular season.
“I think it’s one of the most overlooked things in our game,” one executive said. “Build a great real season team, but not a great playoff team. I think more teams will start to look that way, especially when you look at the teams still standing.”
By that comment, the executive was referring to how Seattle and Carolina were built, while also discussing the Vegas Golden Knights and Stars roster construction. Vegas and Dallas may have more star power, but the teams were built with an ethos of “being a tough out,” more than winning regular season titles.
“Sometimes it works and you also have the best record in your division,” the executive said. “But it’s not the biggest goal for George (McPhee) and Jim (Nill).”
We discussed playoff performers, both good and bad, this week on Expected by Whom? You should check that out here.
Prashanth and I also discussed the NHL Draft Lottery process and how it could be improved.
That includes looking into Gold Plan drafting, while I re-raised my proposed NHL schedule change with modified promotion/relegation that would add value to the latter part of the NHL schedule.
The interview with Carleen Markey is a fascinating look into the world of analytics in women’s hockey. Once again, highly suggested listening.