NHL playoffs are getting tight, but we’ve seen tighter

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There’s a common phrase percolating through each NHL playoff broadcast about how this is the most “evenly-matched” postseason of all time. It’s like these commentators get a bonus every time they talk about it. It’s nauseating and more importantly, it’s not correct.

This year’s NHL postseason is the most tightly contested in a while, that’s accurate. But only a lack of research leads one to the conclusion that the margins between teams is record-breakingly thin. That is, so far. The bubble could permanently burst in the next 24 hours and likely will by Saturday morning.

We’re finishing up the first round of the 35th NHL postseason, in which first round games are contested as a best of seven, starting in 1987 and featured every year except the canceled 2005 season, because of the league’s lockout. An astounding 15 teams are still in contention for the Stanley Cup entering Thursday night’s slate of games, good job Nashville on shitting the bed.

A quartet of Game 6s are next on the docket, with another three penultimate possible first-round games taking place Friday. Since the shift to seven-gam first-round series , all seven teams currently down 3-2 would have to win their next game to set the NHL record. A whopping six first-round series went to Game 7s in 1992, including one with the eventual Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh. All eight series had a Game 6 that season, meaning this year doesn’t break that record either. No team won a first-round series with a sweep or by a 4-1 margin the year prior, as well and oddly enough ended with the same result, a Pittsburgh championship.

Since those back-to-back championships lifted by Mario Lemieux 30 years ago, only one other NHL postseason has featured seven first-round Game 6s — 2010. Only two of those series reached a winner-take-all Game 7. Should a few processions of handshake lines not take place Thursday night, the second-most game 7s from a first-round is four, happening three times since 1987.

One reason for the NHL having an exceptionally balanced postseason is how uneven the regular season was. Every Eastern Conference playoff team had 100 points or more. The ninth-best Islanders had 84, the equivalent of eight wins short of triple-digit points. Six Eastern Conference teams had 75 points or less. When the top eight have feasted on lesser teams for most of the year, they’re less worn down. The Western Conference was a little bit more even, with 11 teams ending the regular season with 89 points. The bottom five had 77 or less.

This season also featured more widespread star power than the league has seen. How many playoff teams had a player that’s been considered one of the NHL’s best? By my count, there are 13, with many of them having a ton of playoff experience. The lone holdouts? Dallas, Boston and already-eliminated Nashville.

This year will likely not be a one-off in terms of competitiveness. The 1994 and 1995 seasons were two of three to have four Game 7s, just a few after the most-even first round of 1992. Having nearly half the league win multiple playoff games indicates more teams are closer to a Stanley Cup than usually exists at once. That margin separating the championship contenders is only getting smaller. Take the Washington Capitals for example. If an empty-net chance from Garnet Hathaway in Game 4 ends up in the net or just wide of the post, and a Game 5 attempt from Nic Dowd stays onside instead of over the blue line by a miniscule margin, the President’s-Cup- Trophy-winning Florida Panthers would be eliminated, instead of heading back to DC with a 3-2 series lead.

In the modern NHL, a playoffs like this year thus far hasn’t happened. But there’s historical precedent, making those who hype up this season as remarkably different incorrect. The unpredictability of the postseason so far has made for some bad games. It’s also been balanced in the last few days with plenty of good ones too. Let’s just stop the facade of abnormality.

How many series reached Game 6? And Game 7?

  • 2022: Seven to six, TBD to seven
  • 2021: Five made it to six, two to seven
  • 2020: Three to six, zero to seven
  • 2019: Five made it to six, three to seven
  • 2018: Four to six, one to seven
  • 2017: Four to six, zero to seven
  • 2016: Five to six, two to seven
  • 2015: Six to six, two to seven
  • 2014: Six to six, three to seven
  • 2013: Five to six, three to seven
  • 2012: Five to six, three to seven
  • 2011: Six to six, four to seven
  • 2010: Seven to six, two to seven
  • 2009: Five to six, two to seven
  • 2008: Six to six, three to seven
  • 2007: Three to six, one to seven
  • 2006: Four to six, one to seven
  • 2005: *** No playoffs, lockout ***
  • 2004: Four to six, three to seven
  • 2003: Five to six, three to seven
  • 2002: Five to six, two to seven
  • 2001: Six to six, zero to seven
  • 2000: Two to six, one to seven
  • 1999: Five to six, two to seven
  • 1998: Six to six, one to seven
  • 1997: Five to six, three to seven
  • 1996: Six to six, zero to seven
  • 1995: Five to six, four to seven
  • 1994: Six to six, four to seven
  • 1993: Five to six, one to seven
  • 1992: Eight to six, six to seven
  • 1991: Eight to six, three to seven
  • 1990: Six to six, three to seven
  • 1989: Four to six, two to seven
  • 1988: Five to six, one to seven
  • 1987: Five to six, one to seven


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