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Are The Rangers And Blackhawks Clutch — Or Lucky?

Fear not, Blackhawks fans. Your team might have lost to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night, going down three games to two in the insane Western Conference finals. But the Blackhawks have battled back before. Since 2010, when faced with elimination from the playoffs, they have an excellent 9-3 record.

And there’s hope for you, too, Rangers fans. Your team also needs a win — on Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals — to stay alive. But the Rangers have been through this before — a lot. Since 2010, they have been faced with playoff elimination 18 times. They are 14-4 in those games.

There’s just one problem. Having a good record in elimination games doesn’t seem to predict much about how a team will fare the next time it must win or go home.

In the table below, I’ve listed all instances in the NHL expansion era1 in which an NHL team faced elimination in the playoffs but came in with a “hot” record in previous such games. A team qualified as “hot” if it was at least five games over .500 in playoff elimination games2 in the current season plus the past five seasons.3

silver-feature-nhlclutch-1

How did these “hot” teams fare? They played 56 games … and won 28, or exactly half. So they’re basically doing as well as you would by flipping a coin. Previous clutch performance in playoff games doesn’t seem to count for much.

There’s just a teensy tiny bit of good news for Blackhawks and Rangers fans. While a 50 percent winning percentage isn’t great, it’s slightly better than the overall winning percentage for teams facing elimination, which is 45 percent. (Teams facing elimination are usually underdogs because of selection bias: If they were playing as well as their opponents, they probably wouldn’t be facing elimination to begin with.) The difference is too small to be statistically significant, however.4

The Rangers may have some other advantages late in playoff series. They have Henrik Lundqvist. And they’re an excellent five-on-five team, whereas their special teams are just average. Games 6 and 7 of playoff series historically feature relatively few penalties, which could play to the Rangers’ strengths.

The problem is that Tampa Bay has been a very good five-on-five team, too. And should the series go to Game 7, the Lightning have also been pretty good in the clutch, with a 6-2 record in elimination games since 2010. But, hey: Having to win two coin flips isn’t so bad; the Rangers have come back from much worse odds before.

Footnotes

  1. Since 1967-68.

  2. I define an “elimination game” as one when a team faces elimination by losing — not when it has the chance to eliminate its opponent. So Tuesday’s Game 6 counts as an elimination game for the Rangers, but not the Lightning. If the Rangers win and the series advances to Game 7, it will count as an elimination game for both teams.

  3. So since 2010, for instance, for playoff teams this year.

  4. A more thorough study would need to control for factors like home-ice advantage and overall team strength. Still, in my experience, your prior when working with hockey data should be that if something looks random, it probably is.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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