Saturday, April 04, 2009

Bracketology: The Two-Versus-Seven Matchup

In early April, thoughts of seeding come to mind. No, not seeding the lawn, although we have to get around to that, too, but seeding of playoff teams. And in looking at the seeds, one wonders if there isn’t something in there akin to the infamous 5-versus-12 thing you often see in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament where the lower-seeded team pulls off the upset.

It turns out that at first glance, there is something like that in the NHL. And, it just so happens that it is the 2-versus-7 matchup that has potential for upsets. Going back through ten seasons worth of 2-versus-7 matchups in the Eastern Conference, we see the following results:

There are several things to note here. First, there is the matter of the 7-seed coming out on top in six of ten instances. That is rather amazing in itself. But also note that the first five occasions took place in the first five years of this ten-year window.

Then there is the matter of the matchups themselves. In four of the six occasions in which the lower-seeded team won, the teams were divisional opponents (Pittsburgh and Montreal were members of the Northeast Division before the NHL went to a six division format in the 1999-2000 season). Lower-seeded divisional rivals, who are more familiar with each other, appear to have been unfazed by the matter of seeding and who beat whom in the standings.

Amplifying this theme, there have been three sweeps in 2-versus-7 series in the last ten seasons, and in two of them the lower-seeded team won. In both instances, the winner – the lower-seeded team – defeated a division rival (Buffalo over Ottawa in 1999 and Toronto over Ottawa in 2001).

It doesn’t appear that regular season records have much to do with the results of the 2-versus-7 matchup. Five times the team that lost the season series won this playoff series. Incredibly, Buffalo swept Ottawa in 1999 after failing to win a single game in their regular season series (in an odd twist of history, Ottawa only won once, and that in overtime; there were four ties).

There has been a strange lack of suspense in the 2-versus-7 matchup, if by “suspense” you mean a game 7. In the last ten years in the East, there has been one game 7 in this matchup, that coming in 2004 when Montreal defeated Boston, 2-0. Of course, Montreal was the lower-seeded team. In fact, this has more often than not been a quick-work round of games. In six of the last ten years, the series has gone only four or five games, and in four of those the lower-seeded team won.

Who wins when during the series does appear to matter, though, although perhaps one shouldn’t read a lot into it. Seven times in ten instances, the team that won Game 1 won the series. Four times, it was the lower-seeded team turning the trick, but all four of those instances occurred in the first four years of this ten-season window. But here is the one to watch – Game 3. In nine of ten instances the team that won this game won the series. The lone exception was when Tampa Bay defeated New Jersey, 3-2, in Game 3 of the 2007 series, then lost to the Devils in six games.

The methods geeks will say that ten games is an insufficient sample size to draw any clear conclusions. Add in that teams change, turn over their rosters, etc., and there is more noise added to this kind of a look. But there is a point to be made here, and it is this – there are no easy paths to the Stanley Cup, not even a two-versus-seven matchup. For the Caps, what the last ten years of history suggest is that of the five teams below them that they could realistically face in a two-versus-seven matchup, they stand to have more success against the Rangers (3-0-1 against them this year), Pittsburgh (3-0-1) or Montreal (3-1-0). They would appear to want to avoid the Flyers (2-2-0). The team they do not want to face is their Southeast Division foe Carolina, against which the Caps are 3-3-0 (Carolina winning the season points battle by virtue of earning a point in a 5-4 shootout loss on March 14th).

Still, a 14-6-2 record against the five team group from which the first round opponent could emerge is a favorable sign for the Caps heading into the second season.

But that two-versus-seven history offers a warning – “beware what you wish for…”


Caps Nut said...

Something that would be worth considering is the type of finishing kick both teams had heading into the series.

Was 2 on cruise control while 7 on a hot streak to get in? Though if I'm not mistaken, the year Joisey had the 2 seed and won Cup, didn't they fire the head coach right before the playoffs?

Anonymous said...

On another note, the 2003 second seed and the 2006 second seed were CUP champions, maybe if we can get to that second spot the we will be the 2009 CHAMPS!!