It’s wonderful as a hockey fan that in this new era of ESPN coverage, playoff games have staggered starts – 7, 7:30, 9:30, and 10 Eastern – so that in this first round, the most exciting round of the playoffs where anything can happen, we can watch as much playoff hockey as possible and not be stuck with simultaneous intermissions.
Unfortunately, through the first couple of days, almost all of that playoff hockey has stunk. If you’re not watching your own team in the playoffs, the thing you want out of hockey in springtime is overtime.
In the first three days, we got one overtime game. It was a glorious overtime game, no doubt, Igor Shesterkin making 79 saves, the Rangers’ third period goal controversially called off, the Penguins finally winning on Evgeni Malkin’s deflection in the third overtime. But it was still just one overtime game.
Is that a harbinger of boring playoffs to come? Are the hockey gods just saving up the drama for later? There’s not much to be said for a pattern, as far as history is concerned.
This century, there have been 422 playoff games, including Game 1 of Penguins-Rangers, but not including five qualifying-round games and one warmup game in the coronavirus bubble. That’s an average of about 21 overtime games a year, and the range has been from a paltry nine in 2000 to as many as 27 in 2013, 2017, and 2021.
Of course, there are more games in the first round, so you expect those blue bars to be the biggest. A few times, there have been more second-round overtime affairs than first-rounders (2007, 2009, 2016), but there also does not appear to be any correlation between the amount of overtime games from round to round.
Another way to look at this is each round’s share of overtime games in a playoff year. A particularly chaotic first round will represent more than half the overtime hockey in a given year, and you can also see where casual fans might start to zone out in the conference finals, where there’s limited drama in comparison to the previous few weeks, but not yet the stakes of the Stanley Cup Final.
The rounds, as you probably expect, operate independently of one another. A first round will generally produce 8-12 overtime games, a second round will give you 4-8 more, then 2-4 in an average conference finals and one or two in the Final. Small samples each year lead to a lot of fluctuation.
A thing that we can measure nicely, then, is how exciting the playoffs are in a given year. There are always 105 possible playoff games over four rounds of best-of-seven series, which means 105 chances to go to overtime: 56 in the first round, then 28, 14, and seven. This way, we can see that the 2000 playoffs, which we might remember as particularly dramatic, were really saved by the Final and by the circumstances of the few overtime games throughout the playoffs.
There’s always room for more analysis on a case by case basis, and this metric could be improved by adding data of lengths of overtimes, which games the overtimes were in, and so on, but just for a quick and easy tracker, the formula is just the percent of possible games to go to overtime, calculated after each round, and then added up.
Conveniently, it adds up to where 100 means you’ve had a very exciting playoffs, as was the case in 2013 and 2014. And, yes, the 2018 playoffs were only really interesting because of the novelty of both the expansion Golden Knights going to the Final and the Capitals finally winning a title.
So far, we’ve just got the one overtime game, in the very first round. That’s a score of 1.8 if we don’t see another extra second of hockey this spring. Here’s betting that won’t be what happens.