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

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There’s a common phrase that filters through every NHL playoff broadcast about how this is the most “even” postseason of all time. It’s like these commenters get a bonus every time they talk about it. It’s nauseating and, more importantly, it’s not right.

This year’s NHL postseason is the most hotly contested in a long time, that’s for sure. But the lack of research alone leads one to the conclusion that the margins between the teams are incredibly small. That is, until now. The bubble could burst permanently in the next 24 hours and will probably do so on Saturday morning.

We are wrapping up the first round of the NHL’s 35th postseason, in which first-round games are played best-of-seven, beginning in 1987 and featured every year except the canceled 2005 season, due to the lockout of the league. A staggering 15 teams are still in contention for the Stanley Cup going into Thursday night’s game slate, good job Nashville on shitting the bed.

A quartet of 6 games are next on the docket, with another three penultimate possible first-round games taking place on Friday. Since the switch to the seven-game first-round series, the seven teams currently down 3-2 would have to win their next game to set the NHL record. An incredible six first-round series went into Game 7 in 1992, including one with eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. All eight series had a Game 6 that season, meaning this year doesn’t break that record either. Neither team won a first-round series by a sweep or by a 4-1 margin the year before, and oddly enough, it 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. handshake line processions are not held on Thursday nights, the second-most Game 7s of a first round is four, occurring three times since 1987.

One of the reasons the NHL had an exceptionally balanced postseason is how lopsided the regular season was. Every Eastern Conference playoff team had 100 points or more. The the ninth best islanders had 84, the equivalent of eight wins under triple-digit points. Six Eastern Conference teams had 75 points or fewer. When the top eight have feasted on lesser teams for most of the year, they’re less worn out. The Western Conference was a bit more even, with 11 teams finishing the regular season with 89 points. The last five were 77 or less.

This season also featured most pervasive star power of what the league has seen. How many playoff teams had a player considered one of the best in the NHL? By my count, there are 13, and many of them have a lot of playoff experience. The lonely havens? Dallas, Boston and the already eliminated Nashville.

This year is probably not unique in terms of competitiveness. The 1994 and 1995 seasons were two of three to have four Game 7s, just a handful after the closer first round of 1992. Having nearly half the league winning multiple playoff games indicates more teams are closer to a Stanley Cup of what normally exists at once. That margin separating championship contenders is only shrinking. Take the capitals of Washington, for example. If an empty net opportunity by Garnet Hathaway in Game 4 ends up at the net or just off the post, and a try by Nic Dowd in Game 5 stays in position instead of over the blue line by a miniscule margin, President’s Cup – The trophy-winning Florida Panthers would be eliminated, rather than return to DC with a 3-2 series lead.

In the modern NHL, there have been no playoffs like this year so far. But there is historical precedent, which makes those touting this season as remarkably different incorrect. The unpredictability of the postseason so far has made for some bad games. It has also been balanced in recent days with many good ones as well. Let’s drop the facade of abnormality.

How many series made it to Game 6? And Game 7?

  • 2022: seven to six, TBD to seven
  • 2021: five made it to six, two made it to seven
  • 2020: three to six, zero to seven
  • 2019: five made it to six, three made it 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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