Think about it. The Eastern Conference boasts some of the most offensively gifted players of this or any other era. Sidney Crosby. Alex Ovechkin. Steven Stamkos. John Tavares. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. The list goes on. Asked to describe the Eastern Conference game, most would come up with things like "wide-open", "high-scoring", "loose" or some combination thereof. This is in stark contrast to the Western Conference, where the adjectives would be something like "physical", "tight", "defensive." All of those might apply to the regular season, but since the playoff tournament has begun, things have been a bit different.
Of the 16 teams in the playoffs this year, the only Eastern Conference team to crack the top 5 in goals per game is Tampa, with a relatively paltry 2.78 GPG average. The remainder of the East holds down the #10 throu\gh #16 slots, with Montreal, the Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins occupying the bottom three rungs on the ladder. Considering that the Rangers and Canadiens share 1.88 GPG totals, it is frankly amazing that they are in the second round. The Washington Capitals are not much better, limping in with a 2.10 GPG average. Not a single Eastern team is over the 3.00 GPG level you would like to see in the playoffs.
Lets focus on the Rangers and Capitals, as last night's 1 - 0 Washington victory provided much of the impetus for this piece. The Rangers have now played eight post-season games this year. Every one of those has been decided by one goal. Five have been determined by 2 - 1 scores, Add in the shutout, and in 75% of their playoff games, the combined goal total of the two teams has been under 3.00. In the other two contests -- a 3 - 2 victory in Game 2 of the current series, and a 4 - 3 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 2 of the fist round -- the blue shirts managed to eke out three goals.
Washington has fared only slightly better. In its 10 playoff contests this year, seven have been one goal games, and four have been decided by 2-1 margins. Still, only twice have the Capitals scored more than two goals in a game. In the 15 unique games played by the two teams, the losing team has scored 1 goal or less an astounding 12 times.
It would be easy to blame the phenomenon on off-season coaching changes, such as Barry Trotz taking the helm at the Capitals, but a similar phenomenon arose last year. In the 2013-14 playoffs, Columbus led the East, ranking fourth among playoff teams with a 3.00 GPG average. While Montreal (6th) and Pittsburgh (8th) cracked the top half, the West held the top three slots, and the East held five of the bottom six positions. Prior to that, the East held more true to its high-scoring heritage.
There is an overall trend of reduced scoring in the playoffs, after a significant increase following the 2004-05 lockout and accompanying rule changes. In the seven season preceding the lockout, only ten of the 112 teams that participated in the playoffs over that time span managed to have GPG averages of 3.00 or more. In fact, only in 1997-1998 and 2001-2002 did more than one team reach that level, and none did it in 2003-2004. Playoff scoring improved after the lockout, with four or more teams scoring at the 3.00 level or higher in five of the six seasons between the lockout and 2010-2011. The peak came in 2009 - 2010, when nine of the 16 playoff clubs reached that level. In the four years since, three or fewer teams have reached the 3.00 level in three of the four years. (Last year, six clubs reached the mark, with three of them right on the 3.00 level).
So, why the overall drop in scoring, and why the specific drop in the East over the past two years? Addressing the overall trend, it seems to mirror what we have seen in the regular season. In the first year after the rule changes went into effect, a whopping 16 teams sported GPG averages of 3.00 or more. Those numbers came down over time, but still were significantly above the pre-lockout numbers. However, in three of the past four years, only three teams managed to climb above the 3.00 level for the regular season. So, it would appear to lend some credence to the theory that interference and such is back on the rise, and -- contrary to what many would say -- is not limited to the playoff setting, when the only whistles you hear come from the stands. I do think the issue is magnified during the playoffs, when teams are by nature playing a bit more conservatively in many situations, and more intense focus is placed upon each contest.
The recent relative decline in Eastern Conference scoring is more problematic to diagnose. On the one hand, you could argue that the playoffs inherently call for a tighter game, and that Western Conference teams are more accustomed to that style. While that may well be true, it doesn't account for the fact that prior to last year, the East more than held its own in terms of playoff scoring. The apparent shift coincided with the adoption of the new divisional structure, but it's difficult to see how that would come into play in terms of playoff scoring. Some of the coaching shifts may be part of it -- with the more conservative Trotz now in the East, and the more offensively minded Laviolette in the West, for example, but I suspect that's not the whole story either.
It may well be a statistical anomaly that is heavily influenced by individual factors and performances. Right now, the Eastern Conference seems to have the upper hand in terms of quality goaltending, with Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Ben Bishop and Braden Holtby all playing some terrific hockey in the post-season. (Montreal fans may disagree in light of the last two games, but goaltending is the least of their issues.) While the West also has good goaltending, the cast of characters is a bit more suspect there, and a hot goaltender is a prime ingredient to playoff success. Similarly, some guys/clubs just tend to struggle in playoffs. The Rangers were the third highest scoring club in the NHL this season, but can't hit the ocean from the beach right now, and in fact have finished in the bottom half of playoff teams in scoring in each of the past five years. Rick Nash has a single goal in the playoffs. The story is repeated in Montreal and Washington. Even though Tampa Bay is performing well on a relative basis, their 2.78 GAA in the post season is not a world-beater, and Steven Stamkos has only recently appeared to find his game.
Don't get me wrong -- I appreciate a well-played, tight hockey game. Last night's 1 - 0 affair was a nail-biter and a helluva lot of fun to watch. But a steady diet of low scoring games is not my cup of tea, nor is it in the long term best interests of the game. Heck, if I wanted to see no scoring, I'd just switch to MLS games. Stay tuned.