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Vulgar Statistics: Eastern Conference Bubble Teams

02/20/11
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As it stands right now in the Eastern Conference there are three teams at the bottom of the playoff pile in Montreal, the New York Rangers, and Carolina, and four teams that are itching to get in and are close enough to pull it off if things go right for them in their next few games, those being Buffalo, Atlanta, Florida, and the shocker of all shockers, Toronto.  With the Sabres right there with those teams, I began to wonder how things shaped up for them for the remainder of the season.

I tracked a bunch of different things so the following chart is kind of all over the place.  The three basic factors I considered were the bubble teams’ strength of schedule, the breakdown of their games remaining (home, away, back to back, etc.), and their performance so far this season against their remaining opponents including a prediction of their final point total based on those numbers.  It doesn’t mean anything, and I’m not saying that things are going to shake out this way at all, but it does provide some illumination for the path ahead for each team.
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The first surprise was how even everyone’s strength of schedule is, though with the number of games left and the parity in the NHL, I probably shouldn’t have been too shocked.  There is some fluctuation based on divisional strengths, but by and large no one really has a tougher schedule than anyone else, at least not in terms of their quality of opponents.

When you analyze the games remaining though it becomes a different story.  Montreal is traveling a ton, which does not bode well for them as they’re 19-7-6 at home and only 12-14-1 on the road.  Meanwhile Carolina has the good fortune of rarely traveling (and they also don’t have any more consecutive road games) away from home where they’re 15-10-2.  Both Carolina and Buffalo get shafted in terms of back to back games, and Montreal has the fewest, probably owing largely in part to the number of road games they play.  But these are all things you can merely read above.

What’s interesting is the number of games that each team has against top eight opponents, and against other contenders.  While Buffalo has the most games against playoff opponents, they also have the most games against other contenders (including three against Carolina) which means they are most in control of their own destiny.  A strong schedule is actually a positive here because those are the teams you need to gain ground on, and what better way to do that than to defeat them?

The point prediction is an imperfect science.  Montreal has a fantastic record this season against the teams they play, but their road record is awful.  Which is going to win out?  Plus they have a ton of injuries along their blue-line that will cost them games down the stretch.  And on top of everything, there’s the looming trade deadline.  But it at least outlines how those teams might fare in the coming weeks.

Final Thoughts:

Obviously I like the prediction column because it has the Sabres making a play for the seventh seed, but I know realistically that the games are played for a reason.  Taking a quick look at the schedules my gut tells me the Sabres are going to falter due to the number of playoff teams they face and the number of back to backs they’ll have to endure and I think that the eight teams currently in the playoffs in the east are the ones that will be there come season’s end albeit possibly in a different order.  But that won’t stop me from hoping

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