Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews are two players that have actually performed better against playoff-bound competition. (Bill Smith, Getty Images)

Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews are two players that have actually performed better against playoff-bound competition. (Bill Smith, Getty Images)

As we near the playoffs, I’m beginning to see a common criticism of certain players around the league. It goes a little something like this: these players only seem to rack up points against lesser competition, but can’t score against playoff teams — once the playoffs come around, these players will wilt under the pressure and won’t produce.

Many have looked askance at Alex Ovechkin’s resurgence for this reason, particularly after he scored a hattrick against Florida. I saw comments pointing out how many of his multi-point games and most of his 9-game point streak came against teams that in all likelihood will not make the playoffs. Scoring a hattrick against the Florida Panthers is no great feat, according to this group of people, as the Panthers are a terrible team set to finish last in the NHL.

Ovechkin isn’t the only target for this line of reasoning. I’ve seen the Sedins derided for padded their stats against lesser competition in the Northwest Division for years, for instance. I’m curious to see if this is true, however. Has Ovechkin scored less against playoff-bound opponents than he has against non-playoff teams? If he has, is the difference in scoring that significant compared to other top scorers from around the league?

I decided to look at the NHL’s top-30 scorers and compared their points-per-game against playoff and non-playoff teams to see if any of those players performed significantly better or worse against tougher competition. It seems to me that we would expect players to score less against playoff teams, simply because they’re better teams and tend to have a better goal differential than non-playoff teams.

In general, this holds true. The top scorers in the league tend to perform slightly worse against playoff-bound teams, though a large chunk perform similarly against both playoff and non-playoff teams. There are, however, some players that have performed significantly better or worse against playoff-bound competition, which is where it gets interesting.

2013 vs Playoff Teams

  • Sure enough, Ovechkin is one of the players who has performed significantly better against non-playoff teams, scoring 1.35 points-per-game against them and just 0.69 points-per-game against playoff teams. Ovechkin has scored a whopping 22 goals in 26 games against non-playoff opponents, which is staggering. He’s scored at least 3 goals against every non-playoff team this season except for the Philadelphia Flyers. The playoff team he’s performed the best against? The Pittsburgh Penguins, with 4 points in 3 games.
  • Joining Ovechkin at the bottom of the list are Patrick Kane and John Tavares, both of whom have racked up points against the bottom of the standings. Kane certainly has respectable totals against playoff competition, but has absolutely destroyed non-playoff teams, with 29 points in 19 games. Tavares has done the same, with 28 points in 19 games against non-playoff teams, but hasn’t performed as well as Kane against playoff competition.
  • I’ve heard all three of Ovechkin, Kane, and Tavares mentioned in the Hart conversation. The fact that the bulk of their points have come against non-playoff teams might call into question their candidacy, particularly compared to someone like Crosby, who has performed consistently against all competition this season, even scoring slightly more against playoff teams.
  • I find it particularly interesting that three of the top-four players on this list are on non-playoff teams. Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, and Alexander Semin have performed far better against playoff teams than non-playoff teams. All three have a better-than point-per-game average against playoff teams.
  • At the top of the list is Anze Kopitar, who appears to enjoy playing against tough competition, with 22 points in 18 games against playoff teams and 15 points in 23 games against non-playoff teams. Kopitar is second only to Crosby in points-per-game against playoff teams.

It’s important to note that these numbers could change significantly by the end of the season. For instance, with a win Monday night, the Columbus Blue Jackets pulled even with the Detroit Red Wings at 47 points, though they’re still in 9th with the tiebreaker. If the Blue Jackets make the playoffs and the Red Wings do not, Patrick Kane, for instance, will have better numbers against playoff teams.

Kane has 4 points in 4 games against the Blue Jackets this season and just 1 point in 4 games against the Red Wings. That would give him 20 points in 22 games against playoff teams if the Blue Jackets make the postseason and 26 points in 19 games against non-playoff teams, which is a much smaller difference.

Comments (28)

  1. Would you care to expand on your inclusion of Toews with Kane and Ovechkin? Doesn’t seem to make much sense given how they are on opposite ends of this list.

  2. I think he meant to type Tavares and it was a typo.

  3. I’m not sure what the correct way to implement this would be, but I feel like some sort of normalization factor is warranted. Non playoff teams in general tend to give up more goals than playoff-bound teams (sort the standings by Goals Allowed) so it’s not surprising that 20 of the 30 players fall into the minus category on the differential.

    I wonder how reliable this is for players year-to-year, my suspicion is that it’s just statistical noise rather than a real strong narrative.

    • To be clear, I don’t actually put that much stock into this. It’s more just fun to look at and think about. For some players, like Ovechkin, Kane, and Tavares, it is a little startling, though.

      • True, but a lot depends on point in time. For example, Tavares has 8 points against NJ before they went into their nosedive. At the time, NJ was a playoff team.

        But like you said, it’s an interesting exercise.

  4. I like the general idea behind this type of analysis but I don’t know if it really provides that much useful information. I think you’d have to go a lot more in depth and look beyond what teams a player scores against and also look at which players they play the majority of their minutes against. A lot of the non playoff teams still have elite players that can limit an opponents ability to score, they may just lack the depth to win hockey games and therefore miss the playoffs. By that logic, the better offensive players will still be matched up against good competition on most nights, even when playing non-playoff teams.

    • To further this, I feel like small sample sizes are an issue here. Looking at this trend over a few seasons would probably give more useful information.

    • I agree with this and additionally think it’s pretty arbitrary to divide playoff versus non-playoff teams for this kind of analysis. In the West there are 4 teams within 3 points of each other, 2 of those teams are currently in and two are out of the playoffs, and in the East Winnipeg and Buffalo are only 2 and 4 points behind the Rangers, is there really that big a difference between “scrubs” and “studs” at that point? Seems like a silly assumption to me.

      At the very least an analysis like this should “weight” each goal or point scored by the GAA of the opponent, but even then you are failing to account for the depth issue that Nick pointed out.

  5. As a Chicago fan, Toews enthusiast, and traditionally a harsh critic of Kane, if it came down to the two I’d have to lean toward 88 this year. He’s had to work with one of the most underperforming second line centers for most of the season (Bolland) and Sharp when he was healthy and still not scoring much. Beyond those two it’s been Kruger and Carcillo. Kane has been out of his mind and rightly so.

  6. While you’re at it, try looking at look at Ovechkin’s 5v5 performance against playoff teams to see just how mediocre he really has been.

  7. Just another reason why Kopitar is the most underrated player in hockey, I guess….

  8. Should be whether or not the opponent was a playoff bound team _at the time of the game_

    Some teams of nose-dived but were playing pretty good hockey at certain points in the season.

  9. Ever consider the fact that Ovechkin is the reason some of those teams aren’t in the playoffs? Boom!

    • Okay… You don’t really believe that AO has that effect do you? And what do you make of Crosby’s numbers then? Or Kopitar’s… Is Kopitar the reason most teams make the playoffs?

      • I was half joking, but then again…neither Crosby nor Kopitar’s numbers are close to the 1.53 pts/game that ovie scores against non-playoff teams. Sure, he scores alot against the bottom feeders, but Crosby and Kopitar play those same teams and no one said to take it easy on them. I’d be interested to see a statistic of points earned by non-playoff teams vs the caps compared to points earned by non-playoff teams vs the rest…particularly their southeast div opponents whom they’ve played more than any other teams and all are currently out of playoff contention with the exception of the Caps. Crappy division or just getting abused by Ovie and the Caps? Let’s see those numbers.

        • C’mon. To say, Ovechkin and the Caps (barely a playoff team) are doing more damage than Crosby and the Pens (lots of WINZ) is nuts. Plain and simple Ovechkin plays in a division that’s terrible and plays them a lot.

          Also you are saying Crosby’s 1.50 is not close to Ovechkin’s 1.53….. They look close to me :)

        • Simple math tells us that Ovechkin’s 1.35 ppg against non-playoff teams is actually less than Crosby’s 1.5 ppg

  10. Just goes to show I’ve not been nearly as bad as many have said this year. PPG bitches!

  11. Is it that guys like Ovechkin are struggling against playoff teams or are guys like Giroux taking nights off against teams they should be lighting up?

  12. Favorite tweet on this topic:

    JapersRink ‏@JapersRink 8 Apr
    2012: He doesn’t score enough. Feb. 2013: He doesn’t score enough at evens. Apr. 2013: He doesn’t score enough against good teams. Next?

    Problem inherent in this type of analysis is that teams that are in the playoffs at one point fall out of the playoffs at another point. And vice versa. So does it matter if a goal (or three) scored against NJD for example at time when they were in the playoffs count less because they are no longer in the playoffs?

    All any player can do is play the schedule they are given.

  13. I know the Ovi remark was said in jest but there is something to that argument for Patrick Kane.

    Kane has two – multipoint games against the 9th, 10th and 11th seeds. In at least the 9th and 10th seeds, one of those multipoint games was the difference between possibly winning and losing that game. And those two points are the difference for both the 9th and 10th teams from being in the playoffs. At least as it stands now.

    So that is 9 points between those two teams that Kane has, potentially personally, put in the non-playoff side of his own ledger. And that is easily enough difference between looking good and looking bad in your chart.

  14. Cool, now is this playoff teams or playoff teams WHEN the games were played which is a much more telling analysis. If you score 6 points in 3 games when a team was playing great hockey and since then they’ve fallen off, then the analysis is moot. For example Alex Ovechkin netted a hat trick vs. NJ earlier this season when they were a 5 or 6 seed. Since Kovalchuk went out NJ has lost 10 in a row but back then they were healthier and better. So unless this is what you did, this is a pointless and flawed analysis.

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