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.
- 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.