The NHL postseason is a crazy time, no doubt. While you rarely see a No. 8 seed beat a No. 1 seed in the NBA, it happens more often on ice. So, if we look at previous upset models, what can we learn about 2010's postseason pucks? That's what Puck Prospectus is out to explain. This article focuses on the Eastern Conference.
The Washington Capitals are going into the first round against an opponent over whom they enjoyed a 33-point advantage in the regular-season standings. Of the 24 "giants" that entered the postseason with at least a 30-point advantage since 1980, only three were laid low: the 1981-82 Edmonton Oilers, the 1985-86 Philadelphia Flyers and the 1990-91 Chicago Blackhawks.
What happened to those three, and could the same thing happen to Washington this year?
In 1981-82, the NHL's 212-point leading scorer Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers lost an explosive offensive dual with Marcel Dionne and the Los Angeles Kings. Both teams were exceptionally young, averaging only 24 years of age. The mutual lack of discipline or sound defensive play favored the Kings, who at least had experienced goaltending and stay-at-home defensemen on which to rely.
As for the 1985-86 Flyers and the 1990-91 Blackhawks, both were coached by Mike Keenan, who has a reputation of friction with his goalies and stars, and consequently either winning big or losing hard. Their opponents, the 1985-86 New York Rangers and the 1990-91 Minnesota North Stars, respectively, were both low-scoring but good defensive teams. Like the 1981-82 Kings, the Rangers were well-stocked with rookies and sophomores, including leading scorer Mike Ridley, while the North Stars were a veteran squad.
Based on this (admittedly small) sample size, giants can be slain if there's enough volatility -- whether that's caused by coaching, undisciplined play or the unpredictability of youth.
Is that the case with the Capitals today? No.
Washington is coached by 2008's deserving Jack Adams winner Bruce Boudreau, has the ninth-fewest penalty minutes in the league and is almost bang-on with the league average in age and goals against. For the Capitals to fall to the Montreal Canadiens would be an upset with few modern parallels.
So if not the Canadiens, which of the Eastern teams are likely to pull off an upset?
We studied all the first-round playoff series since 1980. Let's apply that information to the other three Eastern Conference first-round tilts, having addressed Washington vs. Montreal above:
Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Historical chance of an upset: 40 percent
Closest equivalent: The 1989-90 North Stars, who fell 4-3 to the Blackhawks. The biggest difference today is that Pittsburgh's power play isn't as good as Chicago's was.
These two teams are more similar than their positions in the standings would indicate. Ottawa is at about the same level as Pittsburgh in every major category -- except the Senators are noticeably worse offensively and take slightly more penalties. Essentially, Ottawa is a little below average offensively and defensively, which doesn't bode well for an upset. The Sens' power play is below average and their penalty killing is average.
The real question is simple: Can Ottawa knock off a team with two forwards on par with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? History says it's hard but doable. In two roughly similar series, the 1993-94 Penguins -- complete with high-scoring stars Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux -- were upset in six games by the Capitals, and the Oilers surprised Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche in 1997-98. In both series, the dynamic duos were responsible for at least one goal per game but the rest of their squad combined failed to out-produce them.
In their Stanley Cup triumph last season, Crosby and Malkin combined for 29 goals in 24 games; the rest of the team pitched in 50. History suggests that the secret to avoiding an upset might actually be in the hands of Jordan Staal, Bill Guerin and newly-acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Boston Bruins vs Buffalo Sabres
Historical chance of an upset: 55 percent
Closest equivalent: Scotty Bowman and his 1981-82 Sabres fell 3-1 to rookie goalie Mike Moffat and the Bruins.
History suggests that this series' particular combination of elements sets the stage for potential upsets. The Bruins may be the lowest scoring team in the league, but like Buffalo they're very tight defensively, and low scoring games leave them just a lucky bounce away from an upset victory. Both teams have good penalty killing, and while still below average, Buffalo's power play is more effective than Boston's.
The closest historical comparison that resulted in an upset was Quebec's 4-2 defeat of the Hartford Whalers in 1986-87. Like today's Bruins, the Nordiques had also gone from first to worst in the Adams Division thanks to unexplained drops in shooting percentage, but their victory was probably a result of veteran Whalers goalie Mike Liut struggling to his worst career postseason performance. In a low-scoring duel, Boston's fortunes may be linked to whether or not they can get to Vezina candidate Ryan Miller.
Philadelphia Flyers vs New Jersey Devils
Historical chance of an upset: 30 percent
Closest equivalent: In 1988-89, a similar Flyers team met the top-seeded Capitals, and beat them 4-2.
The Flyers are slightly above average offensively and defensively and have a potent power play, but they take too many penalties. The Devils are very tight defensively and take few penalties but are basically average in all other ways.
Eerily similar: the 2001-02 Carolina Hurricanes upset an equivalent New Jersey team 4-2 and went on to the Stanley Cup finals. That being said, it's worth noting that overall, average, physically aggressive teams like today's Flyers generally haven't had a good historical track record against tight defensive favorites like today's Lemaire-coached Devils. Disciplined, defensive teams, like the Canadiens in the mid-1980s, generally make few mistakes in the opening round.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.