One-Goal Games

Are teams that win a lot of one-goal games lucky, or do they have a special ability to win when the chips are down – that characteristic known as “clutch” or “killer instinct?”

It’s an important question to know the answer to. Teams like Dallas, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and New Jersey have built much of their impressive record this season on a strong record in one-goal games. On the other hand, different clubs – Columbus, Carolina, Phoenix, Edmonton and Winnipeg – have lost a lot of one-goal games this season. Is it a reflection of mental toughness or some other intangible? Or is it just a case of bad luck in the closest games?

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Logically, if teams that win a lot of one-goal games boast those intangibles, we would expect it to show up in their playoff performance – if they can win in critical regular season situations, one reasons that they would be better in the most critical playoff situations than their opposition. Is that true?

To answer the question, I’ve looked up every team over the last five seasons to win 60% or more of their one-goal games. That list is as follows:

Team Season 1GG Win % Playoff Results
Devils 2008-09 73.5 Upset in first round
Coyotes 2009-10 69.0 Upset in first round
Devils 2006-07 66.7 Upset in second round
Ducks 2010-11 65.9 Upset in first round
Stars 2006-07 65.1 Lost in first round
Predators 2009-10 65.1 Lost in first round
Senators 2009-10 64.5 Lost in first round
Oilers 2007-08 64.1 Missed playoffs
Penguins 2009-10 64.1 Upset in second round
Devils 2007-08 62.8 Upset in first round
Canucks 2006-07 62.5 Lost in second round
Devils 2010-11 61.8 Missed playoffs
Lightning 2006-07 61.5 Lost in first round
Hurricanes 2008-09 61.5 Lost in third round
Sabres 2006-07 61.0 Upset in third round
Bruins 2006-07 60.6 Missed playoffs
Predators 2006-07 60.5 Upset in first round
Sharks 2007-08 60.5 Upset in second round
Ducks 2007-08 60.0 Upset in first round
Devils 2009-10 60.0 Upset in first round
Penguins 2010-11 60.0 Upset in first round

If I were looking for a way to predict playoff upsets, I would have difficulty finding a better way. Eight of these teams were upset in the first round – including the Ducks last season, an upset I predicted based on their astonishing record in one-goal games. Four others were upset later on – the 2010 Penguins (beat 5th seed Ottawa in the first round, lost to 8th seed Montreal in the second round), the 2008 Sharks (beat 7th seed Calgary in the first round, lost to 5th seed Dallas in the second round), and the 2007 Sabres and Devils (the first and second seeds, respectively; both lost to 4th-seeded Ottawa).

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If we ignore the three teams that missed the playoffs, we find the following breakdown:

  • Upset in the playoffs: 12 of 18 teams (66.7%)
  • Lost in the first round to a higher-seeded team: 4 of 18 teams (22.2%)
  • Lost in the second round to a higher-seeded team: 1 of 18 teams (5.6%)
  • Lost in the third round to a higher-seeded team: 1 of 18 teams (5.6%)

The two teams with some success are the 2007 Vancouver Canucks and the 2009 Carolina Hurricanes. The Canucks were the West’s third seed in 2006-07, and they squeaked out a narrow win in a seven game series over 6th-seeded Dallas before falling to the 2nd seed Ducks in round two. The 2009 Hurricanes are the only team we can look at and call a real success: they upset New Jersey (also on this list) in the first round, barely won a seven-game series over the first-seed Bruins in the second round, and then lost to Pittsburgh in round three.

Naturally, none of this is totally conclusive. I haven’t done a complex mathematical study to absolutely prove my point. However, based on the last five seasons of playoff results, I’m very comfortable believing that teams win a lot of one-goal games primarily because they’re lucky, not because they’re born winners that win the tight games because they just want it a little more than their opponents. If the latter were true, these teams wouldn’t constantly lose playoff series to lower seeds.

What does it mean for the teams of the Nation Network?

For some, it’s good news. Winnipeg is 4-8 in one-goal games, but 6-7 in games decided by more than one goal; their position in the standings is probably undersold a little. The Oilers are 9-7 in games decided by more than one goal, but 3-6 in one-goal games. Vancouver is 6-6 in one-goal games, and 8-5 in other games.

For others, the news is less good. Toronto is 7-4 in one-goal games, 7-7 in contests decided by more than one goal. Calgary is 4-4 in one-goal games, but just 6-10 elsewhere.

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It also raises an interesting question: at the team level, does "clutch" play exist?  If it does, how can we find it?  I’m something of an agnostic on the question – while I acknowledge that some players are better in pressure situations, I’m not convinced there’s a big gap between given teams as a whole.  If there were, I’d expect to see teams that fared well in close games also fare well in the playoffs.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    “It also raises an interesting question: at the team level, does “clutch” play exist? ”

    No. People can spend any number of years and braincells trying to figure this out, but it will be a waste of time. “Clutch” play is really used to describe what people perceive as “big important plays”. So something that occurs late in a game or a series or a year will always seem clutch, when if the same play occurred earlier, it will seem less so. Its a trick of memory.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    I have to agree that at a team level clutch isn’t consistent. NHL hockey is so competitive and system driven that a team winning a lot of close games is likely not playing well or doesn’t have enough good players, and more often than not will run out of luck. A good team playing well will dominate more games than fewer.

    It reminds me of how shooting percentage and shot quality aren’t consistent factors because the level of competition neutralizes them. They don’t remain a consistent advantage.

  • There are other factors aren’t there?

    Style of play changes in the playoffs.

    Maybe some teams are good at holding onto small leads but in the playoffs teams are more aggressive about coming back.

    Maybe the loser point is involved, ie. teams aren’t quite as concerned with building on their leads.

    Maybe there are other factors that I have’t come up with on the spot.

    The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think the “clutch” discussion and this discussion are the same conversation.

    • SmellOfVictory

      There are a lot of factors, it’s just that because of how hard the teams compete overall there is so little leeway that they don’t count for much advantage and don’t last.

      The studies into shot quality showed this – I don’t have links so maybe JW can post some. I thought that certain teams would be better than others at generating better quality chances.

      It turns out that basically there is no way to sustain an advantage, it will be counteracted. At the end of the day in the NHL, the team that has the puck more and takes more shots wins more games over time. They create the most chances to score. There are streaks etc, but nothing that lasts.

      Basically if you aren’t winning consistently by a few goals you aren’t really playing that well or don’t have a very good team, or both. When the playoff grind starts the pretenders get shown pretty quickly. Clutch, luck, etc. eventually runs out.

      As JW mentioned, players may have the ability to typically rise up in pressure situations, but unless you have a team of them (and that would be rare) there’s no group effect.

    • SmellOfVictory

      Sure it is. A clutch team is a team that scores/wins when it is most important. The logic would go: scoring when the game is tied/when your team is down one is more important than scoring when it is not, since that is when a single goal makes the most difference. If winning a large proportion of one-goal games means you are clutch, then your team will do well in the playoffs given that the playoffs are the most important time to win and thus the time when being clutch is of greatest benefit.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Any info on how teams who lose one goal games fair in the playoffs? Or do they just not make it?

    I wonder also if the frequency of one goal games plays into the equation. It would seem to me that a team that plays to hold onto a one goal lead is probably not as good as team that tries to increase the lead the two. Perhaps that is the lesson here. Trying to prevent the tying goal is not as effective as trying to increase the a teams lead,

  • SmellOfVictory

    JW, Wonder what this looks like if you separate out regulation and non-regulation one goal results. Is the non-repeatable luck or the inability to separate in 60 minutes tied mostly to overtime and/or shootout wins?

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    Great article Jonathan.

    I get why people would make the association between winning one goal games and clutch play and it is interesting to see that assumption get blown up… but I wonder how prevalent that assumption really is?

    My take would be that I suspect most people identify something like clutch play in a team (rather than an individual) on the basis of the ability to hold/increase leads going into the 3rd period and/or the ability to come back and tie/take the lead in the 3rd period vs. the inability to hold/increase a lead or come back from a deficit in the 3rd.

    The last 20mins of the game are usually where people identify clutch play and the ability of teams to win in those situations (whatever the context – tied, up, down) by one or more goals shows that a team can get down to brass tacks.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    Hey JW,

    Most teams that are dominant enough don’t play in so many one goal games, so how do you isolate clutch teams or clutch players? With regards to whether or not clutch exists, it most definitely does. Not only as a sports fan but as a general comment on human nature – when the going gets tough it truly is the tough that get going. Not just the physically tough but the mentally tough. There’s a reason GM’s, year after year, acquire the same “proven playoff performers” and bet their reputations on acquiring these players. Not because the probability is weighed against these players and they still produce every time. Guys that GM’s will bet on for the playoffs even if their regular season numbers are low. It’s because they are deemed to be “clutch.”

    I’m talking about the Martin Gelinas’s, Cory Stillman’s – the guys you hear about in the trade rumours every season at the deadline because every GM could use a couple of them.

    Appears to me you’re missing the 1GG W’s as a percentage of GP column. 1GG Win % seems like it would be high for teams that win a lot of close games or lose a lot of close games, but that likely includes some really bad teams. The Oilers had a high 1GG Win % but they also had a poor record that year, and you know that as the sample shrinks the associated errors rise (especially post-lockout, when SHOOTOUTS are a factor!). For example the Oilers win column, it was a very small sample size and to take the 64% from that would be rather inaccurate. At least if you compared it to GP it would be n=82. If 1GG Win% is proportional to the teams performance on ice on some way to the WINS stat then I bet you find it inversely proportional to the GP column. Maybe you need a larger sample size and more parameters (GP) to compare to? It’s hard to measure an intangible with numbers ESPECIALLY when you don’t have big enough of a population to draw from :-).

  • I would suspect that what you tend to be tracking, in these one goal games, is preponderance of shootout victories. And how is that “clutchness”, winning in a shootout? It’s something only somewhat related to actual hockey skills, and if a team tends to have a year where they are winning a lot of games that, ten years ago, would have been counted as ties, they are naturally going to be worse once they hit the post-season. What happens to these numbers, I wonder, if you measure only the teams that tend to have high one goal winning percentages in regulation and overtime, IE, the parts of the game that are directly comparable to playoff hockey?

    My guess about what would be that the best predictor of playoff success, however, would be to re-order teams according to their record, with all shootout results becoming one point “ties”, overtime losses to be worth no points, and everything else as normal.