Upsets. They are what make sports fun. The chance a team considered significantly inferior on paper could beat a juggernaut is what makes every second and every goal of every game must-see. It is the epitome of the “that’s why they play the game” cliché.
No set of playoffs leave their top seeds more susceptible to an upset than the NHL’s run to the Stanley Cup. Under the old system, seeing a 7- or 8-seeded team upset a conference’s best felt like a yearly occurrence.
Three years ago, the Western Conference’s bottom seed (Los Angeles Kings) defeated the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed (New Jersey Devils) to win the Stanley Cup. Only a single No. 1 seed has made a Finals appearance in the last three years.
So which top team is primed to be upset in the first round in 2015?
There are three teams with a realistic chance of finishing with the Western Conference’s best record: St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks. Likewise, there are three teams with a chance to finish with the second wild card spot: Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings.
In an effort to find out which wild card hopeful has the best chance to knock off a division leader, let’s take a look at what past results tell us.
Breaking teams down based on their ability to generate goals, suppress goals and control puck possession, the previous five years worth of playoff history tells us the Ducks are the most vulnerable top seed. Let’s breakdown each of the three potential matchups should the Ducks finish with the conference’s best record.
Los Angeles vs. Anaheim
While many would point to this faceoff as a prime candidate for a lower seed to advance based on LA’s playoff pedigree and two Stanley Cups in the past three seasons, there is more to it. The Kings allow significantly fewer goals per game than their Southern California counterpart. Los Angeles is also a better possession team, leading the league in 5v5 SAT%.
One area the Ducks do have an advantage in is goal scoring. However, in the last five postseasons, teams that had both the goals against and possession advantages in the regular season won 82 percent of the playoff matchups (23-of-28) despite scoring fewer goals.
Winnipeg vs. Anaheim
Much like the Kings, the Jets allow fewer goals than the Ducks and hold the possession advantage. Once again, Anaheim has a more potent offense.
In addition to teams in a similar position as Winnipeg and Los Angeles winning 82 percent of playoff series, the first-round success rate jumps to 86 percent (12-of-14).
Calgary vs. Anaheim
This matchup is the most intriguing of the bunch. A team that overachieved in the regular season against a team that has underachieved in the postseason in recent years. While many feel the Flames would just be happy to get into the postseason and will exit promptly, keep an eye on them if they draw the Ducks in round one.
The Ducks hold the possession advantage in this matchup, but have scored fewer and allowed more goals than the Flames. Nearly 85 percent of teams in Calgary’s position have won their playoff matchups (11-of-13). In the last five years, all six teams that found themselves in that situation in the first round won.
It’s important to note that past results don’t always equal future results. The teams and players are different — just because something happened before doesn’t mean it will again. However, when looking for upsets, keep a close eye on teams that prevent goals.
Defense wins championships. In the last five years, the NHL has followed that mantra.
Note: Of the potential top seeds listed above, the only other potential upset based on past results is Los Angeles over St. Louis.