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The Myth of Momentum in Playoff Hockey

April 19, 2017

By: Sam Lubman

What a great win for the Sharks last night! 7-0! And each goal seemed to fire up the Sharks as much as it did the fans. Scoring almost seemed contagious for our Los Tiburones. So you would think that would carry over into Game 5 Thursday night, right? Well, not the be "that guy" but don't hold your breath. Or do. It is hard to tell.

In baseball, they say momentum is as good as tomorrow's starting pitcher. In hockey, however, momentum is very fickle. It can last for an entire playoff run, or be as fleeting as lasting for one period. The way hockey is played, any game, series or postseason can turn on a dime.

Let's look at Game 4:

After the game, each player was asked about whether or not the Sharks will have momentum moving forward in the series. Most answers were short or candid, but the basic premise was "It is just one game," and "We only get one win," regardless of what the score is.

Joel Ward described the game "One of those games that just happens. It doesn't matter moving onto the next one."

Momentum be damned I guess. But almost a breath or two later, said, "We have always felt good about ourselves," in regards to how the Sharks feel moving forward. I don't want to put words in Wardos mouth, but if you feel good about your team moving forward, would that in a sense count as momentum? I don't have an answer for you there because we are venturing into the realm of speculation, where there are no clear answers. 

Okay, but if momentum didn't exactly swing the Sharks way, did it at least swing away from Edmonton? When asked if the pressure in the series was falling on the Oilers, Joe Thornton just offered a candid "maybe." He then elaborated on the Sharks ability to rise to pressure and duplicate their Game 1 performance. Far from any sort of concrete answer.

When talking momentum, you have to ask what causes it. Is there a list of specific stats? Or is it simply random chance? A couple factors to consider:

Special teams- Is a team executing on power plays and penalty kills

Last night the Sharks had their number one power play unit of Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns back together for the first time in ages, and they scored 4 power play goals on 8 attempts. Coincidence? I'm sure it played a part, but at the same time, when you have a full deck of cards to work with, there is a good chance you can make more good stuff happen on the ice.

Road play- Can a team play as well at home as on the road

Last year, the Sharks won 28 of 41 road games, and lo and behold they made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Did their ability to win on the road fuel their run? I would hazard to guess it did. Playing on the road in any sport can be hard: the crowd, unfamiliar surroundings, home team bias from the refs and various other aspects make playing on the road difficult. A team that can mitigate those factors can mix that with home ice advantage and get a little roll going. But under the new playoff format that has teams playing division rivals in the first two rounds, that road/home difference becomes slightly diluted, as teams are playing in arenas that instead of visiting only once or twice (as would be if the Sharks faced a team like Chicago or St. Louis) they are playing in arenas they have been in two or three times, like this series with the Oilers. Divisional matchups also mean teams are closer to each other, making it easier for fans to travel and see their teams play. Based on the many Edmonton fans in attendance at Games 3 and 4, I would say that theory is in full effect, even though Edmonton is 1,500 miles away (so maybe not the best example). But should the Sharks and Ducks advance to the next round, expect a lot of out of town fans from both sides.

Goaltending- If your goalie is in the zone, there is no telling where he will take you. Remember what Martin Jones did last year? Yeah, it's easy to win lots of games when your goalie refuses to allow any goals.

What about when the season is ending. Is there a correlation between a teams performance in the last few weeks of the season and playoff success. There might be. There also might not be. Take another look at last year. The Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks both were knocked out in the first round, but the paths they took to get there were vastly different. The Blackhawks dominated the Central Division for most of the season, before collapsing down the stretch and falling into third place (why does that sound familiar). So they came in pretty cold. The Ducks on the other hand. were in last place last December, only to storm to first place in the Pacific Division by season's end, so they came in pretty hot. Yet both teams lost. Momentum be damned.

What about over the whole course of the season? Does they team that played the best regular season do better in the playoffs? No, they do not. In fact, since the 04-05 lockout, only two Presidents Trophy winners have won The Cup. In fact, it is not uncommon, as Sharks fans know, for the Presidents Cup trophy winner to get knocked out by an upstart 8-seed in the first round.

So momentum may not be a factor in the long-term, but what about short term?

The Sharks got on the board 15 seconds into last night's game and rolled from there. Does in game momentum play a factor? It looks like it does.

"Tonight was one of those nights where we came out and built momentum off of (the goal) early," said Pavelski. "We need to stay at that level."

So score early, set the tone, roll from there. Sounds like momentum to me. 

Head coach Pete DeBoer also preached in game momentum vs. series momentum, pointing to the fast start in Game 4 as something to build off of.

"We got on the board early and got things rolling," said head coach Pete DeBoer. "That is an important piece moving getting that momentum. We have to follow that up and play well in the next game."

He further talked about the Sharks play from Game 1 to Game 2, saying that the team played two very good periods in the 2nd and 3rd periods in Game 1, but failed to carry it over to Game 2.

Ward also mentioned that the Sharks simply need to execute and play good hockey each period.

So momentum may not be a guarantee in the long term, but it clearly has in-game effects. Scoring first is still the best momentum getter. Look across the NHL, and for the most part, the team that scores first wins. Of the 32 NHL teams last season, only five teams had a record of .600 or lower when they scored first. On the flip side, the Washington Capitals were the only team to have a non-losing record when they did not score first, posting a .500 record when being forced to play from behind. Scoring first gets the crowd fired up when you are at home, and a home crowd can do wonders for the home team (but you know that). On the road, scoring first is a great way to shut up the home crowd and, as they say, "Take the crowd out of the game."

My take, momentum is a period to period affair, just like the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And that is what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so great: each period is a battle because each game has the potential to see a series shift dramatically. It is why we love hockey, but it is also why you should not expect the Sharks 7-0 win in Game 4 to carry over to Game 5.

Regardless of the score, this is essentially a best of three series now. The past four games might as well of never happened. Again, sorry to be "that guy."