The 2021 NHL schedule’s surprising impact on goal scoring

Logan Couture loves the new schedule format the NHL is using for the 2021 season.

“I’m a fan. I think there are going to be a lot of guys that are fans of it,” he said. “Certain players have been pulling for this for years.”

This season’s schedule was created out of necessity during the COVID pandemic. The NHL realigned its teams and eliminated games between divisions in an effort to reduce travel. It’s a way to cut down on risk of infection … and a way to cut down on costs, as the league prepares to lose over a billion dollars this season, according to commissioner Gary Bettman’s estimates.

The revamped schedule included a novel concept for the NHL, although it had been used in minor leagues for years: Two-game sets between teams, in which one team hosts the same road team for consecutive games in their arena.

“It’s almost like a mini playoff series,” said Couture.

Many of the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ singular joys come from teams playing each other in consecutive games. There’s the line-matching chess game between coaches. There are the stops and starts of momentum. And, most of all, there’s the escalating animosity between the players.

Consecutive games against the same foe happen infrequently in a traditional regular season. “It’s not very often you play a team twice in a row. That’s been a major difference this season, compared to any other years,” said Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green, whose team played home-and-home series against the same opponent just three times in the previous two seasons.

This season? Vancouver has played six two-game sets; three three-game sets, against Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto; and one four-game set against the Flames, with three games in Calgary and the final one back in Vancouver.

Through Monday, there were 135 instances this season in which the same two teams played in the same arena in consecutive games.

Has the new schedule impacted the way these games are played? The evidence suggests it has.


Green said the quirky schedule has taken much of the mystery out of facing opponents. Not only are the Canucks seeing one of the other six teams in the North Division every time out, but they’re seeing them multiple times in the same week.

“The team almost knows before you play the game what the game is going to look like,” he said.

That’s especially true in the second game of these sets.

“When you have those back-to-back games like that, I feel like you’re really seeing the best of those teams on that second night,” said Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk. “The flow of those games is just really good. That’s been something I’ve really liked and something that, in some degree, I hope we can continue with.”

The Flyers have played seven two-game sets against the same opponent. On each occasion when they’ve won the first game — which has happened four times — they’ve ended up sweeping their opponent with a Game 2 victory.

That’s helped bolster the overall trend this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the team that won Game 1 has a record of 68-55-12 in Game 2. Of course, the other way to read this is that teams that won Game 1 are only one game over .500 (68-67); but in the NHL, there are no losers, except the ones who lose in regulation.

“It’s tough to win two games in a row at any time, especially against the same team,” said Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour. “I don’t think it’s [about] making a bunch of adjustments, because we’re all making the same adjustments. Think the parity in the league makes it tough.”

The Hurricanes have played eight two-game sets through Monday, six of them on the road. Of those six, they’ve swept two of them.

Road teams won 72 of 135 “Game 1s” this season, but the evidence shows that victory doesn’t portend anything for Game 2. So far this season, the home team usually earns the split: According to Elias, when the road team wins Game 1, that team has a record of just 31-33-8 in Game 2. Take out the charity points, and road teams are 31-41 in Game 2 after winning Game 1.

“There are wrinkles that you have to look for, as far as the adjustments in their games that teams are constantly trying to make. We believe in trying to do things a little different, in order to like our game a little bit more the next night when you’re playing the same team – keeping in mind they’ll do the same thing,” said Green.

With both teams making adjustments after the first game of the set, what impact does that have on Game 2? When it comes to margin of victory and total offense, it means closer, lower-scoring games.

(It’s here that we construct a giant flashing billboard that reads “ATTENTION: SPORTS BETTORS.”)

Over the course of 135 two-game sets, the average margin of victory in Game 1 is 2.10 goals and the average margin of victory in Game 2 is 2.06 goals. This includes the goal added to the final score for a shootout winner. For reference, the average margin of victory in the 2019-20 season for all regular-season game was 2.14 goals, per Elias.

So there’s a slight downtick in margin of victory in the second game of the sets.

When it comes to game totals, things get really interesting. Let’s first look at total score, which includes the goal added to the final score for a shootout win:

Average total score in Game 1: 6.16
Average total score in Game 2: 5.57
Average total score in 2019-20 season: 6.04

Now, let’s look at the total goals, which does not include those awarded for a shootout win:

Average total goals in Game 1: 6.04
Average total goals in Game 2: 5.50
Average total goals in 2019-20: 5.96

As the resident “Puck Daddy” on ESPN’s Daily Wager, this is a trend I’ve hammered successfully all season: Betting the under in the second game of a series. As the stats show, offense drops in these rematches.

What’s interesting about this trend: The second game of these series is usually where you’ll see a team play its backup goaltender — at least if it’s a team that’s not the Lightning, Ducks, Senators or Blues, who seem content to run their starters ragged this season. As of Wednesday, there are 50 goalies this season that have appeared in at least seven games. Many teams are sharing the net-minding burden.

I’ve always suspected there’s a little “Ewing Theory” effect happening when a team plays its backup goalie, in the sense that they hunker down and overcompensate defensively without their No. 1 safety net between the pipes. That could be a factor in seeing the scoring dip for Game 2.

Another possible factor: The truncated season has created a better class of backup goalies. Teams prepared for this 56-game sprint by ensuring that they had two capable goaltenders in their tandem: See Montreal acquiring Jake Allen in the offseason, despite having the very expensive Carey Price.

But ultimately, I think the catalyst for this trend can be found in the number of splits we’ve seen in these two-game sets, where the team that’s won Game 1 goes on to win in Game 2 in just 68 out of 135 instances. My theory: Your Game 1 loser makes adjustments, hunkers down and keeps things a little more conservative in Game 2, especially if it’s in front of a backup goalie. It’s not exactly a state secret that teams do this after losses. But it could be why we’ve seen scoring drop by over a half a goal in the rematch.

It’ll be interesting to see if this trend holds, and what effect it has on scoring overall this season. Through 321 games, NHL teams are averaging 2.95 goals per game. That would be the lowest average in the NHL since 2016-17 and would end a four-season run of NHL average scoring increasing annually.

Like Couture said, they’re like mini playoff series. As any NHL fan will tell you from experience, the switch always gets flipped to “defense” when the game start mattering more. And this season, thanks to realignment and the revamped schedule, they all matter more.

“In an 82-game season, you’re always talking about the four-point games [against divisional opponents]. Well, that’s all there are this year,” said forward Tanner Pearson of the Canucks.


Three things about trading Jack Eichel

1. When does Jack Eichel have his “Ryan O’Reilly moment?”

On April 9, 2018, O’Reilly stood at his locker and declared that the Buffalo Sabres had become “OK with losing” and that the team’s lack of success made him “feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times.” He was traded less than three months later to St. Louis, where he found his love of the game … as well as a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy in the following season.

O’Reilly was in Buffalo for three seasons. This is Eichel’s sixth season with the Sabres. He was the second overall pick in 2015 and remains the only player drafted in the top 10 not to have appeared in a single Stanley Cup Playoff game yet. His agent said he was “frustrated” by losing when there were rumblings about a trade last summer. One can only imagine what those emotions are like this season, as the Sabres have found new and exciting ways to stumble down the standings and disappoint their rabid fans.

But even as I anticipate an O’Reilly Moment from Eichel, I’m reminded of something that’s underappreciated about players of his status that are stuck on horrendous teams: That these players want, more than anything, to help put out that dumpster fire.

I’ll never forget the frustration in Taylor Hall‘s voice when the Oilers traded him to the Devils. It wasn’t just about the upheaval of his life. It was genuine remorse that he didn’t get the chance to see things through and help Edmonton win — because, like Eichel, he spent six years of his career there trying to do exactly that. Players like that want to see that through, for their teammates and friends and the community.

(Ironically, there might be a better chance Hall is in Buffalo next season than Eichel.)

If Eichel wants out of Buffalo, it’s not going to be without a heavy heart. The guy is a competitor. The guy is a Sabre. Leaving will be the last resort.

2. I would be absolutely shocked if Eichel is traded before the offseason, unless the situation just becomes untenable in a Pierre-Luc Dubois kind of way.

First, the Sabres need to get a sense of what he wants to do and where he’d prefer to play next season. Then they can open up for business. This isn’t a deadline trade. This is an “altering the course of the franchise” kind of move that requires as large a marketplace as the team can conjure. And the fact is that under a flat salary cap, it’ll be easier for teams to make the necessary moves to fit a contract with $10 million in average annual value during the offseason.

3. It’s been fun to see how some of the league’s markets have been reacting to the Eichel trade buzz:

I think the Rangers have to be the favorites, given their prospect pool and craven desire to acquire a franchise center like Eichel. But right now they’re a cautionary tale on no-movement clauses: Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba all have them, and account for $19,850,000 in cap space. Hindsight is a fickle mistress.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs

They’re running away with the (We The) North Division and just completed a three-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers in which Connor McDavid was held without a point. Maybe now people will start to wise up to the fact that the Leafs, who previously looked disinterested in playing playoff-caliber defense, have actually been playing it all season. OK, outside of that one game against Ottawa.

Loser: Rubbing salt in the wound

Kudos to Leon Draisaitl for the heaping spoonful of sarcasm after being asked if the Toronto sweep hurt even more because he and McDavid “didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.”

Winner: Andrei Vasilevskiy

The Lightning goalie recorded three straight shutouts in his last three starts, going over 200 minutes without a giving up a goal, the longest scoreless stretch of his seven-year NHL career. “He’s the best goalie in the league right now,” said Blake Coleman, in an understatement.

Loser: Carey Price

His inconsistent play helped get head coach Claude Julien and assistant coach Kirk Muller fired last week. On Tuesday, his goalie coach Stéphane Waite was fired as GM Marc Bergevin cited “pattern that I saw recurring the last few years” with Price’s play. Congrats on the hat trick.

Winner: NHL on COVID

Having Sidney Crosby, Charlie Coyle, Tomas Hertl and Ryan Johansen on the COVID-related absences list on Wednesday is not good news. But three weeks ago, the NHL had 49 players (!) on that list. The next day, the league announced new COVID protocols, and has seemingly turned a corner.

“Having followed up on those protocol changes, the players really want to play. They want to finish the season. They too were concerned with what we were seeing around the league,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN recently.

Loser: Pittsburgh Penguins

As anyone that’s been anywhere outside of their homes recently understands, there are varying degrees of mask usage in public. That’s going to be the case inside arenas too, as more and more NHL teams bring back fans. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise, as the Penguins did this week in apparently adding masks to those who weren’t wearing them properly in a photo taken at a recent home game. Less Photoshop, more in-arena enforcement, please.

Winner: Geoff Ward

While Ward might not be long for Calgary if the Flames continue to struggle, he got a full-throated endorsement from Milan Lucic this week. “You hear a lot of outside noise talking about coaching and all this … style of play and all this [B.S.]. But that has nothing to do with the coaches. That has everything to do with the guys that are playing,” said Lucic. And that’s from a guy whose ice time has decreased by nearly a minute this season under Ward!

Loser: Vote of confidence

Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen gave a vote of confidence to his coaching staff this week after the Blue Jackets went through a rough patch of games. But as Tortorella pointed out: It’s a nice a gesture, but “I just hate him having to do that.”


Puck headlines

  • Really great work here from Japers’ Rink on Alex Ovechkin‘s season. “It’s far too early to proclaim this ‘the beginning of the end’ for Ovechkin or any such nonsense, but it may be time for him to reinvent himself a bit, and it may be time for his coach and teammates to find ways to help him out a bit more.”

  • Speaking of Ovechkin, he may be the NHL’s top earner … on Instagram.

  • FiveThirtyEight on the Toronto Maple LeafsStanley Cup case: “The Leafs are hoping that the 2021 edition, by contrast, has just the right mix of ingredients to keep playing this well through the regular season and into the playoffs. And for once, those hopes don’t look quite as far-fetched as usual.”

  • Alvin Kamara wore a Predators jersey and played a little hockey, which means by law he’s booked for awkward banter at the NHL Awards this year.

  • Are the Kings buyers at the NHL trade deadline?

  • Suggesting a few ways to fix the Nashville Predators.

  • Marisa Ingemi’s New York Times feature on the collapse of the NWHL “bubble” was a must-read this week.

  • Meanwhile, the U.K. Elite Hockey League has set plans for its return this season. “The EIHL has been given the green light to start the 2021 Elite Series in April, which will see four teams taking part in a five-week mini season.”

  • Shayna Goldman had a great deep dive into Alexis Lafrenière‘s struggles in his rookie season. “So far, despite his four points, the winger’s play is trending in the right direction as he finds his footing in the NHL through the challenges of a long offseason, strange season and teamwide struggles.”

From your friends at ESPN

The NHL Awards Watch for March. The Victor Hedman fans were not happy to hear that it’s Cale Makar‘s Norris Trophy to lose.

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