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Can Anything Happen in a Lockout-Shortened Season?

Some people are under the impression that a shortened season can aid a teams chances of sneaking into the playoffs. The evidence may prove otherwise.

The Stanley Cup champion Kings were a playoff team after 48 games last year.
The Stanley Cup champion Kings were a playoff team after 48 games last year.
Harry How

We now know that when/if there is a 2013 NHL season (I still think it's a firm "when") it will be 48 games long, the same number of games the NHL had in their last work stoppage-shortened season. The small amount of games have some people thinking that when it comes to a team's playoff chances, "Anything can happen."

Their logic is that if a team gets off to a hot starts, it could propel them into a playoff spot with fewer games for them to lose ground. On the flip side, if a team gets off to a bad start, there are fewer games for them to make a comeback and claim a spot in the playoffs.

The logic seems good, and as a fan of a team who hasn't made the playoffs in five years, I thought it was worth taking a closer look.

In 1994-95 the season also had only 48 games and was played under the same circumstances that this season may/will/could/should be played. It was the only time since 1949 that an NHL season played less than 70 games, so the "Anything can happen" logic should have applied in 94-95.

It didn't.

1993-94 Eastern Conference Playoff Teams

1994-95 Eastern Conference Playoff Teams

Rangers (112)

Nordiques (65)

Devils (106)

Penguins (61)

Penguins (101)

Flyers (60)

Bruins (97)

Bruins (57)

Canadiens (96)

Devils (52)

Sabres (95)

Capitals (52)

Capitals (88)

Sabres (51)

Islanders (84)

Rangers (47)

There were only two different playoff teams in the lockout shortened season of 94-95, with Quebec and Philadelphia replacing the Canadiens and our beloved Islanders, but neither made it in due to the abbreviated schedule. The Nordiques appearance in the playoffs was followed up by a Stanley Cup championship and eight straight years as the Northwest division champs, playing under the Avalanche alias. The Flyers playoff birth was the start of 11 straight Top 5 finishes in the Eastern Conference for the team from Philly.

There were even fewer changes from 93-94 to 94-95 in the Western Conference, and by fewer I mean none. All eight teams who made the playoffs in 93-94 also made the playoffs in 94-95.

Some may argue that 94-95 was a lifetime ago and a different era in NHL hockey to be comparing. But a look to the very recent past doesn't offer much of a different story.

2011-12 Eastern Conference Playoff Standings (Through 48 games)

2011-12 Eastern Conference Final Playoff Standings

Rangers (67)

Rangers (109)

Bruins (66)

Penguins (108)

Flyers (63)

Flyers (103)

Penguins (58)

Bruins (102)

Senators (58)

Devils (102)

Capitals (55)

Panthers (94)

Devils (55)

Capitals (92)

Panthers (55)

Senators (92)

As you can see, after 48 games, the eventual playoff teams were already in place, with the final 34 games pretty much being played for seeding. A look at the Western Conference doesn't show much difference:

2011-12 Western Conference Playoff Standings (Through 48 games)

2011-12 Western Conference Final Playoff Standings

Red Wings (65)

Canucks (111)

Blues (64)

Blues (109)

Blackhawks (64)

Predators (104)

Canucks (62)

Red Wings (102)

Sharks (62)

Blackhawks (101)

Predators (60)

Coyotes (97)

Kings (56)

Sharks (96)

Wild (53)

Kings (95)

The only team not in a playoff spot after the 48 games was the Coyotes, leaving the Wild as the lone team who could've used a hot start to sneak into the playoffs.

So after examining two seasons, only 3 out of 32 playoff positions were different after 48 games, and only one could be attributed to the diminished amount of games aiding their playoff chances.

The result here is that the chances of gaining a playoff spot because "Anything can happen" in a shortened season are no better than the chances of "anything happening" in a regular 82-game season. If your team is good enough to make the playoffs, they'll make it. If they're not, the talk of draft picks will start sooner than normal with fewer games to play before the draft.