UPSETTING: When Momentum Can’t Help

August 11th 2020 / 8-minute read
Brayden Fengler

If you’re an Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh Penguins or Nashville Predators fan who was watching a lot of round-robin games and wondering who your team was gonna play, then chances are you’re still in shock. Those three teams in particular, suffered from something I don’t quite have the words to describe, but I do have a gif:

giphy

The three upset teams were all too complacent in their playing styles. They weren’t paying attention to the fact that even though they were close to the playoffs, they weren’t quite there yet. Okay it seems I do have the words to explain some shortcomings of these teams, although I also think that this gif is just such a succinct visual representation.

From Cup Contenders to Lottery Losers

So what really happened, how did we get here? While despite each team’s experience and their own individual struggles, it should come as no surprise that there is a more universal scapegoat for their collective shortcomings this year. The pause, the pandemic, these times that are no longer precedented, as obvious as it may be, this five month gap likely had a psychological toll on the performance of teams. A toll that we simply have no contemporary precedent for measuring against.

Analytics in sports are based on past performances, on a series of events playing out in a controlled way over time. As a result of this, scientifically significant data can then be extrapolated from these events. However, for many things this year, there is simply no *sigh* precedent to draw from. A lack of precedent and relevant data, can lead nowhere else but to speculation, and a big topic to speculate this year, is how big of an impact did team’s momentum, or lack thereof, affect their performance going into these Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

Momentum, Are You a Believer?

Momentum in sports is not something that is often deeply discussed in normal years. It may be mentioned occasionally, people are often aware when a team has some, but it’s never really dissected in terms of potential impact and relevance to the overall outcome of games. Momentum simply “is”, or “isn’t” there, for different teams at different times, and this year for the first time ever, it wasn’t there for every single team.

The power of momentum in sports and whether it exists at all is also heavily debated. There is an article on peakendurancesport.com entitled “The role of momentum in sports performance” which takes a comprehensive look at momentum in sports and how it does and does not affect competitive outcomes. If you’re interested in that debate, and want to begin to further educate yourself on the theory side of momentum in sports, then I highly recommend the read. Here is a highlighted quote from peakendurancesport.com’s article:

“The concept of momentum appears ingrained in sporting culture and research evidence clearly shows that athletes’ perceptions of momentum do exist, and shift in response to gaining or losing ground in competition.”

The point this quote makes, touches on a concept which I believe to be the most relevant when having these theoretical discussions about sports. If athletes feel that something like momentum exists, and their performance changes based on these feelings, then it’s real to them. In the end the athletes are the only people that concepts in sports need to be real for, for them to be real at all.

Starting Again

Each Stanley Cup Qualifier team had barely over 10 games left to play in the regular season before the pause. The momentum each team had at the time of the pause, would’ve been the very same momentum, they could’ve carried into the playoffs. Could things have changed in those last 10 games? of course! However, when looking at the last 10 games for each of the upset teams, it’s possible that the rest of their 82 game seasons could’ve had a more positive impact on their postseasons, than what ended up happening.

The Star has been using the last 10 games of the NHL regular season as a part of their markers for predicting playoff success since 1998:

“To test the theory, for every playoff series since 1998 we determined each team’s probability of winning as a function of the regular season point differential between the two teams and their relative “momentum” coming into the playoffs.

We measured momentum by the points each team earned in (a) the last five games of the regular season and (b) the last 10 games of the regular season.”

The Nashville Predators for example were on a three game winning streak when the season was put on pause, holding a 6-3-1 record in their last 10 games. This record was much better than how their opponents, the Arizona Coyotes, were doing towards the end of their paused season. The Coyotes split an even 5-5-0 in their last 10 games played, and ended on a two game losing skid. Obviously the momentum these teams had, both positive and negative, was not able to carry over the five months pause period. As their last 10 games were not an indicator of their qualifier performance.

Even looking at a round-robin team like the Boston Bruins who finished the season 7-3-0 in their last ten games, and claimed the President’s Trophy with 100 points on the season, ended up losing all three of their round-robin games. Making them the first ever President’s Trophy-winning team, not to be awarded the first overall seed in the playoffs. This of course is an ultimately meaningless statistic, as it will likely never again have the opportunity to occur. However, on the flip side of that, this of course is now something that Boston fans will never hear the end of.

When evaluating the effect of momentum it’s important to recognize that it has limits, and that just because a team is winning, that doesn’t mean they will keep winning. This is also known as the “hot hand fallacy”. It occurs when the assumption is made that what is currently happening, will continue to happen into the foreseeable future. If the “hot hand” concept wasn’t a fallacy, then the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, wouldn’t have been able to make the comebacks they did, in two of their respective games last week.

If It Where Only That Simple

A few teams however, make it look as though their momentum actually did transfer over the five-month pause. looking at Edmonton may make it seem as if they held onto their March momentum for worse. They held a 5-3-2 record in their last 10 and lost the last game before the pause. Their opponents the Chicago Blackhawks had a 6-4-0 record in their last 10 and they won their last game of the season as well. An even stronger argument for a team picking up where they left off, is that of the Penguins. Pittsburgh had a 3-7-0 record in their last 10 despite closing on a winning “streak” of one game. These results almost make it look like these three teams still carried their losing/winning momentum from the season into the playoffs despite the pause. However, in the case of the Penguins series, the Canadians were arguably just as bad as them during the end of the NHL season. As the Habs finished this season on a 3 game losing skid finishing 4-5-1 in their last 10. Youtuber UrinatingTree may also be able to shed a few more colourful rays of light on other reasons why the Penguins struggled this postseason.

When looking closer than the Habs and Pens end of season performance, this also opens up a whole new can of worms in regards to what the catalyst may be for changing momentum when both competitors are trending in the same direction. The reality in that area is a lot more case by case. Sports and hockey specifically is a mix of skill and luck, that mix makes for an exciting product, and precisely why predicting nuanced results on a large scale is more or less a fool’s errand.

It’s easy to generally say that a team which is doing well, will continue to do so when playing against a team that has been doing poorly. However it’s almost impossible to make a generalization as to which one of two teams who have been performing the same, will improve and which one will perform worse. It’s also even harder to attempt a guess like that when the stats in question have been on ice for five months, but the players have not.

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