Anyone who watched the season series unfold between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators knows the Sens are not exactly pushovers. Outscoring the Rangers 13-8 en route to a 3-1-0 record vs. the Blueshirts, the Senators certainly seem like they could be a formidable foe as the playoffs get rolling Thursday at the Garden. But could the odds actually be in Ottawa's favor?
Based on win expectation, a theory put forward by baseball stats guru Bill James, the No. 8 seed appears to have a disproportionately good chance against the No. 1 team in the East when you look at how both teams have played down the stretch.
As explained by ESPN Insider's Neil Greenberg in a Wednesday article (Caution! Math ahead.):
"You need to be healthy and firing on all cylinders going into the playoffs so that you can peak at the right time. But even more important is how a team has outscored opponents in its past 35 games ...
"[Bill James] noted that a baseball team's true strength could largely be determined more accurately by looking at runs scored and runs allowed than by looking at wins and losses. To be more specific, he found that one can predict future win-loss records more accurately using only past runs scored and runs allowed, as opposed to using only past wins and losses. The same can be said for hockey using goals for and goals against. Here is the formula, known as the Pythagorean win expectation: Goals for squared divided by (goals for squared + goals against squared)."
Apply that to the Rangers-Sens series and you'll see the following, as Greenberg notes:
"Ottawa has been the better team in the past 35 games. The Senators have tallied 91 goals while giving up 80, while New York has just a plus-4 goal differential (90 GF-86 GA). That makes the Senators a slight favorite and gives them an edge during the series even though New York has home-ice advantage."
Now, there's a reason the Rangers finished the regular season atop the Eastern Conference standings. The scientific term for that reason is "they're pretty frickin' good." And in terms of the stakes of those final 35 games, the Senators have clearly had more to play for than the Rangers have, so perhaps New York's effort level wasn't where it will be when the puck drops Thursday. Still, in a seven-game series funny things can happen, even to top teams. (Paging the Washington Capitals. Mr. Ovechkin to the tee box, please.)
If they want to stick around in the postseason, the Blueshirts should not take the Sens lightly, and it probably wouldn't hurt for them to improve on their recent level of play.