Sutcliffe: Numbers suggest Senators are playoff-bound

It’s been a surprisingly good year for the Ottawa Senators. But even though Ottawa has climbed to fourth place in the Eastern Conference, there is still almost 40 per cent of the season left to play. So while Ottawa is clearly in the hunt, most people would consider the Senators a long way from clinching a playoff berth.

Sutcliffe: Numbers suggest Senators are playoff-bound
General Manager Bryan Murray is deep in thought as the Ottawa Senators practice at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, March 19, 2014, . (Photo by Wayne Cuddington/ Ottawa Citizen)

BY MARK SUTCLIFFE

It’s been a surprisingly good year for the Ottawa Senators. But even though Ottawa has climbed to fourth place in the Eastern Conference, there is still almost 40 per cent of the season left to play. So while Ottawa is clearly in the hunt, most people would consider the Senators a long way from clinching a playoff berth.

After all, the Senators started the weekend only nine points ahead of ninth-place Toronto, meaning there are lots of ways Ottawa could still drop out of a playoff position. So, what odds would you give the Senators of making the playoffs right now: 60 per cent? 70?

On the flip side, the Montreal Canadiens have had a dismal year so far, but they haven’t been eliminated from the playoffs. Going into yesterday’s action, the Habs were only nine points out of a playoff spot with 35 games left in the season.

Still lots of time for the Senators to fall and the Canadiens to ascend, right?

In both cases, probably not. You might be surprised at Ottawa’s and Montreal’s actual chances of making the playoffs, according to the fascinating website sportsclubstats.com.

Sports Club Stats takes the current standings, then uses an algorithm to play out every game for the rest of the season. It doesn’t do this once. It simulates millions of seasons and adds up all the results. The outcomes are then tabulated and it presents the final tally: how many times out of the millions of hypothetical seasons a team makes the playoffs.

Despite how much time there is left in the season, the website calculated Ottawa’s chances of making the playoffs at 92 per cent and Montreal’s at 8.5 per cent, before yesterday’s games were played.

Put another way, in the 6.2 million different seasons the website simulated, Ottawa made the post-season 5.7 million times. The Canadiens qualified only 526,119 times. That doesn’t mean Ottawa can’t miss, nor are the Canadiens completely hopeless. But it does present their chances in starker terms than you might expect at this point in the season.

Sports Club Stats was started by Ken Roberts of Raleigh, North Carolina, a guy who obviously likes sports, computers and math. The website does calculations for a wide range of sports and the numbers are updated many times a day based on actual results.

Roberts stresses that the website employs no hockey expertise whatsoever. This is not a system of handicapping teams or studying scouting reports or factoring in injuries or possible trades.

You might know something about a team that suggests it has better or worse odds than the site portrays. Maybe an all-star defenceman has just been injured or a hot prospect is about to be promoted from the minors. That could change a team’s actual odds.

But this website doesn’t consider that. It just does the cold, hard math. So, regardless of their opening day roster, every team started the year with a 53 per cent chance of making the playoffs, since there are 16 playoff spots in a 30 team league. Since then, the odds have gone up and down based on the team’s performance.

What the website demonstrates most powerfully is that a 10-point gap in the standings is much bigger than it looks. Just a few games past the halfway point in the season, Boston is only 10 points up on Toronto. The Bruins are a long way from officially clinching a playoff spot. But Sports Club Stats gives Boston an almost impossible chance of missing the post-season. Out of 6.2 million simulated seasons, the Bruins missed the playoffs only 525 times, meaning the Bruins have a 99.992 per cent chance of clinching. Though they might still be small, you might get better odds on a Bruins collapse from Las Vegas.

And if you’re the Carolina Hurricanes, 10 points out of eighth place with 40 games remaining, you have a less than one per cent chance of making the post-season.

That’s because the teams chasing the Bruins have to play each other, as do the teams ahead of the Hurricanes. So the dream scenario for Carolina of all of their opponents losing every day for the rest of the year can’t actually happen. When you’re in last place, half the teams ahead of you win every time a game is played.

Obviously, the numbers will change in the weeks ahead as simulated games are replaced with actual outcomes. For example, Ottawa’s recent hot streak has vaulted them from a dramatically lower chance of going to the playoffs only six weeks ago.

The Senators won only two of their first eight games in December. That dropped their playoff chances down to 15.5 per cent. But since mid-December, the Senators have gone 13-2-2, and seen a six-fold increase in their post-season odds.

Even 92-per-cent odds don’t guarantee a playoff berth. On September 3, the Boston Red Sox had a 99.6 per cent chance of making the post-season. A month later, they watched it on TV. Huge collapses and comebacks can happen in sports. But Sports Club Stats shows just how unlikely they are.

Sorry, Habs fans.

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