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Columbus Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno, left, and Sergei Bobrovsky, of Russia, celebrate Foligno's game-winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of a first-round NHL playoff hockey series on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio. (Associated Press)

Columbus Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno, left, and Sergei Bobrovsky, of Russia, celebrate Foligno's game-winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of a first-round NHL playoff hockey series on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio.

(Associated Press)

NHL

Mirtle: 2014 is the year where no postseason lead is safe Add to ...

There has never really been another series quite like it.

Four 3-1 leads blown in the first four games, all in different ways, first in Pittsburgh and then in front of some shell-shocked Columbus fans who had never seen a playoff win, let alone a three-goal comeback capped off in overtime.

To a lesser extent, that kind of mayhem has been happening in other series, too. In Wednesday’s games alone, the Blue Jackets came back from being down 3-0, the Stars did the same from down 2-0 and the Blues rallied from a 2-0 disadvantage.

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Only St. Louis failed to win its game.

Typically the NHL playoffs are lower scoring than the regular season, primarily at even strength, which limits the kind of back-and-forth battles we’ve seen around the league this spring.

If every game has only five goals, you’re going to have a lot of them ending at 3-1 or 4-2 with an empty-netter thrown in late.

But this year, after 28 games, scoring is up to closer to six goals a game (5.86) and at least a fair portion of that’s on the goaltending. With Ilya Bryzgalov, Jonathan Quick, Anders Lindback, Ray Emery, Frederik Andersen, Sergei Bobrovsky and Marc-André Fleury all struggling early in their series, the average save percentage in the playoffs is only .907, down from .911 during the season.

(At even strength, the drop’s been from .922 to .919, so we’re not talking power plays and empty-netters dragging things down.)

Rallies from two-goal deficits are rare in the NHL, especially in the postseason. Hockey analytics website ExtraSkater.com has started to post win probability charts during games that highlight how big of an effect each goal has, and they’ve been particularly entertaining to look at when it comes to the Penguins-Jackets goal-fest.

When Columbus took a 3-1 lead 43 seconds into the second period of Game 1, for example, it already had a more than 78-per-cent chance of winning the game, based on previous NHL action.

But the Blue Jackets didn’t.

In the series’ other three games, the chances of the team up by two winning were 85, 92 and 92.5 per cent, depending on which team was at home and when in the game they had the lead.

The chances of a team blowing that kind of advantage four games in a row and losing the game? That’s down into the hundredths of a percentage point (0.02 per cent or thereabouts).

It’s not all on the goalies, either. Part of why this is happening comes back to what are called score effects, which is short form for how a trailing team gets more opportunities to score than a leading one.

This becomes the most pronounced late in games, as a team up by one or two goals in the final 10 to 12 minutes of the third period typically has a possession rating (and share of the shots on goal) of under 45 per cent.

Teams have been even more cautious than even that with a lead in these playoffs so far.

In 5-on-5 situations, the leading team has been outscored 36-31 and outshot 449-362 in this postseason. That means that, per 60 minutes of play, they’ve been outshot by about 6.5 shots, which is nearly double what the average was during the regular season.

Any way you look at it, teams appear to be playing more conservatively with leads and giving more of them up, which makes for entertaining hockey and great viewing.

But headaches for the coaches involved.

 

Picking on the leaders
Statistics for teams with the lead at even strength, via extraskater.com

 

Regular season

Playoffs

Share of goals

48.7%

46.3%

Share of shots

46.7%

44.6%

Share of shot attempts

45.5%

43.0%

Minutes

29.4 per game

28.9 per game

 

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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