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Why regular season success still matters in the NHL

Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty celebrates a goal scored by teammate Justin Williams during Game 3 of their NHL Western Conference semi-final game against the St. Louis Blues in Los Angeles, California May 3, 2012.

Lucy Nicholson /Reuters/Lucy Nicholson /Reuters

There's a tendency to look at this year's NHL playoffs, with all the upsets, and call it a trend.

After all, here's what we have so far in Round 2:

- An eighth seed, in the Los Angeles Kings, that has knocked off a No. 1 and No. 2, losing just one game in making it to Round 3

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- A sixth seed, in the New Jersey Devils, that is up 3-1 in their series and has the Philadelphia Flyers on the verge of elimination

- A seventh seed, in the Washington Capitals, that is giving a top seed fits

- And, finally, the Phoenix Coyotes, who are a No. 3 seed in name only given their low point total but are already four wins from the finals

So we could very well be left with a third round where, in the East, a No. 6 seed has home ice advantage against a No. 7, and in the West, a No. 3 seed has home ice against a No. 8.

If that's the way it ends up playing out, it'll be an anomaly.

Here are the seeds that made the final four in the six years since the lockout, with the conference designation attached and Stanley Cup winners in bold:

2006: E2, E4, W6, W8 2007: E1, W1, W2, E4 2008: W1, E2, W5, E6 2009: W2, E4, W4, E6 2010: W1, W2, E7, E8 2011: W1, W2, E3, E5

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The NHL certainly has its fair share of upsets, with eight of the 24 teams that have made the final four not starting the playoffs with home ice advantage.

(Only two of those teams made the finals, however: Edmonton in 2006 and Philadelphia in 2010.)

For the most part, what we have are a lot of No. 1, No. 2 and, because of the NHL's system of rewarding weaker teams that won their division with No. 3 seeds, No. 4 seeds making it through.

Since the lockout, teams seeded one, two or four have made up nearly 65 per cent of those in the final four and have won every Cup save for in 2011, when the Boston Bruins were a third seed.

Over that span, the average team seeded first or second has won 8.2 playoff games a year, more than double what the average team seeded fifth to eighth has (3.98).

The most successful seeded teams over the last six playoffs have been No. 2 seeds, which have won an average of 9.2 games a year – good enough for a berth in the final four. (In fact, 42 per cent of No. 2 seeds have made the finals.)

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The least successful, for obvious reasons given they meet in Round 1, have been the No. 7 seeds, who have averaged a mere three playoff wins a season.

No. 3 seeds, meanwhile, have been less successful than No. 4 seeds and equally as successful as No. 5s.

What does all of this mean? Well essentially that the regular season still matters a great deal when it come to playoff success.

Even with all the parity and overtime games, a top two team in the conference is still by far the most likely to get to the final four and eventually win.

And part of what makes it look like so many upsets are happening every year is the way the NHL standings are structured, with teams being rewarded with undeserved No. 3 seeds struggling to get out of the first or second round.

Here's all of this represented graphically, with average playoff wins by seeding and final four appearances by seeding.

<h5 style='border-top: #000 1px solid; border-bottom: #000 1px dotted; font:14px Georgia,serif; font-weight: normal; width: 460px; padding: 5px 0; margin: 20px 0 0'>NHL playoff success by seeding since lockout</h5><iframe src="" scrolling='no' frameborder='no' width='460' height='300' style='border-bottom: 1px dotted #000; margin: 20px 0 0' ></iframe>

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