Previous Postseason Experience: The Biggest Playoff X-Factor

Previous playoff experience was a big advantage for the Washington Capitals as they beat the New York Islanders in round one (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Previous playoff experience was a big advantage for the Washington Capitals as they beat the New York Islanders in round one (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The New York Islanders started the 2014-2015 season with a bang, but ended it with but a whimper.

Throughout most of this season the Isles were one of the NHL’s best teams, finishing with a regular season record of 47-28-7 and a very respectable 101 points. Strong offensive play was their calling card, finishing fourth in the league in goals scored at 2.99 per game.

Yet, that same offense was completely missing in action on Monday night when the Islanders faced off against the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference opening round playoff series. New York only mustered a measly 11 shots on goal as they dropped the game 2-1, ending their season with a sour taste in their mouths.

Why did the Isles play so poorly in Game 7? A few reasons could be pointed to. The team was missing a few key players with Travis Hamonic, Lubomir Visnovsky and Anders Lee, while the Capitals play a pretty stout defensive game under new head coach Barry Trotz.

However, another factor needs to be taken into consideration: playoff experience.

In many ways, playoff hockey is not the same beast as regular season hockey is. The pressure to play well and win is much, much higher. Individual mistakes are scrutinized more heavily. The crowds are louder. With multiple matches in a row against the same team your opponents have much more time to watch and learn and strategize the best ways to beat you. The ability to handle and overcome these factors suddenly becomes essential.

The Islanders, simply put, did not have this ability. Sure, there were a couple of players with Stanley Cup rings on the blueline with Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, but the team as a whole was far too green, especially at forward. Out of all 12 forwards that the team dressed in Game 7, not a single one had ever made it past the opening round of the NHL playoffs before. Even worse, not a single one of them had ever played in more than one playoff series.

While the Capitals weren’t exactly overflowing with playoff experience, they certainly had a lot more than the Islanders did. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, Mike Green, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik had all played in 50 or more NHL playoff games.

As mentioned earlier, there were a few reasons why the Islanders underperformed and only managed 11 shots in the game, but when you watched it unfold it was obvious that the Capitals were the more experienced team. While New York looked mostly nervous and tentative, Washington was primarily focused and aggressive. They had played through game sevens before and weren’t intimidated by having to do it again.

The Islanders-Capitals series hasn’t been the only one so far this year to see the more experienced team have an edge, either.

The Anaheim Ducks made short work of the Winnipeg Jets in their series, sweeping them in four games. Somewhat miraculously, Anaheim was trailing to start the third period in the first three games, but managed to claw back and win all three, the first team in NHL history to do so. Led by grizzled playoff veterans in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler, the Ducks played with perfect, confident poise while they were trailing in those third periods and found ways to tie, and eventually win, the games. Not once did the team ever appear to be rattled, even playing underneath the thunderous crowd of the MTS Centre. The Jets, in comparison, were made up of players that had either never been in the playoffs before, or hadn’t been there in years. Despite their best efforts they simply weren’t able to contain the Ducks’ machine-like forecheck when they needed to the most.

Over in St. Louis, after three straight disappointing opening-round losses, the most recent of which coming this year at the hands of the Minnesota Wild, the autopsy is officially underway. Was Ken Hitchcock at fault? How about the goaltending? The answer in both cases is probably yes, but again, don’t overlook their lack of playoff experience as another possible cause. Nobody on this year’s Blues team has any particularly notable playoff experience, while it should come as no surprise that the Wild’s Zach Parise, he of 85 career games in the postseason, was the hero in Game 6 with two goals.

And do I even need to mention the Chicago Blackhawks beating the Nashville Predators? Probably not.

Now, obviously there will always be exceptions to the rule, with the Calgary “Cardiac Kids” Flames being this year’s biggest example. There’s nothing to suggest that younger, more inexperienced teams are specifically incapable of going far in the playoffs. After all, the experienced teams had to all cut their postseason teeth at some point, right?

That being said, though, previous playoff experience is still a huge advantage to have when it comes to chasing the Stanley Cup.