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Is it harder to score goals late in the NHL season?

No goal. Sorry, Mike.
No goal. Sorry, Mike.

You hear the refrain often: It's harder to score goals this time of year. Bill Meltzer said exactly that in his always-fantastic column today (auto-play alert on that link), when looking at the numerous Flyers going through slumps. It's definitely easy to believe that goals are harder to come by as teams are fighting for every point they can get.

But is it actually true? Are goals harder to come by this time of year? Using Yahoo!'s splits, we're able to quickly look at pre- and post-All-Star Break scoring to answer this question.

Goals/Game Shots/Game Shooting%
2009-10 Pre AS Break 5.501 60.516 9.089
2009-10 Post AS Break 5.621 60.951 9.223
2010-11 Pre AS Break 5.532 61.033 9.064
2010-11 Post AS Break 5.358 60.383 8.874
2011-12 Pre AS Break 5.361 59.701 8.979
2011-12 Post AS Break 5.205 58.765 8.857

For the past two years, goals, shots, and shooting percentage have all decreased at the League-wide level after the All-Star Break. Three years ago, however, scoring increased.

Another trend you can see here is a consistent decrease in every category. It has gotten harder to score goals in the NHL with each successive year. Pre-All Star scoring is lower than the previous year's Post-All Star scoring every year except this current year, where it is largely the same.

So is it harder to score goals this time of year than it is earlier in the season? It's reasonable to conclude that. Post-All-Star scoring is lower than Pre-All-Star scoring each of the last two years. Shot rates are lower, as is shooting percentage. It sure seems like it is harder to score in March than in November.

There are a few possible reasons for this. First is that teams are fighting for every point and they're simply tightening up on defense. Another is that teams are taking fewer offensive chances for fear of giving up a scoring chance due to mistake, thus generating less offense on purpose.

Third, injuries continue to mount and the caliber of replacement players just isn't the same. Fourth, with teams starting to get eliminated, they can begin to get complacent. Is Columbus trying as hard as they were in November? Maybe, but it's human nature to give up on a lost cause. Lastly, as pointed out by William Frantz on Twitter, the NHL may simply be calling fewer penalties to avoid influencing the outcome of games, resulting in lower scoring.

But what about it being harder to score in March 2012 than it was in March 2011? Or that it was harder to score in November 2011 than November 2010? With scoring steadily decreasing, is it even correct to say it's harder to score this time of year when it's simply harder to score in the NHL?

There's a reason conventional wisdom says it's harder to score: It makes intuitive sense and a fairly quick glance at numbers support the theory. But it's not obvious that it actually is correct. Scoring has fallen in the NHL with each successive year, regardless of proximity to the playoffs.

Hopefully somebody smarter than I can come to a conclusion.