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Is it harder to score goals in the NHL playoffs?

Hell, Dan Carcillo scored twice on Ryan Miller last year; how hard can it be?
Hell, Dan Carcillo scored twice on Ryan Miller last year; how hard can it be?

A few weeks ago, there was some debate in the comments about to what extent we could call Danny Briere a clutch playoff performer. One of the arguments raised was that you're going against tougher competition in the playoffs, so you might expect scoring to drop, and that merely maintaining his regular season numbers would require elevating his game somewhat.

Is that true? Let's find out.

A simple approach would be to count up the goals scored in the playoffs and compare to how many goals are scored per game in the regular season. If there are fewer goals scored, then that would seem to suggest that the average player's goals per game drops, and presumably assists per game with it.

But it's not that simple (it never is). The playoffs features the better teams, which presumably have better offenses. If that collection of above-average offenses produces average scoring, that's actually a decline in production for those particular players.

So we need to work out how many goals we would have expected those teams to score based on their regular season production, which we can then compare to their playoff production. And even that is a little tricky, since each team plays a different number of games. Here's the method I used:

Think about Flyers-Sabres game 1 from last year. The Flyers averaged 3.15 goals per game in the regular season and the Sabres averaged 2.98, so if production didn't change at all in the playoffs, we might expect those teams to combine for 6.13 goals. The actual result was a 1-0 Sabres win, which means there were 5.13 fewer goals than expected. Work through that arithmetic for every playoff game, and take the average to see how the actual playoff scoring compared to what those teams did in the regular season.

I worked through that process for each playoff game since the lockout. Based on the offenses involved, we would have expected 2909 playoff goals and there were actually 2834, a decrease in scoring of 2.6%. This may or may not be significant; there is about a 7% chance of getting a drop this large just from random chance. But even if we assume it's statistically significant, it doesn't seem to have much practical significance -- we wouldn't notice if Briere's 0.8 points per game in the regular season dropped to 0.78 points per game in the playoffs.

Moreover, we're usually asking this question about top-6 players -- nobody really cares whether Jody Shelley's points per game drops -- and top-6 players tend to see a larger share of the ice time in the playoffs. So even if the team's scoring is dropping slightly, that is offset by the players of interest getting more of the ice time.

In the end, despite going against tougher competition, offensive production doesn't seem to change much in the playoffs.