Throughout the history of the NHL, 55,465 regular season games and 4,334 playoff games have been played. The league will see its 60,000 game in early November this coming season.
How exactly can the entire history of the league be shown in just a few charts? Jeremy Frank (@MLBRandomStats) recently posted some baseball charts detailing the history of the MLB final scores.
Borrowing from that, I wanted to know how the NHL fared with its final score distribution. Certainly, with its 101 year history, there should be enough data for some wildly fascinating outcomes.
The original concept of a such a final score matrix was created by Jon Bois (@jon_bois), who did it for the NFL and coined it Scorigami. However, Scorigami differed in that it tracked the first instance of a final score outcome in the NFL. This makes sense as the different ways to score in the NFL scoring structure strongly affects the difficulty of achieving a unique final score for the first time.
Over in the NHL, the scoring structure is rather standard, and unfortunately also boring. If NFL scorigami require intricate scoring scenarios with diminishing probabilities of actually occurring, then NHL scorigami are equivalent to folding pieces of paper in half, maybe even into quarters (if we’re getting fancy).
So how exactly does the NHL version of scorigami look? Instead of tracking the first instance of a possible outcome, looking at the total number of occurrences tell a much better story, just like Jeremy Frank’s MLB chart.
To start, the first chart contains all 59,799 games that have ever been played, regular season and playoffs combined.
The majority of games conclude with the winner scoring six goals or less, making up 91.3% of all historical outcomes. The most common outcome is a 3-2 final, occurring 10.6% of the time, distantly followed by 4-2, and 2-1, each coming in at 7.7% and 7.6%, respectively. Another way to put it is that for any given game, a 3-2 final score is more likely than the winning team scoring seven or more goals.
Ties in the NHL make up 9.6% of all results. Of course, that number will continue to decrease since ties have not been a part of the league since shootouts were introduced for the 2005-06 season. However, considering ties were the rarest of the three outcomes, 9.6% is a surprisingly large share of games to end in draws. Perhaps they weren’t so rare after all.
How much do you have to score?
To win a game in the NHL, it usually takes more than one or two goals. Scoring one goal and walking away with a win definitely doesn’t occur often. In fact, this only happened in 2.1% of all games (1,275 of 59,799). In contrast, losing while scoring once obviously happened much more frequently, accounting for 25.4% of all games (15,167 of 59,799). Another way to look at it is for every instance when a team scored once, they’ve only won 7.3% of the time (1,275 wins to 16,080 losses and ties).
Scoring two goals doesn’t bode too well too often either. This resulted in a win in 10.1% (6,058 of 59,799) and a loss in 26.8% (16,030 of 59,799) of all games. At the very least, winning a game when scoring two goals occurred 25.5% of the time (6,058 wins to 17,709 losses and ties), a decent increase compared to when scoring once.
Score three goals in a game, however, and the numbers finally swing towards a win. In 19.9% of all games (11,889 of 59,799), the winning team scored three goals compared to the 16.7% (10,006 of 59,799) where scoring thrice resulted in a loss. Every time a team has scored three goals in a game, a win was counted 50.8% of the time (11,889 wins to 11,524 losses and ties). Scoring three goals in a game is essentially equivalent to flipping an ever so slightly weighted coin for the win.
Sometimes it still isn’t enough
The trend holds by now that scoring four or more goals in a game will likely result in a win. When scoring four, five, and six goals in game, the win percentages were 72.2%, 86.3%, and 93.1%, respectively. While these are fairly favourable outcomes, losses are still possible.
In fact, in 332 games, scoring six goals resulted in a loss. This has only happened in 0.6% of all games, but it still doesn’t change the fact that on 332 separate occasions, a team failed to secure a win after scoring six goals!
Without a doubt, winning percentages get even better when a team scores seven, eight, or nine goals; usually those offensive outputs suffice for a win. But it just makes it all the more embarrassing to still lose, which happened 68, 12, and 6 times, respectively. Those games are definitely some for the history books.
Not on cloud nine quite yet
Let’s look at those losses from scoring nine goals. The first ever instance of this happening was the first ever NHL game. The Toronto Arenas lost to the Montreal Wanderers by a score of 10-9 on December 19, 1917. In wasn’t until 1944 that it happened again. Twice. In the matter of 12 days. The Boston Bruins first defeated the New York Rangers 10-9 on March 4, 1944. Less than two weeks later, the Bruins were on the other end of battle, losing to the Detroit Red Wings by the same score on March 16.
Maybe having two teams lose after scoring nine goals in a game in rapid succession was enough. Such an outcome was successfully avoided all the way until the 80s, where it happened again three more times. On October 7, 1983, the Minnesota North Stars lost to the Vancouver Canucks by that strangely similar score of… 10-9.
In the 1985-86 season, the dreaded 9-goal effort for a loss happened twice. On December 11, 1985, the Chicago Black Hawks (this is not a typo, they only became the Chicago Blackhawks in 1986) became the first team to score nine goals and lose at home. The Edmonton Oilers defeated them by a score of 12-9. As fate would have it, less than one month later on January 8, 1986, the Edmonton Oilers—not unlike their 1943-44 Bruins counterparts—found themselves on the other end of the battle. The Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Oilers 11-9.
Back to the regularly scheduled programming
One other way of looking at the data is to compare the regular season with the playoffs. Do outcomes differ drastically when higher stakes are on the line?
From a visual standpoint, the answer is no. With enough games, the distribution for playoff games will likely approach the distribution for regular season games. The two distributions are not that different to begin with. Of course, the wild one-off outcomes probably won’t happen in future playoff games, but it would sure make for some very entertaining playoff hockey.
Interestingly, the most common goal total for the winning team for both the regular season and playoffs is four goals. However, there’s a slight difference for the losing team. In the regular season, the losing team most often scored two goals. In the playoffs, it was instead just one goal. This is probably just more evidence that playoff games are often determined by a goalie who stands on his head at the right time of year.
Double digits in playoff hockey
The last time a playoff game saw a team score double digits was in 2012, where the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 4 of Round 1 by a score of 10-3 on April 18. The Flyers ultimately won the series in six games. If only the Penguins spread their scoring out a little bit more over the series.
To show how rare double-digit scores are in the playoffs, prior to 2012, the last occurrence was 1990. That’s twenty-two years between playoff games where a team scored at least ten goals! An entirely different era of hockey was being played in 1990 compared to 2012. The Penguins made their mark on finding really obscure ways of being a part of 21st century hockey history.
On April 10, 1990, the underdog Los Angeles Kings defeated the Calgary Flames 12-4 in Game 4 of the Round 1 of the playoffs. The Kings went on to win the series four games to two. Back in the regular season, the Flames had just secured the top spot in the Clarence Campbell Conference with 99 points, and were two points back of the Bruins, who won the Presidents’ Trophy with 101.
Other scoring anomalies
On top of the double-digit scores, there are other outcomes that rank high on rarity. In both the regular season and playoffs, some outcomes have only ever occurred once in the history of the NHL.
In the regular season, the largest shutout win happened on January 23, 1944, where the Red Wings handily defeated the Rangers. The highest number of goals for a win happened 24 years prior to that, where the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Quebec Athletic Club by a score of 16-3 on March 3, 1920.
During the playoffs, the largest shutout win uncannily also happened in 1944. On March 30, the Canadiens defeated the Maple Leafs by a score of 11-0 in Game 5 of the semi-finals to advance to the final, eventually winning the cup after sweeping the Black Hawks.
In somewhat more recent years, on April 9, 1987, the highest number of goals for a win in the playoffs came courtesy of the Oilers defeating the Kings in Game 2 of the division semifinals by a score of 13-3. The Oilers went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Note that in NHL playoff history, 25 games ended in a tie. Of those 25, the first 23 were ties due to the original format of the NHL playoffs, where series were won by total goals scored over two games. However, the last two ties to occur in NHL playoff history have their unique stories attached to them.
On March 31, 1951, in Game 2 between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins, the game had went to overtime with both teams tied at one goal a piece. No winner was determined; however; since Toronto’s local curfew law prohibited a game from continuing past midnight. So while player stats counted that night, the game did not affect the series. The Maple Leafs became the first team in NHL history to win a best-of-seven series 4-1 in six games played.
On May 24, 1988, another peculiarity resulted in the last tie game ever in the NHL playoffs. The Bruins and the Oilers was tied 3-3 in the second period when a total power failure at Boston Garden caused the game to be cancelled. Player stats were still counted and Wayne Gretzky managed to pick up two assists that night to boost his Conn Smythe winning effort. The Oilers also secured their place in the record books, becoming the first team in NHL history to sweep a Stanley Cup Final in five games.
For some notes on the Flames, the biggest win in franchise history came against the San Jose Sharks on February 10th, 1993 where they won by a score of 13-1. Conversely, the biggest loss in franchise history came eleven seasons prior. On October 29th, 1981, the Red Wings scored twelve goals to the Flames’ four.
There you have it, the entire history of final scores in the NHL in just a few charts. With the way the game has progressed, it seems all too unlikely that any of the higher scoring outcomes will ever be achieved, but there’s still hope that your favourite team will beat your rival team 16-0 some day in the future.
Note: As it turns out, Redditor /u/jkua made charts of a similar vein that includes all data through portions of the 2017-18 season, so check his work out if you want another perspective!