The Lightning’s Historic Dominance Won’t Matter Without A Cup

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin today, with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lighting entering as heavy betting favorites. And for good reason: Their regular season resume is impeccable. They earned 128 points by winning 62 games, placing them in a tie with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most regular-season wins in league history.

En route to all those wins, the Bolts led the NHL in goals scored, powerplay goals scored, shooting percentage and penalty kill percentage1 and finished third in save percentage. Nikita Kucherov became the first player in more than a decade to register 120 or more points, and Steven Stamkos had the most productive season of his already immensely productive career.

Tampa is a balanced juggernaut, and every other team should be very afraid of it.

With all that said, it must be noted that regular-season dominance hardly guarantees postseason glory in the NHL. Of the 13 teams that have won the Presidents’ Trophy since the lockout of 2004-05, just two have gone on to lift the Stanley Cup. And of the 10 regular-season winners to earn 120 or more regular-season points in league history, just four have gone on to win professional hockey’s ultimate prize.2

Still, NHL favorites3 haven’t had it all that bad since the lockout, especially when compared with the other three major North American men’s leagues. Only NBA favorites have had better championship odds going into the playoffs over the past 13 years.

Hockey favorites don’t have it too bad

For each of the four major North American men’s leagues, playoff field size and average pre-playoff title probability* for favorites, 2006-2018

League Playoff Teams per Year Favorite’s Average Championship Probability
National Basketball Association 16 36.1%
National Hockey League 16 23.5
Major League Baseball 8/10 21.4
National Football League 12 18.7

* Based on a logit regression between per-game scoring differential and championships won for each league.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

While it might not be as inevitable as, say, the Golden State Warriors winning the NBA title in 2018 (or 2017 or 2015), Tampa’s regular-season dominance suggests that it’s poised to continue this trend. The Bolts scored 103 more goals than they conceded during the regular season; the next best mark was set by the Calgary Flames, who posted a +62 goal differential. The gulf between best and second-best is immense, and it underscores Tampa’s historic regular-season greatness. And indeed, Tampa may be the NHL’s best team since the lockout.

Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which estimates the strength of every team in the NHL,4 reiterates just how special this Bolts group is. From 2005-06 to 2017-18, just three teams finished the regular season with an SRS better than 1, and no team eclipsed 1.2. The most recent team to do so — the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks — won the Stanley Cup. Tampa finished the 2018-19 regular season with an SRS of 1.21. All signs are pointing to late-spring celebrations on the Gulf Coast.

Tampa’s only real concern at the moment is the health of Victor Hedman, the reigning Norris Trophy winner for the top defenseman. The Swede missed Tampa’s final three games with an “upper-body injury.” Hedman has a history of concussions, and “upper-body injury” is often NHL front-office code for concussion. The slick-skating defenseman is Tampa’s fourth-highest scorer, its power-play quarterback and the leader of a rearguard partially responsible for that gaudy goal differential. The Bolts can probably survive a first-round tilt against a slightly better-than-average Blue Jackets team without Hedman, but things might not be as easy against subsequent teams.

If there’s a cautionary tale for this iteration of the Bolts, it’s that Red Wings team from 1995-96: Detroit earned the second-most regular-season points in NHL history and boasted two of the league’s best offensive players (Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman) and the league’s reigning Norris Trophy winner (Paul Coffey) and yet failed to advance beyond the Western Conference finals. In the NHL, history is written between April and June, not October and April. Tampa is on top of the hockey world at the moment. But that world could change significantly in a matter of weeks.

Yes, Parity Was Real This Season. But Baylor Still Dominated.

Before the national championship game tipped off on Sunday, things seemed to be going according to plan for Baylor and Notre Dame. Two No. 1 seeds — and two of the three teams to be ranked No. 1 during the regular season — would face off, with one seeking to cap a dominant, one-loss season, and the other aiming for its second title in as many years.

Once the game began, though, practically nothing went according to plan for either team.

Baylor raced out to a 15-5 lead and led by as many as 17 in the first half and 12 at halftime. The Bears dominated, getting contributions from inside (12 first-half points from center Kalani Brown) and out (5-5 shooting in the first quarter from point guard Chloe Jackson). It was the bad kind of déjà vu for Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, whose Fighting Irish needed a 15-point comeback — the largest ever in an NCAA championship game — to take home the trophy last season.

But in the second half, it was Mulkey’s team that had the bad kind of déjà vu. A year after then-senior Kristy Wallace tore her ACL in Baylor’s regular-season finale, the Bears lost Big 12 defensive player of the year Lauren Cox to a knee injury in the third quarter. Notre Dame promptly came all the way back to tie the game at 74 with 5:18 left in the fourth quarter and even briefly took a 77-76 lead with a little more than three minutes left.

Baylor ultimately pulled out an 82-81 victory behind big contributions from the game’s most outstanding player in Jackson (26 points, five assists), Brown (20 points, 13 rebounds) and freshman reserve NaLyssa Smith (14 points, six rebounds). Notre Dame looked unstoppable at one point in the fourth quarter, with Marina Mabrey canning three 3-pointers in just over two minutes, but came undone at the free-throw line late, with two crucial misses in the final minute.

In the end, when the confetti fell from the rafters to signal the end of the 2018-19 women’s college basketball season, everything was more or less as expected. The No. 1 overall seed hoisted the trophy, emerging out of a field that saw all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds advance to the Elite Eight and the two teams that had the best odds of winning a title at the outset make it to the championship game. Yet parity was rightfully the buzzword of this season: Teams like Oregon and NC State had historic years; mid-major Rice cracked the top-25 rankings for the first time, and Gonzaga hit its highest ranking in program history at No. 12; and mighty UConn was not a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006. In the Final Four, the combined margin of victory (including the championship) was 11 points — the smallest such margin in women’s NCAA Tournament history, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

Paradoxically, the 2019 national champions both rejected that parity and exemplified it.

Baylor dominated its schedule from start to finish, posting a 37-1 record and finishing the season on a 29-game win streak.. The Bears claimed their ninth-straight regular-season conference title and won the Big 12 tournament for the ninth time in 11 years. The 6-foot-7 Brown and the 6-foot-4 Cox had All-America-caliber seasons, combining to average nearly 29 points and 17 rebounds per game. Behind their two interior leaders, Baylor led the country in blocks per game, assists per game, rebounding rate and opponent field-goal percentage.

But as much as they dominated, Baylor also embodied the growth of the game, defeating UConn in the regular season and Notre Dame in the championship game. This is the first time that a team has beaten both the Huskies and the Fighting Irish, two of the sport’s premier programs over the past decade-plus, in the same season since Baylor did it in 2012-13. The program has now won three national championships and made four Final Fours since 2005 while reaching the Elite Eight in eight of the past 10 seasons. By anyone’s definition, Baylor should be considered in the upper echelon of programs, on par with UConn and Notre Dame.

Mulkey has built her program into a powerhouse in part by recruiting well, but also by developing players and putting them in position to succeed. She signed three top-5 recruiting classes in the past four years, according to ESPN, including the nation’s No. 1 class in 2018. Yet she still found herself without an experienced option at point guard entering this season. She settled on an unorthodox solution, moving graduate transfer Jackson to point guard and teaching her the nuances of the position throughout the year. On Sunday night, Jackson proved that her coach made the right decision, committing just one turnover all game and scoring Baylor’s final 4 points.

In the end, Baylor claimed the 2019 national title by the slimmest of margins,1 simultaneously proving that parity is real in the women’s game and ensuring that the Bears will be regarded as one of this decade’s elite programs. They will rebuild again in the offseason, as they lose Brown and Jackson off of this year’s team. But don’t be surprised if Baylor produces the good kind of déjà vu in seasons to come, as Mulkey has built the Bears into a perennial contender and a team that can compete with anyone — UConn and Notre Dame included.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

Significant Digits For Wednesday, April 3, 2019

You’re reading Significant Digits, a daily digest of the numbers tucked inside the news.

3 weeks

Last week, President Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border this week “if Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States.” Were that to happen, the U.S. would run out of avocados in three weeks, according to the CEO of the world’s largest avocado-growing and -distributing company. Forty percent or more of the U.S.’s imported fruits and vegetables are grown in Mexico. [The Guardian]

$18.2 million raised

Bernie Sanders raised a whopping $18.2 million in the first six weeks of his presidential campaign, a stat that “cements his status as one of the top fund-raisers in the sprawling Democratic field,” according to The New York Times. The money came via 900,000 contributions from 525,000 individual donors, according to Sanders’s campaign manager. [The New York Times]

Up roughly 15 percent

The price of Bitcoin (remember it?) surged some 15 percent on Tuesday, to about $4,800 — a four-month high. And in a bit of analysis that roughly dovetails with my overall understanding of cryptocurrency, “the reason for the sudden price jump wasn’t immediately clear,” CNBC reported. [CNBC]

Final 4 teams

And then there were four. The Baylor Lady Bears, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, UConn Huskies and Oregon Ducks are the sole survivors of the 2019 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. According to our predictions, their chances of winning the championship on April 7 are 58 percent, 23 percent, 15 percent and 5 percent, respectively. [FiveThirtyEight]

387 reported cases of measles

There have been 387 reported cases of measles — a very contagious and very preventable disease — in the U.S. this year, already surpassing the 372 cases reported during all of 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles killed some 90,000 people worldwide in 2016. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that American doctors were heretofore so unfamiliar with seeing the disease, which was declared nonexistent in the country in 2000, in person that they have been reviewing photos of the measles rash “to refresh their memories.” [San Francisco Chronicle]

20 percent off

Amazon, owner of Whole Foods, is cutting prices at its grocer for the third time in two years, and the company reports that customers will see an average savings of 20 percent on some items. Nevertheless, last month a Morgan Stanley analyst found that Whole Foods’s prices had risen for three months straight and were 15 percent above its rivals’. [CNN]

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