The Margin of Wins and Losses by the New Jersey Devils and the NHL

In the comments of the recap of the recent 3-2 win by the New Jersey Devils over the Boston Bruins, user max16s had this question to say:

I wasn't impressed with this victory. The devils—for a while now—-have been a one goal win team. I’d like to see a stat on what percentage of Devils wins are by a single goal (even including empty netters) compared to the league average. I would not be surprised if a disturbing number of Devil wins are by a single goal. And this has been a trend over the past few seasons—-of course we all remember not being able to stretch the lead to two against Carolina. In the past we have attributed it to poor offense, but with the offensive skill on this team, I am really wondering why we very rarely "put a team away" as it were and grab that extra goal to ice it. This sense of urgency needs to change if the team is looking to make a long run. Especially if you want to have a long run, in that first round against a team like Boston you have to simply put them away.

Well, I have to disagree with the initial thought, and I don't know how it would bear out over past season.  However, I can answer the initial question about the Devils' margin of victories for this season.  It's a feature, not a bug.

Fortunately, the NHL keeps track of the team's record in games decided by one goal, two goals, or three and more goals.  However, rather than just linking to this and saying, "Have at it," I dug a little deeper to see how the Devils stack up against the league in each category.  Are the Devils relying on too many wins in one goal games?  Or is it in line with the rest of the league?   What else can be learned from the breakdown of the Devils' 41-24-3 record?

Note: The following numbers were compiled from NHL.com and before tonight's games were played.

One Goal Games

The Devils: In the 28 games decided by one goal that they have played this season, the Devils have earned a record of 20-5-3. Approximately 41.18% of all Devils games have been decided by one goal this season.  48.78% of the Devils' 41 victories have come in one-goal games; as are 20.83% of their 24 regulation losses.

The NHL: So far, the NHL has played a total of 1,027 games.  A total of 483 victories have come in one goal games, or 47.03% of the season.  Incidentally, there have been a total of 243 regulation one goal losses and 240 overtime or shootout losses, which are one goal losses by default.  An average of all 30 teams yields 16.1 wins by one goal.  The Vancouver Canucks have played least amount of games decided by one goal this season with 24 games, a record of 14-7-3.   The Atlanta Thrashers have played the most amount of one goal games this season with 39 games, a record of 14-14-11.

In Comparison: Only four teams have more than the Devils' 20 one-goal wins this season: Phoenix (23), Pittsburgh (22), Chicago (21), and Los Angeles (21).  Three other teams have matched the Devils' 20 win total: Nashville, Minnesota, and Colorado.  In terms of regulation losses, only three teams have fewer losses by one goal: San Jose, Ottawa, and Dallas each have 4.   The Devils are tied with Vancouver with the fewest amount of overtime/shootout losses with 3.

Incidentally, Edmonton, Carolina, and the Rangers have won the fewest one-goal games this season with 10.  The worst record in one-goal games belongs to the New York Rangers. While the Thrashers have the most one goal losses with 14; the Rangers' 10-9-9 record yields a mere .357 winning percentage in the NHL. In contrast, the Devils can boast that they have the best winning percentage in games decided by one goal with .714. 

Nevertheless, the Devils have been successful in one-goal games and the four teams with more wins by one goal either currently has as many points in the standings as the Devils or more.   A plurality of the Devils' wins do come by one goal; however, I don't think it's significantly higher than the league breakdown of their wins.  What makes the Devils stick out is that they don't often lose by one goal in addition to several wins; hence, they have more  one goal wins than the league average. 

I can't say from these numbers alone whether this is a result of the Devils not being able to put a team away,  that would require looking closely at but it does suggest how effective they generally are in close games.  I do think this evidence that in a tied or a one goal game, we can be confident in the Devils pulling through most of the time.  I also think this answers the initial question.  But why stop there?  Besides, in the other margins of victory, it's not as good looking for New Jersey.

Two Goal Games

The Devils: They have played 21 two goal games this season, putting together a record of 11-10.  30.88% of the season so far has led to two-goal games. The 11 wins represent 26.83% of the Devils' 41 wins; whereas the 10 regulation losses represent 41.67% of regulation losses.

The NHL: Only 220 of the NHL's 1,027 games have ended by a margin of two goals: 21.42% of the season.  The average number of wins by two goals this season has been 7.33.  The Edmonton Oilers and Nashville Predators have each played more games that ended by two goals with 22. The Oilers have a record of 7-15 in those games, while the Predators have went 14-8.  In contrast, the Tampa Bay Lightning have played the fewest amount of games that ended by two goals with 8, a record of 5-3.

In Comparison:   The New Jersey Devils' record of 11-10 isn't so great, but they are in the top half of the league with a winning percentage of .524 (13th to be precise).  Five teams are dead even at .500; but the range of winning percentage is very wide.  The Washington Capitals are by far the best with a perfect 11-0 record in games ending by two goals.  The Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche are both tied with the fewest amount of wins by two goals and the worst winning percentage (.231, each with a record of 3-10).   Interestingly, the Devils are tied with Washington and Ottawa for the second more wins by two goals; Nashville leads the league with 14.

So the Devils are decidedly average in two goal games in terms of winning percentage. Yet, they are one of the few teams with more than 10 wins by two goals - well above the league average.  Initially, in my opinion, I thought this made some sense. If they are up by one late, adding an empty net goal makes it a two goal game.  Likewise, if they are down by one, an empty net goal against will also make it a two goal game.  However, the numbers break that down only one way for New Jersey.  While I can't say for certain that all empty net goals are like that, the Devils do have 10 empty net goals (tied for the league lead) yet only 2 (second fewest in the league) allowed.  So much for that initial thought.   I found a similar situation for the Devils in three or more goal games.

Three or More Goal Games

Note: In the NHL.com stats, this is just listed as three goals.  Yet, all the numbers add up to a team's record; so it really represents all wins and losses by three or more goals.

The Devils: They have played 19 games where the margin of victory was by three or more, earning a record of 10-9. The 19 games represent 27.94% of the Devils season; while the 10 wins are 24.39% of all Devils' wins and the 9 losses are 37.5% of all regulation losses.

The NHL: 324 of the league's 1,027 games have been decided by three goals or more, or 31.54% of the season. The average number of wins by three goals or more this season has been 10.8.  Four teams have played 27 games that ended by three goals or more, the most in the league: Pittsburgh (14-13), Ottawa (9-18), Philadelphia (16-11), and Tampa Bay (11-16).  Nashville has played the fewest amount of games this season that were decided by three goals or more with 13: a record of 4-9.

In Comparison:  Like with two goal games, the Devils' 10-9 record won't wow anyone.  However, this is good enough for the eleventh best winning percentage in the league at .526.  The Devils' 10 wins are just below league average, but their 19 games played is also below the average of 21.6 in the league.  To give you some context for those numbers, the Devils are tied with Detroit, Boston, and Calgary with only 10 wins and are tied for 9th (there are a lot of ties, so among all 30 teams it'll show 17th).  Vancouver has the most wins by three goals or more with 20; Edmonton, Atlanta, and Nashville have the fewest with 4; the best winning percentage goes to Chicago with an 18-4 record (.816); and the worst winning percentage is owned by Edmonton with a record of 4-16 (.200). 

I think the wins by three or more goals may happen more than wins by only two goals because if a team can go up by two goals, they'll generally have the momentum within the game or part of the game to tack on additional goals to preserve their lead.  For example, there's the recent 6-3 win by the Devils over the Rangers; it was 5-3 for the most of the third period until Travis Zajac slotted one through on a counter-attack to ensure the lead.

Again, like with the one goal games, the numbers alone don't suggest too much as to how the Devils need to perform in those games. A loss by three goals or more is usually the result of a poor performance by the team. A win by three goals or more is usually the result of a great performance the team.  We want the Devils to have the latter, but that's not only easier said than done - getting the win alone is the goal in any game. Any margin is normally satisfactory. 

Overall Comments

I do think it is clear that the Devils have not played in a disturbing amount of games in either category (though they are close to the highest number of two goal games played); but for a variety of reasons have an excellent record in one goal games and are just above .500 in the other two.  More games in the NHL have been decided by one goal than the other two categories so far this season. Unless the whole league has a problem in getting that extra goal to put teams away, I don't think that's a fault for New Jersey.

With games becoming more and more vital for playoff positioning or just making the playoffs, it wouldn't surprise me if the Devils are more involved in close games. They will definitely be close in the playoffs, as teams and players work real hard to minimize mistakes.  Given their success at one goal games so far this season, this shouldn't be a concern for the Devils going forward.  That's why I see it as a feature and not a bug. 

I will say that how the Devils' record breaks down is a bit surprising. I expected the Devils to do well in all three categories given their record of 41-24-3; but with such excellence in one goal games did strike me.  I wish I had a better idea as to why. Is it Martin Brodeur? The mentality of the team? The Devils truly not being able to add to leads? The Devils able to make a lot of comeback wins?  All of this? Something else entirely?  Whatever you may think, I offer my thanks to max16s for the question leading to this post and to you for reading this. Please leave your thoughts, additional questions, corrections, and other pointers in the comments.

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