Impact of momentum on playoffs

Some believe a late-season charge can lead to a long playoff run. Dave Sandford/NHLI/Getty Images

Hockey analytics pioneer Rob Vollman is ESPN Insider's armchair GM this season, exploring how modern statistics can inform front-office decisions.

The Pittsburgh Penguins finished out the 2008-09 season red hot on the way to their third Stanley Cup, and in the finals they met the mighty Detroit Red Wings, who had finished the regular season absolutely stone cold. We frequently hear players, coaches, and experts preach the importance of the final 10 games of the season, but to what extent does an objective look at history validate that conventional wisdom?

We know that picking up a few extra points down the stretch can earn a team a more favorable seed, and potentially, a weaker first-round opponent, which will increase a team's chance of advancing to the second round. The real question is whether the advantage of catching fire down the stretch goes beyond that, and in a way that can be measured objectively.

There are many ways to study this question statistically. In this case, only the final 10 games of the season are being examined, along with the impact going into the first round, while considering only a team's regulation-time record. Although overtime and shootout wins doubtless give a team a confidence boost as well, there are neither shootouts nor four-on-four overtime in the playoffs, only a continuation of regulation-time rules until a winner is determined.

The results? There are a lot of outside variables that can confuse the issue, but once they're accounted for, there still remains a small but real possibility that the momentum of the final 10 games can play a factor in the first round -- especially for certain teams and in specific situations.