Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Formula

We're in year nine of the ECAC's current playoff structure. Yes, time flies when you're having fun... unless you're RPI, and you haven't been having much fun in the last eight years at all. It's a crappy truth - in the last eight years, 12 different teams have reached the ECAC semifinals (including Vermont), and the Engineers were never one of them. Even Union made it to Albany last year (finally, they were the only ones other than RPI that hadn't been before the last year at the Times Union Center).

Additionally, the Engineers are one of only two teams out of the 13 that has never earned the first-round bye as one of the top four teams in the league. Quinnipiac is the only other one, and they've had three fewer opportunities.

So how does one get the bye? Let's take a look at the last eight seasons and find out just how many points a team needs to be in the running. The median and mode "magic number" is 25 points, with the mean coming in at 25.875, which we round up to 26. In five of the eight seasons, 25 points has been enough to earn a bye. The mean is somewhat skewed by outlier results in 2004 and 2005 - teams needed 28 and 29 points respectively in those years thanks to a lack of parity between the top and bottom of the league. That outlier ultimately cost the Engineers in 2004, the only season in which they reached 25 points in the last eight. They had 27 points that year to tie for 4th with Dartmouth, losing the tiebreaker (Dartmouth, of course, earned the bye with only 27 points, but it took 28 points to earn the bye straight up without going to a tiebreak).

So generally, we should expect that 25 points is, more than likely, going to be enough to earn the free pass through the first round. The trick is reaching that level.

Given that one would normally expect a team to play better at home, we should expect the Engineers to earn more points on average in a home weekend than on the road.
1) Average three points in every home weekend (5 x 3 = 15)
2) Average two points in every road weekend (5 x 2 = 10, 15+10 = 25)
3) Points scored against the travel partner are gravy - that is, they give some leeway with the hard and fast 3/2 scheme.

Let's apply this to last season.

Last Season (Needed points): Points gained (Cumulative difference)
Yale/Brown (3): 4 (+1)
at Clarkson/St. Lawrence (2) : 2 (+1)
Cornell/Colgate (3): 0 (-2)
Union (0): 0 (-2)
at Quinnipiac/Princeton (2): 4 (0)
at Union (0): 0 (0)
Dartmouth/Harvard (3): 3 (0)
at Brown/Yale (2): 2 (0)
St. Lawrence/Clarkson (3): 3 (0)
at Harvard/Dartmouth (2): 2 (0)
Quinnipiac/Princeton (3): 2 (-1)
at Colgate/Cornell (2): 1 (-2)

The Engineers were actually on pace to earn the bye throughout much of the second half of the season after their road sweep of Quinnipiac and Princeton - the actual mark that ended up needing to be reached last year was 24 points, the lowest it has been in eight years - but the loss in the Freakout and to Colgate were the killers. They ended up with 23 points, two away from the goal which, given their tiebreaker loss to Colgate, actually ended up being a necessary 25 points.

Of course, that late in the season, the matter of reaching 25 points becomes irrelevant. If you're that close to a bye, you know what has to be done, and what other teams need to do. This formula is more of an earlier season indicator, especially during the period in which teams have played an uneven number of games (which begins this weekend, as Yale and Brown have no ECAC games) and an uneven number of home and away weekends.

This Season
at Dartmouth/Harvard (2): 2 (0)
at Union/Union (0):
at Yale/Brown (2):
Clarkson/St. Lawrence (3):
at Cornell/Colgate (2):
Harvard/Dartmouth (3):
Brown/Yale (3):
at Quinnipiac/Princeton (2):
Colgate/Cornell (3):
at St. Lawrence/Clarkson (2):
Princeton/Quinnipiac (3):

After one weekend, the teams are looking like this:
Yale: +1
St. Lawrence: +1
Union: +1
RPI: 0
Cornell: 0
Princeton: 0
Harvard: -1
Quinnipiac: -1
Colgate: -1
Brown: -2
Clarkson: -2
Dartmouth: -2

Looks like there are six teams on pace for the bye, right? So the method's flawed. Well, it's not perfect, but it's not flawed because of this, per se. In any given set of four travel partner games, there will always be a net loss of 2 points between the teams. For example from last weekend, Union's +1 and Harvard's -1 even out, RPI was even, and Dartmouth was at -2. So as the season progresses, as long as there's some semblance of parity, the number of teams on pace to earn the bye with 25 points should decline since, in a perfectly even league, every team would presumably tie with 22 points.

And of course, the fudge factor says that to play it safe, you want to be on pace to finish a few points above 25. But that pretty much just plays into "just win," which is a maxim any team can get behind pretty easily.

What does it all mean? Well, immediately, it means a few things.
1) Splitting on the road last weekend wasn't horrible, although the extra point or two at Harvard would have been helpful.
2) This week, points are a bonus, but if RPI doesn't get some points, there won't be much room for error unless they start sweeping multiple weekends.
3) Given RPI's front-loaded road schedule, they could stay around the .500 mark through mid-January and still be in good shape to shoot for a top-four finish. Over Christmas break, they could potentially be sitting on a 1-3-2 or 2-4-0 ECAC record and still be on a positive trajectory for a bye (of course, 5-1-0 would be somewhat more positive).

As an aside, 18 is the magic number for home-ice in the first round. That's a little more difficult to split evenly - it can be reached by averaging home splits, one point on the road, and earning a split with the travel partner. That's still only 17 points, so in this simplistic method, each team starts the season off with a -1 difference. Hopefully, we won't be tracking this one moving forward, but the Engineers are even on this metric as well.

Look, it's RPI. You should have known what you were getting into.

1 comment:

  1. I thought for sure last year was the year for a top 4 finish but NOPE! A huge flame out in the last 2 weeks of the season. I think if York can keep it up and be on his game for the playoffs, it doesn't matter where RPI finishes.

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