Recent History Shows That The Top Three Teams In The National Hockey League In Early March Don’t Make The Finals
Fans of the NHL’s top three teams in the overall standings have numerous reasons to be excited right now.
First you have the Tampa Bay Lightning. They sit an insurmountable 15 points up on the second-place Boston Bruins in the overall NHL standings, basically guaranteeing the Presidents’ Trophy, given to the team with the most points in the regular season. Winger Nikita Kucherov has 110 points already this season, setting a new franchise record with 13 games yet to play. The team is currently on a 8-2-0 run, and with only 13 regulation losses all season, it’s safe to say they are likely on cruise control for the rest of the regular season.
Then you have the Bruins, who finally lost in regulation Sunday night, thus snapping a streak of 19 consecutive games with at least a point. Amazing when you consider that arguably their best player, winger David Pastrnak, played in only two of those games before undergoing thumb surgery a month ago. Boston’s “never say die” attitude and late-game-comeback heroics have made them look invincible over the last few weeks.
And we can’t forget the streaky Calgary Flames. After a big win Sunday night against the visiting Vegas Golden Knights, the Flames reclaimed top spot in the Pacific Division and move into third place overall in the league standings. Boasting an offence of nine players with at least 10 goals, backed by a strong defensive unit led by Norris Trophy (top defenceman in the league) candidate Mark Giordano, the Flames are viewed by many as Canada’s best bet to represent their country in the Stanley Cup Final.
Slow Your Roll
There is no denying that the three aforementioned teams have put themselves in the best position possible at this point of the season to attain post-season success. But recent history suggests that it’s quite possible that none of these franchises will even advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Not since the 2010-11 season has a team that’s been in the top three of the NHL standings on March 11th gone on to play in the finals. (Note: This does not include the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, as we are talking only of full 82-game seasons). That year, the Vancouver Canucks finished first overall and lost in the finals to the Boston Bruins, who finished sixth overall.
As fans, we all get caught up in “big games” for our teams in mid-January, or those “must wins” late in a dreary February. But the benefit of hindsight has shown us that, for all the hard work teams put into “playing the right way” and piling up the points from October through March means very little as the calendar turns to April and the league’s second season begins.
30 Days To Get Hot
Last season, the Stanley Cup Finals featured the Washington Capitals and the Golden Knights. These two teams were as close as any since the 2011 finals to being in the top three as of March 11th, which marks exactly 30 days before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin.
The Capitals were in 8th place on March 11th, and Vegas was in fourth. An 11-3 run by the Capitals moved them up a couple of spots to sixth overall when the season ended, while a mediocre 7-7 run by the Golden Knights saw them drop from fourth place to fifth.
But going into the playoffs last season, there was not much talk of either the Capitals or (aghast!!) the expansion Golden Knights being in the final. We all cast our gaze at the powerhouse Lightning, the big Winnipeg Jets and the defensively stingy Nashville Predators as teams that were certain to still be playing in June. Both Washington and Vegas put a stop to those theories.
As mentioned already, this is nothing new. Teams lower in the standings are notorious for getting hot at the right time, just as the season is winding down, and carrying that momentum into the spring playoff dance. Some have key players returning late in the season from injury. Others may have made significant upgrades at the trade deadline, and the changes to the line-up began to mesh just in the nick of time. Or, some teams had been fighting for days or weeks just to qualify for the playoffs, allowing them to already be “playoff ready” once the post-season began.
Easy To Forget Where They Came From
Here is a look back at the previous Stanley Cup finalists, and where they sat in the standings in those years entering play on March 11th.
2017 — Pittsburgh 4th Nashville 15th
2016 — Pittsburgh 14th San Jose 12th
2015 — Chicago 10th Tampa Bay 4th
2014 — Los Angeles 8th New York Rangers 13th
2012 — Los Angeles 17th New Jersey 9th
It was shocking to me as I did the research just how far back some of these teams were when they entered the final month of the season. Of course, any team that enters the Stanley Cup playoffs is a good team, and in looking at these numbers you could argue that the league should include more teams in the playoffs each spring (especially as they continue to expand). But that’s a topic for another day.
Simply, we all just seem to remember the run a team goes on once they get into the second season. You hear many coaches and general managers suggest in media scrums that they just want to find a way to get into the playoffs, where “anything can happen”. While it can be a laughable cliché, there is also some truth to it as we can see.
Since the 2012 playoffs, the Stanley Cup winner has finished, on average, in 10th place in the regular season standings. The Cup finalist has finished on average in ninth.
So, looking at the standings today, we all might as well get ready for a Pittsburgh-Nashville final, a rematch of 2017. But who knows? Maybe the 11th place Carolina Hurricanes have something to say about that, the jerks that they are. Or possibly the 16th place Dallas Stars will get hot at just the right time.
Nobody knows, but 16 teams and their rabid fans are allowed to dream. Because anything can happen.
Follow me on Twitter @cbradley2928
Statistics provided by hockey-reference, dropyourgloves.com and theScore