There is a sentiment, repeated again this week by the Boston Bruins’ Jaromir Jagr, that if an NHL team is not playing well heading into the postseason, it has little chance of accomplishing much once the playoffs begin. This thinking stems from an accepted school of thought - that you can’t turn momentum on and off like a tap in professional sport; and if you happen to sputter at the wrong time, you’re done.
The problem with any long-established truism is that it is only ever true about half the time.
We need only go back as far as last year’s playoffs to identify the hottest club at the end of the regular season, the one that seemed poised for a deep, long run. Anybody remember who it was?
Yes, in their final 10 games of the regular season, the Vancouver Canucks were 8-1-1, this despite playing without the injured Daniel Sedin, who was recovering from a concussion, and not available for duty down the stretch. It didn’t seem to matter. The Canucks held off a late surge by the St. Louis Blues to finish with the best overall record in the NHL and looked hungry and motivated to avenge the previous year’s bitter loss to the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final.
Meanwhile, down in southern California, the Los Angeles Kings had made great strides under coach Darryl Sutter and were in contention for the Pacific Division title in the final week, heading into a home-and-home series with the San Jose Sharks. Instead, the Kings fell flat on their collective faces, lost both games, lost the division crown to the Phoenix Coyotes and fell all the way to the eighth playoff seed. It was viewed as a significant misstep at a time when just two points separated the top three teams in the Pacific and a better result against the Sharks would have given the Kings home-ice advantage in the opening round. Instead, the Kings finished middle-of-the-pack over the final 10 games of the regular season, 14th out of 30 teams.
Well, you remember what happened next. Somewhere between their lost weekend against the Sharks and opening night against the NHL’s No. 1 team, the Kings found their way – and didn’t stop winning until June 11, when they hoisted the Stanley Cup. The Kings were 16-4 in the playoffs last spring; had 3-0 leads in all four series; and were a virtually unstoppable force. But nothing in their play down the stretch indicated what a juggernaut they might be once playoffs actually got under way.
Or look at the team that had the 17th best record over the final 10 games, the Philadelphia Flyers, who still somehow managed to find a way to eliminate the favoured Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round in a thrilling, high-scoring series.
Last year, two teams, the New Jersey Devils and the Bruins, were tied for the third-best overall records down the stretch, both finishing with respectable 7-2-1 marks. New Jersey advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final (but not before losing three of their first five against the Florida Panthers and barely staving off elimination in the first round). The Bruins weren’t so lucky. The defending Stanley Cup champions were bounced in the opening round by the Washington Capitals.
Now go back to 2011, the year the Bruins defeated the Canucks in seven games in the Stanley Cup final. That year, the Bruins were okay down the stretch (6-3-1), but not nearly as hot as the Buffalo Sabres, who finished 8-1-1 to make the playoffs and then promptly lost in the opening round to a Flyers team that went 3-4-3 (and had the worst finish among teams that qualified for the playoffs).
Boston squeaked past the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round, caught fire and eventually won the Stanley Cup by winning two more Game 7s in subsequent rounds. People thought a lot of Pittsburgh’s chances two years ago as well (an 8-2 finish, just behind Buffalo), but somehow the Tampa Bay Lightning knocked them off in seven games in the opening round.
Then, as now, the Penguins found a way to win regular-season games without the injured Sidney Crosby, but when playoffs arrived – and they were confronted with Tampa’s radical trapping style - they couldn’t generate enough offence. In seven games, they never once scored more than three goals and in the elimination game, they were shut out.
The point is simply this.
The Montreal Canadiens stumbled badly after clinching a playoff spot last week, and then finally won again Thursday night versus Tampa. The Toronto Maple Leafs have had a couple of underwhelming performances lately in losses to the Capitals and the New York Islanders with a playoff spot within reach.
Panic, at some levels, spilled out in the streets in both markets where, a fortnight ago, they were celebrating their unexpected surges. And the reason for pessimism is simply is because people genuinely believe, as Jagr does, that these games down the stretch will have an impact on playoff performance. History suggests the reality is something different again.