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.
Sometimes it matters. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Teams playing their best hockey down the stretch may actually peak too soon and become vulnerable in the opening round, when they hit an inevitable flat period.
Either way, my preferred truism when it comes to playoff prognostications is the one that starts with somebody saying, ‘the regular season doesn’t matter; in the playoffs, you’re back to square one and every team’s record is the same – 0-0.”
That one, based on the evidence, is harder to dispute.
THIS AND THAT: Of course, the time when a pre-playoff nose dive hurts you most is when it drops you completely out of playoff contention, which is where last year’s finalists, the New Jersey Devils, find themselves. The Devils have now lost 11 in a row, if you count regulation and overtime defeats, and have not won a game since Ilya Kovalchuk exited the line-up back on Mar. 23. Losing Kovalchuk hard on the heels of losing Zach Parise as a free agent depleted the Devils too much … Parise landed with the Minnesota Wild as did defenceman Ryan Suter, whose absence from the Nashville Predators lineup – along with a run of injuries – has bumped the Preds out of the playoff picture for just the second time in the last nine years. Nashville has been ravaged by injuries, heading into the second last weekend of the regular season missing Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher, Gabriel Bourque, Patric Hornqvist, Brandon Yip and Paul Gaustad. With Martin Erat in Washington, the Predators are surging towards the bottom of the Western Conference standings and now look as if they’ll draft in the top five. The Predators are not in line for a serious makeover, according to reports out of Nashville this week, which likely means that they will not dangle Shea Weber on the open market. The Preds matched a Philadelphia offer sheet for Weber last summer. Under CBA rules, they were obliged to keep him for a full year before listening to offers for his rights. If they decide to move him, you can be assured that both the Flyers and the Edmonton Oilers will be in there, making offers … Just how serious was new Oilers’ general manager Craig MacTavish about making bold and sweeping changes to his team? We’ll see in the next six months. The expectation is that Ales Hemsky will be gone for sure, that Shawn Horcoff might get a compliance buyout and that their first pick in the 2013 entry draft might be in play, all of which might have happened anyway, even if Steve Tambellini kept the job in Edmonton. The way Taylor Hall has improved this year and considering how young Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is – 21 now after celebrating his birthday last Friday, but young enough to play in the world junior tournament this past Christmas – you’d have to think they would constitute the two untouchables on the roster … The Bruins acquired Wade Redden from the St. Louis as insurance and so it wasn’t until this past Wednesday, in the game against Buffalo, that he made his Boston debut. Redden played a limited role and got just over 12 minutes of ice time. He doesn’t figure to play much in the playoffs unless someone from the starting six gets injured. There is greater uncertainty about Carl Soderberg, the Swedish scoring star, who joined the Bruins after an excellent year with Linkoping of the Eliteserien. The Bruins plan to audition Soderberg in the final week to see if he can help them in the playoffs. The expectation was that Soderberg would go in for the struggling Milan Lucic, who’d been demoted to the fourth line for Wednesday’s game (Greg Campbell took his place with Jagr and David Krejci). You wonder if Lucic’s struggles continue, would the Bruins listen to overtures for his rights in the summer? Lucic’s name came up in the Oilers’ press conference appointing MacTavish GM, as the sort of player they need to support their skilled players up front.
AND FINALLY: The first playoff tiebreaker is regulation and overtime wins (ROW) and that represents the Winnipeg Jets’ best chance of qualifying for the playoffs. They are currently tied with the New York Rangers for eighth spot, with 48 points apiece. New York holds a game in hand, but Winnipeg is significantly ahead in the tie-breaker (21 ROWs compared to just 18 for the Rangers). It means if the Jets can catch New York, they will finish ahead of them. Toronto is also in good shape, as far as the tie-breaker goes. The Leafs have 24 ROWs, tied for second in the conference with Montreal. Ottawa is lagging there, just 19, but the team that the stat really hurts is the surging Sabres. Buffalo has just 13 ROWs, so while the Sabres are technically still in the playoff hunt, that four-point gap with two teams (Winnipeg and the Rangers) to overtake with four games remaining and all the tie-breakers working against them, will be hard to overcome.