The drama engulfing Leafs Nation these days, as their heroes maintain a mask of insouciance during a shambles of a stretch drive, has at least one teachable moment for all NHL contenders.
That concerns the No. 1 question – can the Toronto Maple Leafs, or any team, sleepwalk over the final few weeks of the regular season and expect to have success in the playoffs?
Alas, Leaf fans, the answer is probably not. Probably not, because it does happen occasionally. Perhaps once, maybe twice, depending on your definition of sleepwalking, over the past five years. Except, even the two teams in question, the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks and the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins, had better records than the Maple Leafs at this point.
In the past five NHL seasons, from 2013-14 through 2017-18, none of the teams in the Stanley Cup final went into the playoffs with records of .500 or less through the final 15 games of the regular season. The closest to .500 were the 2017 Penguins, who were 7-5-3 in their final 15 games, but went on to win their second consecutive Cup.
The 2015 Blackhawks were 8-5-2 down the stretch, but lost their last four games of the regular season. That put the locals into a tizzy, but Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and company picked it up in the playoffs, eventually knocking off the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games in the Cup final.
Other than that, every team in the championship final was at least three games better than .500 as the playoffs approached. Those who were smoking hot tended to win. Last year, the Washington Capitals posted a 12-3-0 finish before they won their first Stanley Cup.
The Vegas Golden Knights were the story of the 2017-18 season by making the final against the Capitals in their first year of existence. But they could be classed with the 2015 Blackhawks and 2017 Penguins, as they lost their last two regular-season games. However, they did go 8-5-2 in their last 15.
Also streaking their way to a Stanley Cup were the 2016 Penguins. They went into the playoffs with a 13-2-0 record and beat the San Jose Sharks in the final, who were a more modest 9-6-0.
The only red-hot team to lose a final was the 2014 New York Rangers. They finished up with a 10-3-2 record, complete with a five-game winning streak to finish off the regular season. But they fell to the Kings in the final in five games.
Keep in mind the old saw about the President’s Trophy winner rarely winning the Cup. None of the Cup winners in the past five years finished first in the regular season. The lowest finishers were the ’14 Kings and ’15 Blackhawks, third-place finishers in the Pacific and Central Divisions, respectively. But both teams had at least 100 points.
Points-wise, the lowest to make the Cup final was the 2017 Nashville Predators, who were beaten by the Penguins. The Preds were fourth in the Central Division with 94 points. They were the only wild-card team to make the final in the past five years.
Based on the above data, the Lightning are the team to beat in this year’s playoffs, which is hardly the scoop of the season. Before Friday’s games, they sported an 8-2-0 record in their past 10 games.
If you like a dark horse bet, there are a couple of teams to watch. The St. Louis Blues were 6-2-2 in their past 10 and had a four-game winning streak going into Friday’s games. The Penguins were right there with them at 6-2-2 and three consecutive wins.
This leaves the Leafs looking like the longest of long shots as the final week of the regular season approaches. Of the 12 teams in playoff position before Friday’s games, excluding the wild-card teams, the Leafs were in the bottom group over their past 10 games. The dregs of this group were the Sharks at 3-6-1, followed by the Leafs at 4-4-2.
This does not compare well with the Leafs’ potential foes in the first two rounds, as the Boston Bruins and the Lightning are in much better shape. The Lightning, as noted, were 8-2 by Thursday. The Bruins were a more sedate 6-4, but still way ahead of the Leafs.
Even more worrisome for Leafs fans is who is slapping their team around. Among the teams to hand the Leafs those six losses in their past 10 games were the Ottawa Senators, the Blackhawks, Rangers and Flyers, all well below them in the overall standings.
Oh well. They can always take up the rallying cry of “We’re as good as the 2017 Penguins or the 2015 Blackhawks!”