A look back at five times in the cap era that teams stumbled across the regular season finish line, then did just fine once the playoffs started.
With just days until the end of the regular season, several playoff-bound teams are fading down the stretch. The Sharks have been struggling for a month. The Wild, even longer. The Senators have gone cold over the last two weeks, and the Rangers still don’t seem quite right.
But does any of that matter?
You’d obviously rather win than lose, and the Senators and Sharks still have seeding to worry about. But all four teams are making the playoffs. Once they get there, will going in cold hurt their chances?
Not necessarily. NHL history features plenty of examples of teams that seemed like they were heading into the postseason without any momentum, only to flip the switch and go on a long run. So today, let’s see if we can calm some nerves around the league with a look back at five examples from the cap era of teams stumbling across the regular season finish line, then doing just fine once the playoffs started.
2010 – Philadelphia Flyers
Down the stretch: After a March 13 win over the Blackhawks, the Flyers were comfortably holding down a playoff spot, sitting seven points up on the ninth-place Rangers with 15 games to play. But they dropped a game in MSG the next night, and won just five games the rest of the way. That slump included a five-game losing streak, and saw the Flyers nearly fall out of the playoffs altogether. Only a shootout win over the Rangers on the season’s final day earned the Flyers a spot.
But then: After backing into the playoffs, not many gave the Flyers much of a shot against the second-seeded Devils. But they pulled off the upset in five, then continued all the way to the final, where the lost to the Blackhawks in the case of the disappearing OT winner. Their Cup dreams may have fallen two games short, but it wasn’t a bad run for a team that very nearly slumped their way right out of the playoffs altogether.
2012 – Los Angeles Kings
Down the stretch: With just over two weeks left in the season, the Kings had won six straight to move into sixth spot in the West. But they lost five of their last eight, falling into eighth place in the conference and setting up the toughest possible path through the playoffs. In theory, at least.
But then: What’s remarkable about the Kings isn’t how bad their finish was – three of those five losses came after regulation, so L.A. still banked a few points. But it was the night-and-day difference once the playoffs started, as the Kings immediately started on one of the best postseason runs of all time. They won fifteen of their next seventeen to get within one game of the Stanley Cup, and beat the Devils in six to capture the franchise’s first title.
In case you’re wondering, the 2014 Kings finished even worse, losing five of their last seven. Of course, that team also lost their first three playoff games to fall behind 3-0 to the Sharks, before eventually heating up and winning another Cup.
2009 – Detroit Red Wings
Down the stretch – The defending champs were sitting pretty with ten games left, holding down first place overall. But they closed out the season by losing seven of ten, including each of their last three, and watched the Sharks blow by them for the Presidents’ Trophy.
But then – A first round matchup with the Blue Jackets turned out to be the perfect chance to get back on track, as the Red Wings rolled to a four-game sweep. (Meanwhile, the top-seeded Sharks went out in the first round.) Detroit beat the Ducks and Blackhawks too, before dropping a Stanley Cup final rematch against the Penguins in a seven-game classic that came down to the final seconds.
2013 – Boston Bruins
Down the stretch – When they went to bed on April 10, the Bruins had just finished off their fifth win in six and were sitting in first place in the Northeast with nine games left in the lockout-shortened season. But they dropped their next four straight, and finished the season with just two wins against seven losses, coughing up the division lead to Montreal in the process.
But then – The late-season slump earned the Bruins a meeting with the Maple Leafs, and you probably remember how that one ended. Boston cruised through the next two rounds, and were an overtime goal away from taking a 3-1 series lead in the final against the Hawks. They couldn’t close that one out and fell just short of winning their second Cup in three years.
(For the record, those 2011 Bruins weren’t all that good down the stretch either, losing 10 of 18 as well as their first two playoff games before heating up and winning it all.)
2006 – Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes
Down the stretch: Let’s close with a double-header. Both the Oilers and Hurricanes closed out the 2005-06 season with extended and identical slumps, losing 12 of their last 21 games.
The Hurricanes had already run away with the Southeast; even with their late-season swoon they still finished first in the division by 20 points. But it did cost them the top seed in the conference, as the Senators sneaked past them on the season’s final day.
For the Oilers, the slump was even more disappointing. It started right around the trade deadline, which saw Edmonton give up a first-round pick for Dwayne Roloson in an attempt to solve their goaltending problems. But he won just eight of nineteen games, and the Oilers sank to eighth place in the West and a first-round matchup with the 124-point Red Wings.
But then: Roloson and the Oilers woke up quickly, knocking off the Wings in six games in what still stands as one of the biggest first-round upsets ever. The Hurricanes got off to a somewhat shakier start, dropping their first two playoff games at home to Montreal. But then they rattled off seven straight, and eventually met the Oilers in the final.
Edmonton fans are happy these days, so we won’t mention what happened next.