Here’s a nugget for you: of the 12 teams that posted the most points in a single regular season in the 2010s, not one of them went on to win the Stanley Cup in that same season. Last year’s Tampa Bay Lightning are the shining, shocking example. The 2018-19 Bolts tied the all-time NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, but failed to win a single game in the playoffs, getting unceremoniously swept by the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.
Here’s a look at the teams that posted the 10 best seasons of the past 10 years, taking into account their performance in both the regular season and the playoffs.
10. Tampa Bay Lightning 2018-19 (62-16-4 in regular season, 0-4 in playoffs)
It’s difficult to reconcile the best regular season of the decade and (arguably) the worst post-season of the decade. But the 2018-19 Lightning had to make this list due to their wire-to-wire dominance in the regular season: a record-tying 62-win campaign en route to the franchise’s first-ever Presidents’ Trophy, an astounding plus-103 goal differential (second place: plus-62), the highest-scoring team by a wide margin as well as one of the very best defensively, the top power play and the top penalty kill. Nikita Kucherov won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and claimed the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer by putting up more points (128) that anyone else in nearly 25 years. Victor Hedman nabbed the Norris Trophy as best defenseman and Andrei Vasilevskiy took the Vezina Trophy as best goalie. Not to mention, Steven Stamkos enjoyed a career season with 98 points and Brayden Point broke out for 92 points. And the Bolts’ all-star contingent was complemented by a superb supporting cast, from forwards Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and Ondrej Palat to defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev to rookies Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Eric Cernak. The Lightning entered the playoffs as a heavy favorite to win the Stanley Cup, and put an exclamation mark on their ambitious post-season plans by jumping out to a 3-0 lead on Columbus in the first period of Game 1. Then it all fell apart. The Blue Jackets rallied for a 4-3 victory, followed up with 5-1 and 3-1 wins in Games 2 and 3, and completed the sweep with a 7-3 pounding in Game 4. This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but with a whimper.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins 2015-16 (48-26-8 in regular season, 16-8 in playoffs)
The only back-to-back Stanley Cup reign of the decade began with the 2015-16 Penguins. It got off to a rocky start, however, as Pittsburgh fired coach Mike Johnston in mid-December and replaced him with Mike Sullivan, who had been running the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. It was probably the best coaching move of the decade (at least outside St. Louis). The Pens went 33-16-5 under Sullivan to finish second in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the overall NHL standings. They remained one of the highest-scoring teams in the league (third overall, 2.94 goals per game) while significantly improving their defense (sixth overall, 2.43 goals-against average). Sidney Crosby finished third in league scoring with 85 points, Kris Letang finished third in defenseman scoring with 67 points and Marc-Andre Fleury tied for fourth among goalies with 35 wins. But a late-season injury to Fleury pushed rookie netminder Matt Murray into the crease, and the rest is history. Murray won seven straight decisions heading into the post-season, and then went 15-6 in the playoffs with a 2.08 GAA and .923 save percentage to lead the Penguins to the Cup. Pittsburgh knocked off the Rangers in the opening round – gaining a measure of revenge on the team that had eliminated them from the playoffs in each of the previous two years -- before beating archrival Washington in Round 2 and rallying from a 3-2 series deficit against Tampa Bay in the East final to oust the Lightning in a seven-game thriller. That set up a Cup showdown against the San Jose Sharks, who finally qualified for the final after years of coming up short of expectations. Six games later, Crosby had the Conn Smythe Trophy – edging out Phil Kessel and Murray – and the Penguins had the Cup.
8. Chicago Blackhawks 2014-15 (48-28-6 in regular season, 16-7 in playoffs)
The Hawks claimed their third Cup in six seasons, capping an impressive reversal for a franchise that had endured a 49-year championship drought from 1961 to 2010. A four-game losing skid at the end of the regular season dropped Chicago to third in the Central Division and seventh in the NHL overall standings. Then in Game 1 of the first round, Nashville beat Corey Crawford for three goals in the first period, prompting Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to replace Crawford with backup Scott Darling. Cue the comeback. Chicago struck three times in the second period and Duncan Keith scored the winner in double overtime. Quenneville went back to Crawford in Game 2 but the result was a 6-2 decision for the Predators. With Darling back in net, Chicago won Game 3 and then Game 4 in triple overtime on a goal from another linchpin defenseman, this time Brent Seabrook. The Preds finally got to Darling in Game 5 and again early in Game 6, leading Quenneville to go back to Crawford. Chicago rallied to tie the game 3-3 before the end of the first period, and Keith scored the series winner in the third. After sweeping Minnesota in Round 2, the Blackhawks rallied from a 3-2 series deficit in the West final to eliminate Anaheim in seven games, including a triple-overtime victory in Game 3 that stands as the longest contest in Chicago’s franchise history. In the final, the Blackhawks outlasted Tampa Bay in six games, with Keith taking the Conn Smythe Trophy as Chicago hoisted the Stanley Cup on home ice for the first time in 77 years.
7. St. Louis Blues 2018-19 (45-28-9, 16-10 in playoffs)
Talk about a turnaround. Halfway through the 2018-19 campaign, the Blues were in the running for one of the worst seasons of the decade. Then Jordan Binnington showed up and a few months later St. Louis won the Stanley Cup for the first time in its 52-year existence. Binnington joined the NHL’s last-place club in early January and posted a shutout victory in his debut en route to a 13-1-1 run in his first 15 appearances to spur the Blues up the standings. By the end of the regular season, Binnington was 24-5-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage, and the Blues had climbed to fifth in the West and 12th overall. As you probably know, St. Louis kept the “Gloria!” good times going in the playoffs. The Blues knocked off Western power Winnipeg in six games in Round 1, survived double overtime in Game 7 to eliminate Dallas in Round 2 and sent San Jose packing in six games in the West final. After falling behind two games to one against Boston, St. Louis won three of the next four contests – including 4-1 on the road in Game 7 – to end the half-century title drought. Ryan O’Reilly’s dominant two-play – he beat Patrice Bergeron at his own game in the final – earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy, and he also claimed the Selke Trophy in the regular season.
6. Boston Bruins 2010-11 (46-25-11 in regular season, 16-9 in playoffs)
The Bruins’ first Stanley Cup in 39 years won’t be forgotten anytime soon, and not just because of the riot that engulfed losing Vancouver after Game 7. The story starts in net, where Tim Thomas took the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie in the regular season and then one-upped himself in the playoffs with the Conn Smythe Trophy. Thomas went 35-11-9 from October to April, with a 2.00 GAA and a .938 save percentage that stands as the best single-season SP of the decade among goalies who played at least 40 games. Yet somehow Thomas was even better in the post-season, posting a 1.98 GAA and .940 save percentage en route to a 16-9 record and leading the Bruins to their first Cup since the days of Bobby Orr. Boston, who finished third in the East and seventh overall during the regular season, survived an epic seven-game series against rival Montreal in Round 1, with the Bruins winning all three games that went to overtime. Boston then exacted some revenge with a Round 2 sweep of Philadelphia, after the Flyers had rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to eliminate the Bruins in seven games the previous year. In the Eastern Conference final against Tampa Bay, Nathan Horton scored his second Game 7 series winner of the playoffs – he had also done so against Montreal – to send Boston to the Cup final. And then in perhaps the NHL’s most compelling final of the decade, the Bruins rallied from series deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to defeat the Canucks in seven games. This one had it all, plus tire-pumping and car fires.
5. Los Angeles Kings 2011-12 (40-27-15 in regular season, 16-4 in playoffs)
The Kings scraped into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the West, then played like a No. 1 seed that wouldn’t be denied. Los Angeles needed a 12-4-3 finish to move up into a post-season position, but they parlayed that late-season flourish into a show of playoff strength that has been rarely seen in the NHL. En route to winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, L.A. took a 3-0 series lead in all four playoff series. The Kings knocked off the Canucks in five games, swept the Blues, beat the (Phoenix) Coyotes in five games in the West final and downed New Jersey in a six-game Cup final. (They must’ve liked what they saw in Ilya Kovalchuk in that series, but that’s another story for another time.) Los Angeles was the league’s second-best defensive club in the regular season; the problem was, they were also the NHL’s second-worst offensive team. Jonathan Quick was excellent in the regular season (35-21-3, 1.95 GAA, .929 save percentage, 10 shutouts) and even better in the playoffs (16-4, 1.41 GAA, .946 save percentage, three shutouts) on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy. The 2013-14 Kings also won the Cup, giving L.A. two titles in a three-year span. They were better than the 2011-12 team in the regular season, finishing 10th in the overall NHL standings, but needed to work a lot harder in the playoffs, posting a 16-12 record. Their first three series all went seven games, and they made history in the first round by coming back from a 3-0 series deficit against San Jose. They were also the first team to win three Game 7s on the road. The 2013-14 Kings didn’t make the cut for this list, but feel free to swap them in for the 2011-12 team.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins 2016-17 (50-21-11 in regular season, 16-9 in playoffs)
The ’16-17 Pens became the NHL’s first back-to-back Cup champ in nearly 20 years, and they did it with superstar scoring. Pittsburgh finished second overall in the NHL standings, riding a league-best offense led by Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel. Crosby finished second in scoring in both the regular season (behind Connor McDavid) and playoffs (behind Malkin), while winning his second career Rocket Richard Trophy with 44 goals. The Penguins dispatched Columbus in five games in the first round before a seven-game showdown with (who else?) Washington, who had claimed the Presidents’ Trophy in the regular season. The Caps came back from a 3-1 series deficit only to fall short in the winner-take-all Game 7. The series marked the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings between the two teams that Pittsburgh came out on top. (Spoiler: Don’t feel bad for Alex Ovechkin & Co., their time is coming.) In the East final, Pittsburgh needed double overtime in Game 7 to eliminate the upstart Ottawa Senators, setting up a Cup battle with Nashville. The Penguins won in six games, including 6-0 and 2-0 victories in Games 5 and 6. Just like in the regular season, Pittsburgh was the NHL’s highest-scoring team in the playoffs, with Malkin, Crosby, Kessel and Jake Guentzel finishing 1-2-3-4 in post-season scoring. At the other end of the ice, Fleury was in net for the first two series – Murray was injured just prior to the start of Round 1 – before giving way to Murray midway through the East final. Both goalies played superbly in the post-season, and Murray ended up with his second Cup ring in the same season that he was named to the NHL’s all-rookie team. Not even Ken Dryden pulled off that feat. Crosby, meanwhile, became the first repeat winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy since Mario Lemieux in 1991 and ’92.
3. Washington Capitals 2017-18 (49-26-7 in regular season, 16-8 in playoffs)
They finally did it. Just when it looked like their Stanley Cup window was closing, the Capitals responded with a championship effort for the 44-year-old franchise’s first-ever NHL title. The first decade-plus of the Ovechkin era featured regular-season dominance that inevitably ended in playoff disappointment, usually in soul-crushing fashion. And early in the 2018 playoffs, it looked like it might happen again. The Caps started backup goalie Philipp Grubauer against Columbus in Round 1, only to lose the first two games at home. Washington wisely went back to incumbent starter Braden Holtby, and promptly won four straight to oust the Blue Jackets. That set up a second-round clash with (who else?) Pittsburgh, who had eliminated the Caps in each of the previous two post-seasons, not to mention pretty much every other time the two teams faced off in the playoffs. But this time it was Washington who came out on top, taking the series with a Game 6 OT victory and ending the Pens’ bid for three straight Cups in the process. It didn’t get any easier in the East final, as the Capitals had to come back from a 3-2 series deficit to defeat Tampa Bay in seven games. Holtby, who starred in the playoffs after an up-and-down regular season, shut out the Bolts in Games 6 and 7. In the Cup final, Washington won four straight games against expansion Vegas after losing the opener, with Holtby making ‘The Save’ late in Game 2 on the way to the Cup. Let the party begin.
2. Chicago Blackhawks 2012-13 (36-7-5 in regular season, 16-7 in playoffs)
It started with a streak, it ended with a Cup. The 2018-19 Lightning might have had the most points in a single regular season during the past decade (128), but it was the 2012-13 Blackhawks who posted the best points percentage (.802), largely due to a stunning streak that lasted throughout the first half of the lockout-shortened, 48-game campaign. Chicago set the NHL record for consecutive games with a point to start a season, going 21-0-3 before suffering their first regulation-time loss. The 2012-13 Blackhawks are the only team in the 2010s to win the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season. They were the second-highest scoring team and the best defensive club in the regular season, and kept the momentum going at both ends of the ice in the playoffs. After dumping Minnesota in five games in Round 1, the Blackhawks encountered their biggest obstacle of the season when they fell behind Detroit 3-1 in their second-round series. Three straight wins later, including a Game 7 victory in overtime, Chicago advanced to the West final against the defending Cup champs from L.A. The Hawks made short work of the Kings, taking the series in five games to move on to the Cup final. The heavyweight tilt against Boston lasted six games, with the Blackhawks completing an improbable rally late in Game 6, scoring twice in 17 seconds to claim their second NHL championship in four years. Patrick Kane, who was fifth in regular-season scoring, finished second in playoff scoring to take the Conn Smythe Trophy.
1. Vegas Golden Knights 2017-18 (51-24-7 in regular season, 13-7 in playoffs)
Pardon the hyperbole, but this was the best performance by an expansion team in the modern history of sport. Vegas didn’t win the Stanley Cup, but the first-year Golden Knights – or ‘Golden Misfits,’ as they came to be called – shocked the hockey world by winning, winning, and then winning some more. From GM George McPhee building a Cup contender from other teams’ castoffs, to coach Gerard Gallant expertly guiding the newly formed Knights, to Fleury serving as the both the team’s smiling face and sturdy backbone, to William Karlsson’s breakout 43-goal season to…well, basically everything that could go right for expansion Vegas, did go right for expansion Vegas. In the regular season, they finished first in their division and fifth in the overall NHL standings – and then were even better in the playoffs. Vegas swept Los Angeles in the first round, eliminated San Jose in six games in Round 2 and dispatched highly regarded Winnipeg in five games in the West final. The Golden Knights even won the opening game of the Cup final, before Ovechkin’s Capitals stormed back to win four straight and raise the silver chalice on Vegas ice. The Golden Knights couldn’t quite complete the fairytale ending, but that’s almost beside the point. The NHL has never seen a season like this one, and almost surely will never see anything like it ever again.
Over the next two weeks, The Hockey News will be wrapping up the 2010s with a look back at the best – and worst – of the decade. Find more here.
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