Challenging a Widely Accepted NHL Playoff Cliche

Everyone who calls themselves a hockey fan hears it at least once come late March or early April.

“You gotta be hot going into the playoffs.”

One of the most commonly used cliches in the hockey world is that a team has to be on a roll heading into the playoffs in order to win the Stanley Cup. On the surface it makes obvious sense. Teams want to be clicking at the right time heading into the playoffs. Confidence is a big part of hockey.

But does this cliche actually hold up to the truth?

For example, another common cliche in hockey says facing a team in the middle of a losing streak or one that has just been blown out in their previous game is “dangerous.” Broadcasters will often say that their team needs to be ready because they will be facing an extremely motivated opponent who just lost 8-0. In a way, this cliche contradicts the “needing to be hot going into the playoffs” adage. A team in a slump heading into the postseason could in fact be hungrier to start winning in the playoffs.

The recent Jekyll and Hyde San Jose Sharks squad got me thinking about these two somewhat contradictory cliches.

San Jose is currently in the midst of a five-game losing streak. Immediately prior through they had won an impressive six in a row despite being without Evander Kane and Erik Karlsson. Sharks fans active on the social medias were pumped after the six-game win streak. These days many of those same fans are singing a doom-n-gloom tune. A lot of them are convinced that the Sharks have to be playing well going into the postseason in order to have any sort of chance at winning the Stanley Cup.

This widely accepted notion was recently challenged by Sharks broadcaster Jamie Baker on air during a recent game. He mentioned recalling teams winning the Cup going in hot and others going in cold. What does the research say? Well, here are all the Stanley Cup winners since the turn of the millennium and their records in the final 10 regular season games.

2017-18 Washington Capitals: 8-2
2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins: 4-6 (3-2 in final five games, lost the last two.)
2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins: 8-2
2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks: 4-6 (lost four straight to end the season)
2013-14 Los Angeles Kings: 5-5 (lost four out of five to end the season)
2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks: 7-3 (lost three out of 5 to close season)
2011-12 Los Angeles Kings: 5-5 (lost five out of final 8 to close season)
2010-11 Boston Bruins: 7-3
2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks: 6-4 (won 6 out of 7 to close season)
2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins: 7-3 (won 3 straight to close season)
2007-08 Detroit Red Wings: 7-3 (won 3 of 4 to close season)
2006-07 Anaheim Ducks: 5-5 (won 4 out of 6 to close season)
2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes: 5-5 (lost 4 out of last 5 to close season)
2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning: 5-5 (won 4 out of 6 to close season)
2002-03 New Jersey Devils: 5-0-5
2001-02 Detroit Red Wings: 1-6-4 (one win in last 10 games)
2000-01 Colorado Avalanche: 6-3-1
1999-00 New Jersey Devils: 5-5

Given the fact that only three of these past 18 Cup winners held records under 500 in their final 10 games, one could spin the argument that yes, you need to be “hot” going into the playoffs.

On the flip side, one could argue that only half of the 18 most recent Cup winners finished the last 10 games with a record higher than 500 and 500 is far from being “hot” or “on a roll” so no, you don’t need to be “hot” heading into the postseason.

Now out of these recent Cup winners, how many were really hot versus really cold? The 2018 Capitals and 2016 Penguins both went 8-2 in their final 10, the 2003 Devils went undefeated in their final 10, and the 2010 Blackhawks won six out of their final seven. Those were the hottest finishes. On the cold side there is the 2001-02 Red Wings winning just one game out of their final 10, while the 2014 Kings lost four of their final five and the 2015 Blackhawks lost four straight to wrap up the campaign.

The overall research isn’t strong enough to completely debunk the cliche/myth about needing to enter the playoffs hot. Ergo, the cliche won’t be disappearing anytime soon. That said, hopefully fans reading this will come to realize that it’s not imperative to be on a huge roll heading into the postseason.

When it comes to playoff games, “momentum” doesn’t carry over from game to game in a series. Momentum has to be reestablished every night. As a Sharks follower, the example that comes to mind is last year’s series against the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas shutout San Jose in a 7-0 blowout in Game 1, but then lost Game 2. The Sharks won Game 4 by a 4-0 shutout, but then lost Game 5. This theory of momentum carrying over from game to game doesn’t really seem to hold much weight.

For the Sharks historically, we see records that mirror the most recent 18 cup winners when it comes to regular season finishes prior to their strong playoff runs. In their run to the Cup final in 2016, they finished the regular season 5-5 in their final 10 games. During their other three most successful playoff runs in 2004, 2010 and 2011 (all three trips to the Western Conference final), the Sharks went 8-2, 8-2 and 7-3. Generally speaking sure, the Sharks’ most successful runs were perhaps buoyed by strong regular season finishes. On the flip side, they went into the 2008 playoffs having won 16 of their final 20 games, only to go down 3-0 in a second round loss to the Dallas Stars. That Stars team won just four out of their final 14 regular season games. Go figure, right?

Every team would love to go into the playoffs on a winning streak. Based on the data though, it’s by no means absolutely imperative. It is far worse to be limping going into the playoffs than it is to be struggling. Being healthy is much more important than being on a roll. Personally, yours truly would rather his team be healthy and slumping heading into the playoffs than on a roll while limping into the postseason.