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NHL playoffs 2014: Does finishing strong really matter?

Teams win the Stanley Cup because they're good, not because they got hot at the right time.

Scott Olson

Hockey folks love to talk about momentum in all of its forms, whether it's something that happens in a single game (a game-changing hit or fight is usually pretty popular, even if there isn't really anything to suggest they really do change games) or a series of games ("getting hot at the right time").

Sometimes a little too much attention is paid to it the latter, and now that we are into the stretch run of the regular season, it's the time of year where that tends to happen.

Over the course of an 82-game season teams and players are going to go through a roller coaster of peaks and valleys. Great teams will have stretches where they lose and bad teams will put together winning streaks. Top scorers will fill the net in bunches and then go eight or more games without scoring a single goal. It's unavoidable.

When these stretches -- the good ones and the bad ones -- happen in the middle of the season they tend to get lost in the shuffle. When they happen at the beginning or the end when there isn't anything to bookend them, we can have a tendency to jump to some really harsh conclusions. This usually happen at the end of the regular season as the playoffs draw near and we try to find teams that are playing their best hockey and peaking at the right time.

Or, at the other end of the spectrum teams that are struggling at the wrong time.

The thing is, when you look at teams that win the Stanley Cup it doesn't really matter how many games they won or lost toward the end of the regular season, or whether they went in on a hot streak or a cold stream. Some teams have finished on a high note (the 2008-09 Penguins were 15-2-3 over their final 20 games), while others have played their worst hockey of the season (the Presidents' Trophy winning 2001-02 Red Wings won just one of their last 10 games and only eight of their final 20 before winning 16 of their 23 playoff games)

The table below takes a look at every Stanley Cup winner dating back to the 1995-96 season and breaks them down into three segments: Their 82-game point pace over the last 20 games of the regular season, their pace over the last 10 games of the regular season, and their point total for the season.

Season Team Last 20 PT Pace Last 10 Point Pace Total Points Season
2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks 114 123 131*
2011-12 Los Angeles Kings 110 106 95
2010-11 Boston Bruins 98 107 103
2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks 102 107 112
2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins 135 123 99
2007-08 Detroit Red Wings 106 123 115
2006-07 Anaheim Ducks 123 98 110
2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes 86 98 112
2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning 110 82 106
2002-03 New Jersey Devils 94 114 108
2001-02 Detroit Red Wings 82 49 116
2000-01 Colorado Avalanche 110 107 118
1999-00 New Jersey Devils 77 82 103
1998-99 Dallas Stars 98 98 114
1997-98 Detroit Red Wings 90 98 103
1996-97 Detroit Red Wings 82 90 94
1995-96 Colorado Avalanche 98 98 104

(*point pace based on what they did over a 48-game schedule)

Outside of a couple of noticeable outliers, none of these teams really played poorly down the stretch (though, the team that performed the worst, the '01-02 Red Wings, was probably one of the best teams over the past two decades) but there is a pretty wide range of performances here.

When these stretches happen in the middle of the season they get lost in the shuffle. When they happen at the end, we jump to some harsh conclusions.

Some played at the same level they played at most of the year. A few far exceeded it. Seven of the 17 teams shown actually played .500 or worse hockey over their last 10-20 games. It's not that those stretches of play didn't really matter, or that teams don't want to go into the playoffs playing well and feeling good about themselves, but that these stretches happen all the time throughout the season. We just notice them more at the beginning and end, and it doesn't really have any impact on whether or not they're able to win a championship.

That's not to say that there aren't some slumping teams in the NHL right now that don't have real cause for concern, or that just because a team like the Bruins has been steamrolling every team that gets in their way that they're guaranteed to make a return trip to the Finals. They might, but it's because they're simply a really good hockey team, not because they got hot at the end of the year. And being a really good hockey team is the only thing that matters.