Thursday, December 22, 2011

Slow and Steady...But Good... Wins the Race

It goes without saying that a Stanley Cup champion has to be hot at the right time. Whatever else a team might do in the season, failing to be at one’s peak is not a recipe for winning 16 games over four grueling playoff rounds.

But what about the journey in getting there? Can a team “turn it on” late in the season and ride the wave to a championship? The evidence since the lockout suggests that fans should not bet on that scenario unfolding. We are not interested here in goals, saves, plus-minus, Corsi, Fenwick, or partridges in pear trees. This is a matter of wins and losses, plain and simple. Can a team that struggles to win early, win late?

We looked at this simply. For each of the Stanley Cup champions since the lockout we plotted the cumulative standings points earned and compared that to a 100-point pace trend line. We also plotted the Washington Capitals’ performance to date against those teams and that 100-point pace line. Here are the results:

(click pic for larger image)

First, the Champions. Almost without exception, these teams were winners from the get-go. Two teams – the 2006-2007 Anaheim Ducks and the 2007-2008 Detroit Red Wings – maintained a 100-plus point pace from the first game of the season through the last. It is probably no surprise that these teams also dominated their post-season opponents. Anaheim went 16-5 in their four series, and the Red Wings went 16-6 in theirs. Neither team faced a “Game 7” in any series.

Carolina took only seven games to get their “100-point pace footing” in 2005-2006. Over the last 76 games of that season the Hurricanes played at a 100-point plus pace and finished with 112 points. They were tested in the post-season, facing (and winning) two “Game 7’s.”

Things get a bit more interesting in the most recent three years. In 2008-2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins stumbled out of the gate. They were on less than a 100-point pace for much of their first dozen games. They righted themselves from Game 13 through Game 29 to jump over and stay over the 100-point threshold. Then, they hit a prolonged skid. From Game 29 through Game 57, the Penguins slipped from a 102-point pace all the way to an 85-point pace. An 85-point season would have meant a tenth-place finish for the Pens, based on final Eastern Conference standings. It was after Game 57 that Pittsburgh made a change behind the bench, relieving Michel Therrien of his duties and promoting Dan Bylsma from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In the last 25 games of the regular season the Penguins nearly made up all the lost ground in terms of playing at a 100-point pace. They finished the season with 99 points, but it bears noting that over those last 25 games they played at a 131-point pace (18-3-4). But it would not be quite as easy for them in the post-season. They faced two Games 7 – in the second round and in the Finals – winning both.

Chicago had a bit of a roller-coaster start to the 2009-2010 season, starting fast, but then slipping to a 97-point pace as late as Game 22 of the season. But they played like gangbusters over the middle third of the season and finished the last 60 games of the season playing at a better than 100-point pace throughout. They would not face a Game 7 in any of their four series on the way to a Stanley Cup.

Boston’s path to a Stanley Cup last year is somewhere between Pittsburgh’s and Chicago’s. They had the stumbling part of the Penguins in the first half – below a 100-point pace as late as Game 33 and otherwise flirting with it for much of those first 33 games, then dropping below it again as late as Game 57 – only without the coaching change. But like Chicago, they righted themselves and played at a consistent 100-105 point pace over the last 25 games of the season. They were a comparatively weak team, perhaps the weakest of the six post-lockout champions as the tournament began, at least based on regular season results. And it might have been reflected in the fact that the Bruins had to face three Games 7 in their four rounds to the Cup, beating Montreal, Tampa Bay, and finally Vancouver to raise the chalice.

As for the Caps, the prospects through 32 games do not look good. They are on a 90-point pace at the moment, which would have been good enough to qualify for the playoffs in only one of the six seasons since the lockout (90 points would have been seventh-best in the 2009-2010 season). They have been below the 100-point pace threshold for the last dozen games or so, although the spread between their point totals and the 100-point pace line isn’t widening any more.

Still, they are going to have to accelerate their climb and perhaps start it quickly. The only team of the six examined here that the Caps resemble, at least in terms of their points-earned profile, is the 2008-2009 Penguins. And, that team was the only one to change coaches in mid-season. None of the other five coaches won in the first year with their respective teams.

A team does not have to win wire-to-wire, and they do not have to cross the finish line first in terms of points earned in the regular season to win a Stanley Cup. Only Detroit among the six post-lockout Stanley Cup winners won a Presidents’ Trophy for most standings points in the regular season. But there are some common characteristics:

- Five of the six winners were division champions (only Pittsburgh failed to do so, finishing second in the Atlantic Division in 2008-2009). The Caps are currently second in the Southeast.

-- All of the champions won at least 45 games (three of them won more than 50). The Caps are on a pace to win 44 games.

-- For five of the champions, only one team had one game in which it was on a lower than 100-point pace after Game 33 of the season (Boston, a 99-point pace after Game 57). The Caps, through Game 32, are on a 90-point pace.

Most of all, to reiterate a point we made early on, these champions were for the most part winners from start to finish, based on the rate at which they earned standings points. The exception was the Pittsburgh Penguins, who faltered, made a change behind the bench, and demolished their opposition over the remainder of the regular season before grinding their way to a Stanley Cup. It is the path the Capitals have followed so far. It remains to see if they can stay on that path – accelerating their points pace – as the calendar turns over into a new year.

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