Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Washington Capitals -- The Joys (and Misconceptions) about the Season-Ending "Hot Streak"

Everybody's got the fever;
That is somethin' you all know.
Fever isn't such a new thing;
Fever started long ago

-- Peggy Lee

Intuitively, one would suppose that is it better to enter the post-season in any sport on a hot streak than on a cold one.  And as the National Hockey League is about to embark on its 86th Stanley Cup tournament, one wonders, is it true that those who go on hot playoff runs were teams that finished the regular season on a hot streak?

Since the 2004-2005 lockout, 19 different teams have occupied 28 slots in the conference finals in the Stanley Cup tournament.  And if you consider a team’s last ten regular season games as a suitable collection of games to assess the “fever” pitch at which the team closes the season, one finds that teams, by and large, play well heading into the playoffs, but none could be considered to have been on a hot streak of an extraordinary type.  Here…see for yourself all those teams (Stanley Cup finalists in bold; Stanley Cup winner in bold and shaded):

As a group, these 28 teams had an average ten-game record to close the season of 6-3-1.  Nothing bad about that, but nothing particularly noteworthy, either.  Even if you look at the teams that made the Stanley Cup finals, those teams averaged a 6-3-1 record to close the regular season.  Stanley Cup winners?  Yup…6-3-1 (accounting for rounding).

How did the teams do in points?  Were there any outliers who blew through the last ten games like a blow torch through tissue paper?  Nope.  None of the 28 teams finished with a ten-game winning streak.  None of them went 9-0-1.  None of them went 9-1-0.  Only one team – the San Jose Sharks in 2009-2010) – finished the season earning as many as 17 points in their last ten games.  The most common point level earned by a conference finalist in their last ten games was in the 14-15 point range, six teams earning 14 points in their last ten games and another six earning 15 points in their last ten games:

And even there, one sees no guarantee of success.  Of the seven Stanley Cup winners over this period, only two teams – the 2008 Detroit Red Wings and the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins – earned as many as 15 points.

Having laid all that out, it is clear you cannot be struggling heading into the post season.  Of the 28 teams making their respective conference finals over the last seven years, only four – the 2008 Dallas Stars, the 2009 Detroit Red Wings, and the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens – had fewer than 10 points (a .500 record by points earned).  Oddly, though, the 2009 Red Wings and the 2010 Flyers did make it to the Stanley Cup finals.   Still, while it is possible to get there having finished the regular season skating over a rough patch, it is not the way to bet.

A team does not have to be white hot going into the playoffs, but it does have to show a trend of winning consistently.  And that makes as much sense, because the Stanley Cup isn’t about getting to 16 wins as fast as possible, it is about getting to 16 wins by displaying consistency and resolve over a two month grind.  An 8-1-1 record for the Washington Capitals is nice as regular season-ending records goes, but it is no prerequisite for a deep playoff run. 

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