Monday, February 11, 2013

36 Games Left -- The Mountain Ahead

It isn't the mountain ahead that wears you out; 
it's the grain of sand in your shoe.

-- Robert W. Service

Through 12 games of the 2013 National Hockey League season the Washington Capitals found themselves with what seemed like a desert’s worth of sand in their shoes with 36 games left to play.  As the NHL headed into its Monday schedule, the Capitals found themselves five points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings.  To that sentence, there are a lot of folks who would add the word, “only.”  As in, “the Washington Capitals find themselves only five points out of eighth place…”

Our questions for today are these.  Should the word “only” be considered a valid addition to that sentence?  With 36 games left, is it reasonable to assume that a five-point deficit in the standings is a manageable one?  Is this too high a mountain to scale with too little time left to do it?

Let’s put it this way.  It is not going to be an easy task to make the playoffs.  If you look at the seven seasons that followed The Lost Season of 2004-2005, the task comes into focus.  We took a look at the Eastern Conference standings with 36 games remaining for each team (points only, not automatic seeding for division leaders) to see who climbed into the top eight in the conference and how far they climbed to get there.  Let’s take the seasons in order:


In the 2005-2006 season, here were the Eastern Conference standings with 36 games left to play in the regular season.  Teams that would make the playoffs are shaded in green:

With 36 games left in the regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens occupied ninth and tenth place, respectively, in the Eastern Conference standings.  The Lightning might have been excused for their position, to a point.  They were the defending (one cancelled season removed) Stanley Cup champion that sleepwalked through their first 46 games of the 2005-2006 season with a 23-20-3 record. 

But starting with their 6-3 win over Dallas in Game 47, the Lightning went on a 9-2-1 run over their next dozen games to climb into sixth place in the East.  Even though the Lightning would go on to finish their last 24 games with an 11-11-2 record, it was their ability to put together a strong record over a significant stretch of games that catapulted them into the top eight. 

Then there were the Montreal Canadiens.  The Habs were tenth in the East after 46 games, only two points out of the top-eight.  Their 21-19-6 record looked even in the win-loss respect, but the Canadiens were all over the place in getting there.  They had three streaks of at least three wins in length and three losing streaks of at least three games.  Montreal tightened up, avoiding winning or losing streaks of such length, but were still mired in ninth place after a 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders on March 21st, one point behind the Atlanta Thrashers for eighth place.

The Canadiens, however, took a page from the Tampa Bay script and embarked on a season end run that wrapped up with a 10-4-0 record in their last 14 games.  In that run it would not be until their last two games of the season that the Canadiens would lose consecutive games. 

Here is a comparison of where both teams started their last 36 games and where they finished…


There were once more two teams finding themselves on the outside looking in with 36 games left that managed to leap-frog into the top eight in the East by year’s end.  The Tampa Bay Lightning made a repeat appearance in this scenario, sitting in tenth place in the East after 46 games, two points out of the top eight.  Their 36-game finish looked a lot like their finish in 2005-2006.  In their first 16 games to start their 36-game finish the Lightning went 12-3-1.  That 16-game run allowed Tampa Bay to jump all the way to fifth in the East (they owned the top spot in the Southeast Division at that point) by February 22nd.  Even with a 9-9-2 finish in their last 20 games the Lightning had enough to finish seventh in the East (second to Atlanta in the Southeast).

The New York Islanders were in 12th place in the East after 46 games, four points outside the top eight.  They took a somewhat different path to playoff eligibility.  The Islanders struggled to get a foothold in the last 36 games, but what they did do was earn points.  They did not lose often in regulation.  In their first ten games to start the 36-game home stretch the Islanders won only five times, but they lost in regulation only once.  That 5-1-4 record at least allowed the Islanders to stop the bleeding in their season, leaving them two points out of eight place with 26 games to play.  Those last 26 games were played to a 14-8-4 record (a 101-point pace over 82 games), good enough for the  Islanders to finish in eighth place.  Oh, and as a side bar to that happy ending, New York finished in eighth place by one point over Toronto.  Each team won 40 games, but the Islanders lost one more game in extra time – earning the extra standings point – than did the Maple Leafs.  That 5-1-4 record came in handy to start the 36-game home stretch.

Here is the comparison between these teams in the home stretch…


Two teams making the leap from also-ran to playoff eligibility was a theme continued in 2007-2008. The New York Rangers were one of those teams, sitting in ninth place in the East and one point out of the top eight with 36 games to go.  What the Rangers did to open their home stretch was similar to what the Islanders were able to do in starting their home stretch the previous season – they avoided losing in regulation.  In their first 13 games of the home stretch the Rangers went 7-4-2 with one of the wins coming in extra time in addition to the two losses.  That served as a springboard to a 14-3-6 rush to the end that propelled the Rangers into fifth place in the East at season’s close.

The other team to make the jump into the top eight was the Washington Capitals.  Fans will remember that the Caps were dead last in the East when Bruce Boudreau relieved Glen Hanlon as head coach.  But what they might not remember was that the Caps had climbed to within three points of a playoff spot at the 46-game mark.  It was a long hard climb to get that far, since they had not yet reached the .500 mark since having last occupied that mark in Game 6 back in October.  In fact, even the start of their 36-game stretch run was not especially impressive.  The were 8-6-3 to open the home stretch and were still in 11th place (four points) out of a playoff spot with 19 games to go.  However, Washington closed like a freight train, going 15-4-0 over their last 19 games to end the season and finish first in the Southeast Division (tied with Ottawa and Boston for sixth in points).

Here are the Rangers’ and Capitals’ “when and then” records in the home stretch…


In 2008-2009 it was two teams once more moving from also-ran to playoff status in the last 36 games.  They had similar records going in and similar records going out, and they got there in similar ways.  The Carolina Hurricanes were 21-20-5, good for tenth place after 46 games.  By the time the Hurricanes reached this point they had replaced coaches, bringing Paul Maurice in relief of Peter Laviolette.  But by this point in the season they were only 9-9-3 under Maurice and in the midst of a five-game losing streak that would be their longest of the year.  However, the Hurricanes opened their 36-game sprint to the finish with six wins in their first eight games.  That established momentum for Carolina, and they went on to post a 24-10-2 mark in those last 36 games to finish sixth in the East.

The Pittsburgh Penguins looked much like the Hurricanes, differing only in the timing of making a change behind the bench.  Through 46 games the Penguins were 22-20-4 and languishing in ninth place in the East, an unexpected position for a team that went to the Stanley Cup finals the previous season and that still boasted arguably the most talented lineup in the league.  They continued to struggle, even as they started the last 36-game stretch of the season, going 6-5-2 in their first 13 games of the home stretch.  It was then that they made a coaching change, following a 3-2 Gimmick loss to the Islanders on February 16th.  Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien behind the Pittsburgh bench, and the Pens were off.  Pittsburgh finished their last 24 games on an 18-3-3 run, ending the regular season in fourth place in the East before going on to win the Stanley Cup.

Here is how the two teams began and ended their 36-game run…


Only one team would leap into the top eight over the last 36 games in the 2009-2010 season.  The Montreal Canadiens started the 36-game home stretch with a 22-21-3 record, tenth in the Eastern Conference.  They promptly fell flat to start their run, going 3-4-3 over a ten-game stretch.  Oddly enough, they actually rose in the standings, settling in a tie with Atlanta for seventh in the East, one point ahead of the New York Rangers, who were going 2-7-1 over the same ten-game stretch to drop out of the top-eight.  Once given the opportunity, Montreal held on, going 14-8-4 over their last 26 games (a 101-point pace over 82 games) to finish eighth, one point ahead of those Rangers.


For the second straight year, only one team could make the jump over the last 36 games from the bottom seven to the top eight in the East.  The Buffalo Sabres were 21-20-5 at the 46-game mark, tenth in the Eastern Conference.  By this time, though, they were already showing signs of turning their season around.  After dropping four of five in late December, Buffalo went 7-2-1 over a ten-game span to close the first 46 game of the 2010-2011 season in 11th place, four points out of eighth.  They would then open the home stretch with a 6-2-1 record in their first nine games.  It was not enough to get the Sabres into the top eight, but it did inch them closer – two points out in ninth place.  At that point the Sabres went on a three-game losing streak, but it would be the last time in the 2010-2011 season that they would endure consecutive losses.  Buffalo finished the last 24 games 16-4-4 to end the season in seventh place in the conference.


This would be the only season since the 2004-2005 lockout that no team came in from the cold to make the playoffs over their last 36 games.  The eight teams that were playoff eligible after 46 games were the same eight teams that finished in the top-eight at the end of the season, the only changes being a matter of seeding.

In the end, what does this say about the Capitals’ chances to make up five points and seven places in the standings over their last 36 games to reach the top eight in the Eastern Conference?  Well, here is what we can say about the teams that did make the grade since the 2004-2005 lockout…

  • No team lower than 12th in the East with 36 games to play made the jump into the top eight by season’s end.  This was accomplished twice – by the Islanders in 2006-2007 and by the Capitals in 2007-2008.
  • The biggest deficit any team overcame over their last 36 games to make the playoffs was four points.  This was accomplished twice – by those 2006-2007 Islanders and by the 2010-2011 Buffalo Sabres.
  • Only one team that made the jump from also-ran to playoff eligibility was below .500 in terms of standings points earned with 36 games left, the Caps in the 2007-2008 season (45 points in 46 games).  The abbreviated season in 2012-2013 makes this comparison difficult, but the point here is that the teams demonstrated an ability to play competitive hockey, even if they were on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
  • Of the ten teams to climb into playoff eligibility in their last 36 games, eight won at least 20 of their last 36 games.
  • Of the ten teams succeeding in climbing into the top eight, eight of them had multiple winning streaks of at least three games in their last 36-game stretch.  Five teams had winning streaks of at least six games in their home stretch.
  • Only once did any of the ten teams experience as much as a four-game losing streak in their last 36 games.  The New York Islanders had an 0-3-1 stretch in mid-March on their way to an eighth-place finish in the 2006-2007 season.
  • Only Montreal in the 2009-2010 season had more streaks of three or more losses than they had of three or more wins in the last 36 games.  And even here the Canadiens mitigated the effects by earning standings points in four of five of those losing streaks.

What all of this might confirm in your mind is that the Caps need to stop losing, or at least losing chunks of games on their schedule.  The win against Florida on Saturday is a start, but they have to win games consistently and in bunches.  They probably cannot afford another extended (three or more game) losing streak unless they manage to earn standings points in doing so.  They almost certainly need one extended run in which they post a much greater than .500 record in terms of standings points earned.

What is working against them is that even though it seems they are “only” five points out of a playoff spot, the history of teams that make the leap into playoff eligibility since the 2004-2005 lockout is such that the Caps are already on the wrong side of the largest deficit to date that a team made up with 36 games left.  Add to that the fact that no team lower than 12th with 36 games left could climb into that top eight, and the task appears ever more daunting.  The fact that the remaining schedule is entirely intra-conference might result in more volatility in the standings, but it remains a tall order.

None of this is to say that the Caps cannot do what seems next to impossible, given the hole they dug for themselves in the first 12 games of the season, but it would not be the way to bet.

It sure would make a great story, though.