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Do late-season streaks and slumps predict playoff results?

Matt Larkin
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Do late-season streaks and slumps predict playoff results?

Patrick Kane and Ryan Suter. Image by: Getty Images

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Do late-season streaks and slumps predict playoff results?

Matt Larkin
By:

We wring our hands over sudden March slumps and pump our fists over late-season charges. But do they accurately forecast how teams will fare in the post-season?

Shock and awe! The Minnesota Wild have lost five straight games. Write them off for dead.

Shock and awe! The Chicago Blackhawks have won five straight games. Just hand them the Stanley Cup already.

Shock and awe! The Washington Capitals lost four straight earlier this month. Looks like they’ll fall short of mammoth expectations again.

Shock and awe! The Calgary Flames won 11 straight games. Are they everyone’s favorite darkhorse contender now?

I’m exaggerating these mock headlines, of course, but it fascinates me how much recency bias we see in stories and prognostications during the NHL’s stretch run every year. A November losing streak often gets shrugged off, but it’s catastrophic if it happens in March or April. Wild coach Bruce Boudreau could hardly stomach speaking to the media after his team’s fifth straight defeat Sunday.

Is there any actual validity to the idea peaking late makes you a Stanley Cup frontrunner, or that stumbling in the season’s final leg dooms you? Looking at how playoff-bound teams finished in their final 10 games, Let’s see if the numbers in the salary cap era support that popular theory.
 

2005-06

Hottest team: The New Jersey Devils closed out the year, um, possessed, rattling off 11 straight victories. They swept the New York Rangers in Round 1 before the Carolina Hurricanes shoved the Devils aside in five games in Round 2.

Coldest team: The New York Rangers closed the year with five straight defeats. Make that nine straight. The streak bled right into that first-round sweep.

Cup winner: Carolina went 5-3-2 over its final 10 regular season games. Not bad but nothing special.
 

2006-07

Hottest team: The Dallas Stars had seven wins and one regulation defeat in 10 games leading up to the post-season…then fell to the Vancouver Canucks in seven games in the first round.

Coldest team: The Calgary Flames ended their season with four straight defeats before Detroit eliminated them in six games in Round 1.

Cup winner: The Anaheim Ducks, like the Hurricanes before them, ended the regular season 5-3-2.
 

2007-08

Hottest team: The Washington Capitals, led by new coach Bruce Boudreau, notched seven straight wins to make their first playoffs in the Alex Ovechkin era. The Flyers offed them in overtime of Game 7 in Round 1.

Coldest team: Ottawa and Dallas lost seven of 10. The Sens got swept in Round 1, but Dallas reached the Western Conference final.

Cup winner: The Detroit Red Wings went 7-2-1 heading into the playoffs, riding some nice momentum, though they finished with seven points more than any other team, so it’s not like they needed a streak to affirm their status as a contender.
 

2008-09

Hottest team: The St. Louis Blues finished 8-1-1 to squeak into the Big Dance as a low seed, then promptly got swept by Vancouver.

Coldest team: Detroit dropped three straight and seven of 10…then got to Game 7 of the Cup final.

Cup winner: Pittsburgh won seven of 10 and three straight to end the year strongly.
 

2009-10

Hottest team: Detroit and San Jose went 8-1-1. The Sharks eliminated the Wings in Round 2 but got swept by Chicago in the Western Conference final.

Coldest team: The Canadiens and Avalanche lost seven of their final 10 games. Montreal rode piping-hot goalie Jaroslav Halak to the Eastern Conference final. Colorado bowed out in Round 1.

Cup winner: The Blackhawks closed the season a rock-solid 6-3-1.
 

2010-11

Hottest team: Buffalo went 8-1-1 down the stretch. Pittsburgh went 8-2-0. Neither team escaped the first round.

Coldest team: Philadelphia closed the year 3-4-3, had to face sizzling Buffalo in Round 1, and the Flyers won. Go figure. They got swept the next round by Boston, however.

Cup winner: The Bruins finished 6-3-1. A trend sure seems to be forming with these champion teams.
 

2011-12

Hottest team: The Devils ended the season with six straight victories, emerged as a popular sleeper and went all the way to the Cup final.

Coldest team: Florida limped its way to the Southeast Division crown at 2-3-5, then got knocked out by the Devils in Round 1.

Cup winner: L.A. was so-so at 5-2-3 in its final 10 games before becoming the first No. 8 seed to win it all.
 

2012-13

Hottest team: Washington finished 8-1-1, and the nice run went to waste with a first-round exit against the nemesis New York Rangers.

Coldest team: Boston went 3-5-2 and was minutes away from a Round-1 defeat against the Leafs before rallying, winning Game 7 and going all the way to Game 6 of the Cup final.

Cup winner: Chicago went 7-2-1 over its final 10.
 

2013-14

Hottest team: Tampa Bay and Anaheim each won seven of 10 and ended their seasons with four-game winning streaks. The Bolts, minus injured starting goalie Ben Bishop, dropped Round 1 to Montreal, while the Ducks bowed out in Round 2 versus L.A.

Coldest team: Boy, did the Blues ever telegraph their fall from grace, dropping six straight games to end the year before waving their season bye-bye in Round 1 versus the Hawks.

Cup winner: The Kings went 5-3-2. Still no sign of a weak finish from any of our Cup winners.
 

2014-15

Hottest team: Andrew Hammond’s amazing goalie heroics keyed a remarkable late-season push by the Senators. He went 20-1-2 and the Sens ended the year 6-2-2 as Craig Anderson got healthy. They fell to Montreal in Round 1.

Coldest team: Chicago closed out with four consecutive defeats…

Cup winner: …and won the Cup. They had no Patrick Kane in the lineup for that final regular season stretch, however.
 

2015-16

Hottest team: The Dallas Stars won the Central Division on the strength of an 8-2-0 finish. They lost to St. Louis in Game 7 of Round 2.

Coldest team: Minnesota backed into the playoffs with five straight defeats before falling to Dallas in six games in Round 1.

Cup winner: The Penguins joined Dallas as winners of eight of their final 10.
 

FINDINGS

1. Ten of the salary cap era’s 11 Cup champs won at least five of their final 10 games entering the post-season. The only team that didn’t, the 2014-15 Blackhawks, won four and did so with their star scorer on the shelf with a broken clavicle. None of the 11 champions made headlines as the league’s hottest team in that home stretch, but each played decent hockey entering the Big Dance. None of the Cup winners closed the regular season on a cold streak except the 2015 Hawks, and they got Kane back for Game 1 of the playoffs.

2.  Many of the league’s hottest teams saw no correlation between their finishes and playoff success. An overwhelming number of them got knocked out as early as Round 1. One potential reason: several of those teams, like the 2007-08 Caps and the 2014-15 Sens, had to get piping hot just to make the playoffs. They may have just run out of gas or suffered from Happy to Be There syndrome.

3. It’s a mixed bag with the coldest teams. Many of them rallied to go on decent playoff runs. Several of them reached the final. The results are varied enough that it’s tough to see a genuine correlation between losing streaks and playoff success or failure. Still, barring injuries, recent history suggests your team won’t win the Cup if it doesn’t play at least decent hockey to close out its regular season. There does seem to be a correlation between losing streaks and failing to win it all.

The cross-section is largely circumstantial, of course. If you want a true correlation, pop open your Corsi pages. The stat goes as far back as 2007-08, and the Cup champs entered the playoffs ranked first, 17th, first, 10th, first, second, first, fifth and third in score, zone and venue-adjusted Corsi. Look to the analytics, then, if you want to predict which streaking teams are true threats, which slumping teams should be worried and which should be fine.

The Corsi stats suggest we shouldn’t worry about the Caps, who rank third this season, and that teams should fear the Flames, who rank seventh. We also shouldn’t assume Chicago runs the table in the playoffs because, unlike their recent championship teams, this one ranks below average in possession. And Boudreau may have legit reason to fret over his Wild given the fact they rate subpar in possession.

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Do late-season streaks and slumps predict playoff results?