For NHL players, playoff hockey comes down to one magic number: 16. 16 wins gets your name on the Stanley Cup and a place in hockey history.
Since the 2004-05 lockout, eight teams have competed in the Stanley Cup final – Detroit (twice), Pittsburgh (twice), Anaheim, Ottawa, Carolina and Edmonton. A close examination of these teams provides us with some possible insight into what to expect over the next couple of months.
Lesson #1 – You can’t win the Cup if you don’t score.
Every Cup finalist has been a top-ten scoring team during the regular season, except Edmonton, who still managed 3.04 goals per game in 2005-06 (a rate that would have put them 5th overall this year).
The 10 top-scoring teams in 2009-10 are: Washington, Vancouver, Chicago, San Jose, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Buffalo.
Lesson #1A – You can’t win the Cup if you don’t score 5-on-5.
7 of the 8 Cup final teams since the lockout have been top-10 in regular season, 5-on-5 scoring. Once again, Edmonton is the odd duck, reinforcing just how magical a playoff run they had back in 2005-06.
The 10 top 5-on-5 scoring teams in 2009-10 are: Washington, Vancouver, San Jose, Chicago, Phoenix, Buffalo, New Jersey, Colorado, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
Lesson #2 – Regular season goaltending excellence doesn’t mean much.
If goaltending excellence is defined by a high save-percentage, it’s important to note the only goalie who finished in the top-5 in save percentage during the regular season to appear in a Cup finals since the lockout was Marc-Andre Fleury in 2007-08.
The 5 goalies with the highest save percentages in 2009-10 are: Tukka Rask (Boston); Ryan Miller (Buffalo); Tomas Vokoun (Florida); Jaroslav Halak (Montreal); and Jimmy Howard (Detroit).
Lesson #3 – If you’re playing well in March/April, you’re well on your way to glory… except if it’s an Olympic year.
In their Cup-winning seasons, Pittsburgh (2008-09), Detroit (2007-08), Anaheim (2006-07) were dominant down the stretch. However, the last time the Olympics were played (during the 2005-06 season), Carolina was barely a .500 hockey club in March/April, while Edmonton played sub .500 hockey during the same period. Remember, Olympic hockey adds a significant fatigue factor to an NHL roster. Carolina and Edmonton both made the finals with just three Olympians on the roster.
The 2009-10 playoff teams with three-or-less Olympians: Buffalo, Colorado, Phoenix
So, what does all this history mean?
It means Washington and Pittsburgh remain strong Cup contenders.
It means San Jose (8 Olympians), Detroit (7), Vancouver (7), Chicago (6), Montreal (6) and New Jersey (6) could all fall victim to the Olympic hangover.
It means Buffalo, Colorado and Los Angeles, who each emerged relatively unscathed from the Olympics, also have the scoring to possibly surprise this spring.