Momentum And The Stanley Cup

Jonathan Willis
April 04 2009 11:10AM

2002-cup-win There’s an idea floating around out there that a team needs to be hot going into the playoffs. That idea is totally and completely wrong. What I have here is a chart of the last ten Stanley Cup champions. Using Hockey-Reference.com, I went back and reviewed their respective records over the final ten games of the season. Than I calculated the winning percentage and compared it to their winning percentage on the season. The final column is the difference:

Team | WN% - Last 10 | WN%-Season | Difference 1997-98 Red Wings | 60% | 54% | +6% 2007-08 Red Wings| 70% | 66% | +4% 1998-99 Stars | 60% | 62% | -2% 2000-01 Avalanche | 60% | 63% | -3% 1999-00 Devils | 50% | 55% | -5% 2003-04 Lightning | 50% | 56% | -6% 2006-07 Ducks | 50% | 59% | -9% 2005-06 Hurricanes | 50% | 63% | -13% 2002-03 Devils | 40% | 56% | -16% 2001-02 Red Wings | 10% | 62% | -52% Average | 50% | 58% | -8%

Teams that go on to win the Stanley Cup are generally very good in the regular season; no team had a lower number than 54% over that span, and the average was 58% (48 wins on the season). However, over the final ten games of the season the average squad won only five of them, meaning that their winning percentage dropped an astonishing 8% on average over those final ten games.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think this shows rather definitively that expressions like “clicking at the right time” are in fact not based in reality – momentum entering the playoffs means absolutely nothing when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup.

Oh, and that picture above? That’s the presentation of the Stanley Cup in 2002; the Detroit Red Wings won it despite one win in their final ten games.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Jon K
April 04 2009, 11:48AM
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What might be more important and albeit more difficult to find, is how often these teams rested crucial players down the stretch. The rest and time to heal nagging injuries might be the difference between teams in a long and protracted second season.

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#2 nickxero
April 04 2009, 11:58AM
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Good post. Momentum is such an abstract detail, but it's not hard to see how top-tiered teams tend to not dominate near season's end. If you've clinched your division, you rest your top forwards, get some prospects called up to get some experience against teams that are going to be playing hard against you... that's the best thing to do.

What about the underdogs though? In the 05-06 run, do you think squeaking into the playoffs near the end gave the Oilers momentum to pass Detroit?

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#3 Jonathan Willis
April 04 2009, 12:03PM
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@ nickxero:

At some point in the future I'm going to take every post-lockout team and compare their record over the final ten with their playoff results.

I haven't done it all yet, but things look pretty random so far.

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#4 David S
April 04 2009, 12:19PM
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Jonathnan, I like your stuff but sometimes I wonder if you put a set of numbers together to invoke controversy. It's not momentum being discussed here as much as confidence.

The teams you mentioned above were strong enough to discount the final ten games of the season as a preparatory phase to their cup runs. They rested key guys and slid into the post season because they had the confidence in their team game beforehand. I mean, when you're at the top of the conference, what's to play for? Generally speaking, most contending teams full of the veterans you need to go the distance would probably not be able to sustain a torrid pace and still be able to maintain top form in the finals.

The playoffs are a mental and physical grind. Those teams that pace themselves going in will have made best use of their assets and give themselves the best chance win. The smart coach knows that playing well when it counts is what it's all about. Fans on the other hand would have top teams playing their guts out all the time. Why should they?

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#5 canucklehead
April 04 2009, 12:46PM
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Jonathan:

How would you reconcile your article with the fact that only twice since 1990, the team with the shortest break going into the Stanley Cup finals - that played the longer series in the Conference Finals - did not win the cup. The exceptions were the 96 Panthers, losing to the Avalance after going the full seven games against Pittsburgh, and the 93 Kings, again going the full seven games only to lose to the Canadiens.

It would seem that the longer break causes teams to lose momentum, and subsequently lose to the teams that just get to keep trucking along. See also: Hemsky, Ales, and the All-Star break.

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#6 Jon
April 04 2009, 01:15PM
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There's a very long time frame between the last 10 games of the regular season and winning the Stanley Cup. I don't know why anyone would expect to see a significant correlation there.

One thing that might be more interesting to look at, in my opinion at least, is the First Round success of teams related to their winning percentage in the Last 10 games of the regular season. Do the underdogs have a better chance at an upset if they're hot in the last 10 games? Are the favorites more prone to be upset if they're cold in the last 10 games?

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#7 Jonathan Willis
April 04 2009, 01:21PM
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Jon wrote:

There’s a very long time frame between the last 10 games of the regular season and winning the Stanley Cup. I don’t know why anyone would expect to see a significant correlation there.

Neither do I, yet somehow they do.

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#8 jk
April 04 2009, 02:16PM
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...wow.

highly scientific and exactly the kind of journalistic fudgery that say .... Mark Spector would delight in reporting .... or, maybe that other wunderkind of subjective statistics, David Staples.

.... but just maybe(?) ...wait a minute(!) .... was this asinine post just some misdirection to take our minds off of the national humiliation being played out at Rexall?

if so .... well done Willis, well done.

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#9 David S
April 04 2009, 02:20PM
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^ WTF?

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#10 Peter Pan
April 04 2009, 02:35PM
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Momentum is built during the playoffs, not over the final 10 meaningless games for most of these clubs.

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#11 Jonathan Willis
April 04 2009, 05:33PM
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@ jk: @ Peter Pan: @ David S:

I said exactly what I meant - that record going into the playoffs seems to have no connection to winning the Stanley Cup.

I'm not the one who labelled record down the stretch as "momentum" initially; I used that word because I've heard it described as such by journalists. If you'd like, I can dig up links.

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