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Down the stretch: Does it carry over to the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

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The Sharks didn’t exactly end on a high note. Does that matter now?

Apr 7, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; Minnesota Wild left wing Jordan Greenway (18) and San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon (4) fight for control of the puck during the third period at SAP Center at San Jose. Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the long haul of an 82-game regular season has ended, everyone’s attention has shifted to the playoffs. The match ups get broken down into minute details and every possible stat is brought up for and against every team. It is everyone’s way to fill the time for the break in-between and separate the Cup contenders from the pretenders. However, this hyper-aware mentality starts to kick in after the All-Star break and slowly ramps up until we get to the “home-stretch.”

Different people have different ideas of what to call the home stretch, but for the purposes of this article, we are going with the last 10 games. It is in this last collection of games that all the playoff spots start to get locked up and seeding takes shape. It is also a fertile narrative ground. How many time have you been listening to the radio or talking with friends and someone brings up “peaking at the right time” or “firing on all cylinders?” The flip side to these is the ever classic “limping into the playoffs” and “falling apart.”

But do these age-old adages actually hold any weight? Yes, ideally a team should be a well-oiled machine by the second season, but does that happen often, and in conjunction with that, is it even necessary?

All of these questions started coming to me when San Jose was mired in a four-game losing streak described as “a meltdown” and “terrible displays of hockey.” Just nevermind that as of only six short games ago, San Jose was a red-hot, toast-of-the-town machine on a season-high eight-game win streak.

The narrative told us that the four-game streak happened after the eight-game streak, so it must be more important. With this Jekyll and Hyde closing performance from the Sharks, let’s dive into past champions to see exactly how they fared as they closed out their seasons that ended in destiny.

I used a cutoff of the first lockout, so our champions list stretches all the way back to 2006. This gives us a decent enough sample size of 12 champions and these seasons look and play most similarly to where we are currently. There isn’t really a point in comparing the 80s Oilers to now, because the game has changed.

The categories I have broken down are records, divided up by different types of wins and losses, and goals for and against. There are definitely more things to look at and probably should be looked at, but this is ultimately a larger picture overview of how teams did. Sadly, I don’t have the info on when teams qualified for the playoffs, as that could play a factor in the late season transgressions. Nevertheless, here are our past 12 champs, and how they fared in the last 10 games of the season:

Stanley Cup Champions Last Ten Games

YEAR TEAM WINS LOSSES GOALS NOTES
YEAR TEAM WINS LOSSES GOALS NOTES
2006 Hurricanes 5-3-2 Reg: 2 OT: 1 SO: 2 Reg: 3 OT: 2 For: 31 Against: 38 Diff: -7 Closed season: 2L, W, 2L
2007 Ducks 5-3-2 Reg: 3 OT: 2 Reg: 3 SO: 2 For: 25 Against: 23 Diff: +2
2008 Red Wings 7-2-1 Reg: 6 OT: 1 Reg: 2 OT: 1 For: 31 Against: 23 Diff: +8 Had a 4 game win streak
2009 Penguins 7-2-1 Reg: 7 Reg: 2 OT: 1 For: 36 Against: 21 Diff: +15 Closed season: 3W, 2L, 3W
2010 Blackhawks 6-3-1 Reg: 5 SO: 1 Reg: 3 OT: 1 For: 35 Against: 30 Diff: +5 Closed season: 3L, 6W, L
2011 Bruins 6-3-1 Reg: 6 Reg: 3 SO: 1 For: 29 Against: 19 Diff: +10 Had 2 shutouts, including a 7-0 win, and were shutout once. Games 76-81 scored 3 goals every game.
2012 Kings 5-2-3 Reg: 4 SO: 1 Reg: 2 OT: 1 SO: 2 For: 27 Against: 21 Diff: +6 1-3 last 4 games. Had 3 shutouts and got shutout once.
2013 Blackhawks 7-2-1 Reg: 5 OT: 1 SO: 1 Reg: 2 SO: 1 For: 27 Against: 19 Diff: +8 Lockout shortened season. Had 2 shutouts.
2014 Kings 5-3-2 Reg: 4 SO: 1 Reg: 3 SO: 2 For: 29 Against: 23 Diff: +6 Had 2 shutouts and a 3 game losing streak.
2015 Blackhawks 4-6-0 Reg: 4 Reg: 6 For: 23 Against: 26 Diff: -3 Had a 4 game losing streak to close the season.
2016 Penguins 8-2-0 Reg: 5 OT: 2 SO: 1 Reg: 2 For: 41 Against: 24 Diff: +17 Had an 8 game win streak from games 74-81
2017 Penguins 4-4-2 Reg: 3 SO: 1 Reg: 4 SO: 2 For: 30 Against: 35 Diff: -5

If you compile that data into some broad categories, you end up with six teams with winning records, four teams who finished .500, and two losing records. By adding up the goal differential, it works out to Cup champions having a goal differential of a shade over plus five. If you take out the two absurd Penguins teams, that differential drops down to a nice round plus three. Various teams also went on losing streaks and the Blackhawks straight up lost their last four games. It also becomes clear the ’06 Hurricanes were truly the accidental champions.

How does all of this relate to San Jose? Well, in 2018 this was the Sharks closing stretch:

Sharks Final Ten Games

YEAR TEAM WINS LOSSES GOALS NOTES
YEAR TEAM WINS LOSSES GOALS NOTES
2018 Sharks 5-4-1 Reg: 3 OT: 1 SO: 1 Reg: 4 OT: 1 For: 33 Against: 30 Diff: +3 Closed season: 4L,W, L. Also finished up an 8-game win streak that started before the stretch.

So as you can see, the Sharks stack up nicely in a couple of different ranges. They hit the goal differential of plus three smack on. They also finished the season .500, which four of the last 12 champions also did. The optics of what San Jose did down the stretch were definitely not ideal, but then again, this has happened to contenders quite often.

So back to the question: do the old adages hold up? Not really. Outside of the 2016 Penguins, who were a juggernaut, and a couple seven-win teams, not a lot of other teams were blowing away the field. I asked if the well-oiled machine theory happened often, and it happened just four times. I also posited that is this a necessary precursor to playoff success. That answer is definitively no, with half the teams checking in at even records or worse before their playoff runs.

With that all in mind, San Jose definitely has work to do, but the calls about a collapse and an early playoff run seem overblown. If they had done this exact same stretch in January, nobody would really care. The Sharks however, decided to drop it on us in games 74-82, but with playoffs on the horizon, they probably didn’t care. Neither should you.