Some of you may have already heard this fun fact already: Since the 1987 Stanley Cup Playoffs, no NHL team has advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals having already played more than 18 games in the preceding three rounds and won the Stanley Cup. The reason 1987 is important is because before the 1986-87 season, the opening round of the playoffs was a best-of-five affair.
In 1987 it changed to a best-of-seven throughout the post-season. This allowed for more demanding post-season and allowed teams to compete more in the opening round of the divisional playoffs, building stronger rivalries. After the Jump I'll take a look at this statistic and see how it applies to this season's conference finalists.
18 games is the magic number and it has held for 25 years now. In fact, it wasn't until the 1991 Penguins set that bar that anyone had even managed that. The '85 Flyers took 19 games to win the Wales Conference and the '88 Bruins took 18 games to do so, but both teams would fall to the dominating Oilers of the mid-eighties The Penguins feat would only be repeated five more times in the following two decades. Here are the teams that played 18 games to win their conference and then won the Stanley Cup:
That is not a very common occurrence. More often than not, 18 games results in a loss. Here, I've broken down the success of the Stanley Cup Finalists based on games played in the conference playoffs:
14 Games Played = 1-4
15 Games Played = 2-4
16 Games Played = 9-2
17 Games Played = 6-6
18 Games Played = 6-5
19 Games Played = 0-3
It looks like 16 is the sweet spot. The combined 3-8 record of teams that only play 14 or 15 games before the finals could be indicative of the theory that too much time off in-between the conference finals and the cup finals actually hurts a team. One of those teams was the 2003 Anaheim Ducks, who only played 14 games en route to their 7-game series loss to the Devils in the Cup Finals.
16, 17 and 18 are the most common totals for teams that advance. The Devils, currently having played 16 games, would do well to wrap-up this series by winning games five and six if they don't want to have to defy history to win the Stanley Cup. Going to a game seven means the Devils will have played 19 games which would put them in a class with the '87 Flyers, '93 Kings and '04 Flames. The Flyers and Flames were able to push seven-games in their cup finals but the Kings lost in five to the Canadiens in 1993.
The Rangers are already looking to crush this trend by becoming the first team to play more than 19 games and win their conference. They'll need to play at least 20 games to do so which puts them in uncharted territory. The Phoenix Coyotes, if they can manage the upset, will have played 18 games, giving them a decent chance if they play a Devils team that also has 18 games behind them (based on this trend).
The Kings are at the opposite end of the spectrum. On Sunday they actually blew an opportunity to become the first team since the 1985 Oilers to advance to the cup finals having only played 13 games in the conference playoffs. They would have been the only team to do so since the format change in 1987. Now they'll look to advance with 14 games played, an impressive feat that I've already mentioned is more often than not detrimental to the team instead of beneficial.
So what to make of all this? How much pressure is there on the Devils to win their series in 18 games to avoid the fatigue that comes with having played 19 games of gritty playoff hockey? How much will the possibility of playing 20 or more games impact the Rangers? Can the Kings buck the trend of failure among teams with long layoffs before the finals and have success despite their long rest? History seems to be against everyone this season. I'm hesitant to say the Kings should let their series go to six games just to avoid the layover but history would support that sentiment.
Either way we should get an exciting finals this year!