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What Makes A Winner In The NHL Playoffs?

What makes a team good enough to raise the Cup?
Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

One of hockey’s biggest clichés is that in order to win the Stanley Cup, a team must have a great power play, great penalty kill, excellent goaltending, and team toughness. To prove/disprove this theory I went back and looked at the past 15 Stanley Cup champions to see where each champion ranked as far as regular-season rankings for power play, penalty kill, save percentage, penalty minutes, and fighting majors.

There is much talk every season about the importance of power plays, but it turns out that regular-season success on the power play does not equate to a deep playoff run. In fact, none of the past 15 Stanley Cup champions finished the regular-season with the top power play unit. Only four Stanley Cup champions in the past 15 seasons have finished in the top-five in power play conversion percentage; the 2001 Avalanche (3rd), 2002 Red Wings (2nd), 2007 Ducks (3rd), and 2008 Red Wings (3rd).

Logic would tell you that if the power play success rate doesn’t necessarily equate to playoff success, then a superb penalty kill must be the key to success.  Well, that isn’t the case either.

The only team in the past 15 seasons that finished first overall in penalty kill percentage and went on to win the Stanley Cup was the 2003 Devils. Five other teams finished in the top-five in penalty kill and went on to win the Stanley Cup; the 2007 Ducks (5th), 2010 Blackhawks (4th), 2012 Kings (4th), 2013 Blackhawks (3rd), and the 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Penguins (5th).

There is something to be said for discipline, however. Only one team, the 2007 Ducks, finished in the top-five in penalty minutes and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The 2007 Ducks actually finished first in the NHL in penalty minutes (1,452) and fighting majors (71). The only other Stanley Cup champion in the past 15 seasons to finish in the top-five in fighting majors was the 2011 Bruins (78).

Interestingly, the only Stanley Cup champion of the past 15 seasons to finish in the top-five in power play, penalty kill, penalty minutes, and fighting majors was the 2007 Ducks, who finished third, fifth, first, and first in those respective categories.

When you look at the goaltending numbers you finally start to see a trend, but the trend only seems to be a recent phenomenon. Only one Stanley Cup champion in the years 2001-2010 had a team save percentage in the top five; the 2002 Detroit Red Wings (5th). Conversely, each Stanley Cup Champion since 2011 has finished in the top four in team save percentage; 2011 – Boston (1st), 2012 – Los Angeles (4th), 2013 – Chicago (2nd), 2014 – Los Angeles (2nd), 2015 – Chicago (2nd), 2016 – Pittsburgh (2nd).

So, what do all of these numbers mean? Well, recently it seems as though the team with the best goaltending generally finds itself on a long playoff run. However, even that trend is cyclical given the fact that, prior to 2012, the previous seven Stanley Cup champions weren’t even in the top-five in regular-season save percentage.

Overall, the numbers would suggest that just having a good power play, a good penalty kill, team toughness, and even good goaltending does not guarantee playoff success. Playoff success depends just as much on a little luck, good health, and getting hot at the right time as it does at excelling in facets of the game.

In conducting this research, it was also interesting to see the trends in each category over the past 15 seasons. For example, fighting majors have decreased dramatically. The team with the most fighting majors during this period was the Panthers with 117 during the 2001-02 season. During the 2016-17 season Anaheim lead the NHL with just 46 fighting majors; that is a difference of 71 fights!

While fighting has trended downward, top power play and penalty kill success rates have only fluctuated slightly over the past 15 seasons. The best power play percentage over the past 15 seasons belongs to the 2013 Capitals (26.8%). The average top power play success rate in the NHL over that span is 23.5%. As for the penalty kill, the top success rate over the past 15 seasons belongs to the 2012 Devils (89.6%). The average top penalty kill percentage over that span is 87.2%. The top save percentage during this span was Ottawa in 2013 at .933; the average during this span has been .924.

Lastly, you are not mistaken if you feel like the NHL is calling less and less penalties every season. In the 2001-02 season the Panthers lead the NHL in penalty minutes with 1,994; this season the Flames lead the NHL with 956.

Anyone can use numbers to prove things, 27% of all people know that, but when it comes to playoff success in the NHL, there really is no rhyme or reason as to what makes for a successful Stanley Cup run. Just ask the top-seeded Blackhawks who just got swept by the eighth-seeded Predators. That unpredictability is what makes the NHL playoffs the best in all of sports.

About Vince Comunale (5 Articles)
Professional sports writer, fluent in sarcasm and other humorous arts. Bachelor and Master degrees from Duquesne University. Member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Have previously written for many outlets, including the AP, Sports Xchange, PA SportsTicker, etc. Regularly appear as a guest on local sports radio. Expert at Name That Tune and proficient in many other areas of useless knowledge.
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