Professional wrestling icon Ric Flair frequently noted during his lengthy career that “to be the man, you have to beat the man.” A 16-time world champion, Flair gained his accolades by beating the preceding title-holders into submission. In the National Hockey League’s playoffs, such a feat isn’t as common, but other historical trends may show who has the advantage heading into this year’s edition of the Stanley Cup Finals.
BEATING THE PRIOR CHAMPION
Does the road to Lord Stanley’s Cup necessarily go through the previous champion’s path? Looking at the past 20 Stanley Cup Champions, the answer is “yes, sometimes.”
Five times since 1991, the Stanley Cup winner advanced through one of the four playoff rounds by eliminating the previous year’s champion. The 1997 Detroit Red Wings beat Colorado, the 1996 winners. The 2000 New Jersey Devils beat Dallas, the 1999 champions. The 2001 Colorado Avalanche in turn beat the Devils, while those Avalanche were beaten the next season by the eventual champions from Detroit. Most recently, the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the 2008 champions, the Red Wings, to win the Cup.
However, neither the Kings or the Devils beat last year’s Stanley Cup winners, the Boston Bruins. Heck, neither team beat a team that won a Stanley Cup at all since the 1995 lock-out.
CHAMPIONSHIP STEPPING STONES
Are there NHL clubs who have become established as championship stepping-stones, teams whose elimination is usually a precursor to a Stanley Cup win? Over the past 20 playoffs, a handful of teams have become established in this manner. In terms of which team’s defeat generally leads to Stanley Cup glory, there’s a tie, and one that equally favours both competitors in their year’s Stanley Cup Finals.
Seven times in the past 20 playoffs, the Stanley Cup Champion was the team that eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers, as the New Jersey Devils did in the second round this year. However, another seven times, the Stanley Cup Champion was the team that defeated the Vancouver Canucks, as the Los Angeles Kings accomplished in the opening round of this year’s post-season. Second-place is a tie between the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Washington Capitals, all who were defeated by the eventual champions five times apiece. On the flip side, only the Columbus Blue Jackets and the former Atlanta Thrashers escaped elimination by the eventual champion.
WHO DOES HISTORY FAVOUR?
Looking at all of the teams that the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils beat en route to the finals, which team does previous Stanley Cup history favour?
- The Kings beat Vancouver (lost to 7 Cup winners), St. Louis (lost to 5 Cup winners) and Phoenix (lost to 1 Cup winner), for an aggregate total of beating 13 Cup-producing series losers.
- The Devils beat Florida (lost to 2 Cup winners), Philadelphia (lost to 7 Cup winners) and the NY Rangers (lost to 1 Cup winner), for an aggregate total of beating 10 Cup-producing series losers.
THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE?
The Kings head into the Finals with a seeming advantage over New Jersey. Los Angeles has played only 14 games in the first three rounds, compared to the 18 games played by the Devils. However, playing fewer games en route to the finals is not really an advantage.
Of the previous 20 Stanley Cup Finals, four times both teams played the same number of games in the first three rounds and 16 times, one team had played fewer games prior and therefore had an advantage. Only five of those 16 times did the team who played fewer games before the finals win the Stanley Cup.
Similarly, the Kings’ 14-game run to a finals berth is tied with the 2003 Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the 1995 Detroit Red Wings and the 1992 Chicago Blackhawks for the least games played before a Stanley Cup Final. None of those three teams won the Cup.
In short, history seems to be balanced between factors that suggest either team can win. The Kings have beaten more teams that usually are beaten by Stanley Cup winners. But the team that played more games before the final series usually wins the Cup, so that suggests the Devils could win. And each team has beaten one of the two teams that have each been beaten by seven Stanley Cup winners in the last 20 seasons – the Vancouver Canucks and the Philadelphia Flyers.
History suggests that this is anybody’s series.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.