Does Adversity Build Champions?

The Washington Capitals have some of the finest offensive talent in the game.  Last season they won the President’s Trophy and led the league in several other categories.  Now they’re mired in a six game losing streak, which includes a 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers last night.  After the loss coach Bruce Boudreau told the media that “when you’ve lost, now six in a row, you get behind and you get deflated.”

However, as NBC’s ProHockey Talk pointed out, this slump could end up being a positive thing for the Capitals.

The thinking there is that good teams are built from adversity.  Struggling through difficult losses and fighting your way through them makes you stronger.  Or does it?

Looking at the last few Stanley Cup finalists may helps determine if that’s true or not.

There have been five sets of Stanley Cup finalists since the lockout.  Only one team, the 2008 Detroit Red Wings, has won the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season during that time frame.  No other President’s Trophy winners have even made the final.  This shows what many people already know, that regular season success does not usually translate into playoff success.

But does regular season adversity lead to championships?

There is a difference between not winning the President’s Trophy and struggling.  You could have a relatively successful season and still not have the best record in the league.

Starting with last year’s finalists, the Philadelphia Flyers stick out the most.  They famously made the playoffs by winning a shootout in final game of the season.  In November 2009 the Flyers lost five games in a row, then lost another four in a row that same month.  Another five game losing streak followed in March.  During the season, coach John Stevens was fired and replaced by Peter Laviolette.  But the adversity didn’t stop in the regular season.  The Flyers fell into a 3-0 series hole against the Boston Bruins in round two and it looked like their season was over.  However, they stormed back, won the series and found themselves in the Stanley Cup final.  Adversity definitely played a big part in their season.

The Flyers’ opponents – and 2010 Stanley Cup Champions – the Chicago Blackhawks finished first in the Central Division and had an impressive season overall.  They didn’t lose more than three games in a row during the regular season and that only happened twice all year.  The playoffs, as always, proved to be a grind, but the farthest the Hawks fell behind in a playoff series was going down by one game.  The 2010 Chicago Blackhawks did not face any additional adversity outside of the standard struggles of  a long NHL season.

The 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins definitely faced adversity during their championship season.  In many ways, their story is similar to that of the 2010 Flyers.  They struggled during the season, at one point losing five straight games.  In February they found themselves outside of the playoff picture and coach Michel Therrien was shown the door.  After bringing in Dan Bylsma, the Pens stormed their way into the postseason, but the adversity didn’t stop there.  They fell in 2-0 holes to both the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings, but came back to win both series in seven games.

Their opponents in the final, the Detroit Red Wings, finished first in the Central Division, but that does not mean they went through the entire season adversity-free.  In January of 2009 the Red Wings lost five games in row, but came back and followed that streak with a a six game winning streak.  They never trailed in a playoff series until losing in the Cup final.

The Penguins and Red Wings met in the 2008 final as well.  Both teams won their respective divisions that season and stormed their way through the playoffs.  The Penguins only lost two games in the first three rounds and the Red Wings only lost four.  However, despite having the best record in the league at the end of the season, the Red Wings had a stint where they lost 10 games in an 11 game span.  The Penguins went through a stretch where both captain Sidney Crosby and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury missed significant time with high ankle sprains.  On the adversity scale, we’ll rank these teams as slightly above average.

The 2007 Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks finished first in the Pacific Division.  They did, however, go through two four-game losing streaks during the season.  Once they got to the playoffs, they only lost three games on their way to the final and lost only one against Ottawa.

The Ottawa Senators, the Ducks’ opponents in 2007, faced much more adversity during the year.  In October, the Senators went through a three game losing streak as well as a five game losing streak.  They turned their season around, however, and stormed through the playoffs.  They lost only three games during the postseason, before falling to the Ducks in five games.

In 2006, the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes met in the Stanley Cup Final.  The Hurricanes had a strong season and they finished first in the Southeast Division.  During October of 2005, the Canes won nine straight games and they never lost more than three in-a-row all season.

The Oilers were a different story.  They finished third in the Northwest Division and barely grabbed the eighth playoff spot, finishing three points ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.  While the Hurricanes were on an October winning streak, the Oilers were losing seven straight.  They also suffered through four game losing streaks in February and March, but pushed through and ended up one game short of a Stanley Cup championship.  The Oilers definitely fought through adversity that year.

So what do these teams tell us about adversity?  They tell us that anything can happen in the NHL.  Recent history shows that there is no standard path to the Stanley Cup final.  Some teams ride strong regular seasons into playoff victories while others limp into the postseason and then fight their way to glory.  Going through adversity does not necessarily make you a champion, but it isn’t guaranteed to ruin your year either.  Organizations have gone through long losing streaks and serious injuries and still achieved greatness.

So, despite how it may seem to teams like the Washington Capitals who are struggling at the moment, it’s not over until it’s over.

Most team stats in this post came from Hockey-Reference.com.