We’re nearing the end of the regular season and teams are scrambling to secure playoff spots before the end of game 82. In both the East and the West the bottom playoff positions are still up for grabs, so every night is filled with scratching, clawing and scoreboard-watching as several teams try to squeeze into the few remaining spots like numerous clowns into a small car.
But is it really worth it?
Our competitive spirit tells us that qualifying for the playoffs gives us a chance and that upsets are always possible, especially in today’s NHL which is filled with parity. But how realistic is it that a team that captures one of the final two playoff spots will actually succeed in the postseason?
Of course, this story begins with last year’s Cinderella stories: The Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers. These two teams finished seventh and eighth respectively in the Eastern Conference and they ended up in the Eastern Conference Final against each other. The Canadiens upset the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins while the Flyers overcame the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins.
The Flyers and Canadiens both had 88 points, which was the lowest point total in the entire playoffs and one of the lowest point totals to qualify for the playoffs in years. Yet both teams defied the odds and made solid runs towards the Cup.
However, succeeding from the seventh or eighth spot is defying the odds. It doesn’t typically happen. Last year Colorado and Nashville took the final two spots in the West and they were both defeated in round one.
Going back to the 2009 playoffs, Montreal once again finished at the bottom of teams that qualified for the postseason. They took the eighth spot in the East while the Rangers took seventh. Both teams lost in the first round. There was an upset in the West however, as the eighth seeded Anaheim Ducks defeated the San Jose Sharks in round one before falling to Detroit in round two. The seventh seeded Columbus Blue Jackets also fell to Detroit as they were swept in the first round.
In the 2008 playoffs, both the seventh and eighth seeded teams in both conferences lost in round one. The same was true in the 2007 playoffs.
In 2006, the lowest-ranked teams in the East (Montreal and Tampa Bay) once again bowed out in the first round. However, it was a different story in the West, where all the lower-seeded teams were victorious. The fifth-place San Jose Sharks beat the fourth-place Nashville Predators. The sixth-seeded Anaheim Mighty Ducks defeated the third-seeded Calgary Flames. Colorado, the seventh seed, upset the second place Dallas Stars and the eighth place Edmonton Oilers shocked the first place Detroit Red Wings.
Colorado would lose in the second round to Anaheim, but Edmonton would go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Carolina in seven games. It was a near miracle as the lowest ranked team in the Western Conference came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup.
And that’s what teams struggling to make the playoffs hope for: a chance to play Cinderella. Since the lockout only five teams that were ranked seventh or eighth in their conference made it out of the first round. Out of those five teams, only three of them made it to the conference final and two of them made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Both of those teams (the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2006 Edmonton Oilers) lost in the Final.
Obviously it’s not likely that a bottom-seeded team succeeds, but in the five years since the lockout, seventh or eighth teams have made the Stanley Cup Final twice. So we’re telling you there’s a chance.