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The Playoffs, Part 2: First-Place Teams
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2004
Published April 6, 2004

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Last time, we looked at the randomness of the NHL playoff system, and how it can lead to the best team in any season not being recognized as such. But the question remains, how often do first-place teams overcome the flaws of the playoff system and win the Stanley Cup?

Well, literally speaking, first-place teams take their rightful places as league champs about 37.5% of the time. Since the introduction of 16-team playoffs in 1980 (24 years), nine teams that finished first in the regular season also won the Stanley Cup the same year. They are: the Islanders in 1981 and 1982, Edmonton in 1984 and 1987, Calgary in 1989, the Rangers in 1994, Dallas in 1999, Colorado in 2001 and Detroit in 2002. This is certainly much more often than would be expected if the playoffs were completely random. But it hardly disproves the notion that some great regular-season teams just don’t have “what it takes”, “when it counts” (though it is impossible to positively disprove anything, things must be proven; bear with me).

But let’s not be so literal. We’ll define our terms thusly: a first-place team is a team that finishes first overall in the regular season. A team finishing first for more than one season consecutively is considered only one first-place team. A team that finishes first more than once, with no more than one non-first-place year in between is considered only one first-place team. For example, the Rangers are considered a first-place team from 1992 to 1994, since they finished first in both 1992 and 1994.

A first-place team is considered to have won the Cup if it wins a Cup in any year for which it is considered a first-place team, or in the year before or after it is considered a first-place team. For instance, Colorado finished first in 1997, and since they won the Cup in 1996, they are considered a first-place team that won the Cup. This gives great teams more than one chance at the Cup before we declare them losers.

So how do first-place teams fare in terms of winning the Cup? The following table shows the results. ‘Team’ is the first-place team, ‘Years’ is the year(s) for which the team is considered a first-place team, ‘Cup’ indicates whether or not they won a Cup, and ‘Cup Years’ is the year(s) in which the Cup was won.

Team

Years

Cup

Cup Years

Philadelphia

1980

No

N/A

Islanders

1981-82

Yes

1980-83

Boston

1983

No

N/A

Edmonton

1984-87

Yes

1984-85, 1987-88

Philadelphia

1985

No

N/A

Calgary

1988-89

Yes

1989

Boston

1990

No

N/A

Chicago

1991

No

N/A

Rangers

1992-94

Yes

1994

Pittsburgh

1993

Yes

1992

Detroit

1995-96

Yes

1997

Colorado

1997

Yes

1996

Dallas

1998-99

Yes

1999

St. Louis

2000

No

N/A

Colorado

2001

Yes

2001

Detroit

2002-04

Yes

2002

Ottawa

2003

No

N/A

10 of the 17 first-place teams above have won Cups, or 59%. Ottawa could make it 11 of 17 if they win this year, so we should probably leave them off since their final fate in unknown. 10 of the 16 first-place teams have won Cups, or 63%.

But it’s also interesting to look at the truly great teams: those that were first-place teams for more than one season. All six of these teams won the Cup. Each and every one of them overcame the unfair playoff system to take the crown. Regular season excellence is reflected in post-season success. One-year-only first-place teams won Cups in four of 10 instances (40%), which is still slightly higher than our original, narrower definition.

We could also look at it from the other side. How often are Cup winners first-place teams? That’s easy:

Cup Year

Winner

First Place

1980

Islanders

1981-82

1981

Islanders

1981-82

1982

Islanders

1981-82

1983

Islanders

1981-82

1984

Edmonton

1984-87

1985

Edmonton

1984-87

1986

Montreal

N/A

1987

Edmonton

1984-87

1988

Edmonton

1984-87

1989

Calgary

1988-89

1990

Edmonton

N/A

1991

Pittsburgh

N/A

1992

Pittsburgh

1993

1993

Montreal

N/A

1994

Rangers

1992-94

1995

New Jersey

N/A

1996

Colorado

1997

1997

Detroit

1995-96

1998

Detroit

N/A

1999

Dallas

1998-99

2000

New Jersey

N/A

2001

Colorado

2001

2002

Detroit

2002

2003

New Jersey

N/A

16 of 24 Cup winners have been first-place teams since 1980. 67% is our highest figure yet, and it results from first-place teams winning multiple Cups. This number may still be a bit low due to our definitions; note that both Pittsburgh and Detroit both won two consecutive Cups while being considered a first-place team for only one of them.

In conclusion, most great NHL teams do win Cups. As much as some argue that certain teams (or types of teams) perform better (or worse) in the playoffs, regular-season greatness carries over very well into the post-season.

Next time, we’ll wrap up this series with a look at the poster boys for the playoff-team camp, the New Jersey Devils.

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