Prior to this year’s NHL trade deadline, I reacted to reports of the NY Rangers’ trading for San Jose Sharks forward Ryane Clowe by posting “If Clowe was the answer, what the hell was the question?” on Twitter.
It was a good-natured jab at the Rangers struggles this season, part of which was pinned to the club’s apparent lack of character, depth and grit.
Most of the responses from several of my Twitter followers – including a few Rangers fans – got the joke, even offering up humorous replies making note of Clowe inability to score this season prior to his move to the Blueshirts.
A couple of Rangers fans, however, didn’t see the humor, accusing me of being a Rangers “hater” (or “hatah”, though why I was compared to a double karate chop to the sides of an opponent’s neck puzzled me).
When I attempted to clarify my comment in a series of tweets expressing doubt Clowe’s addition addressed the Rangers other problems (struggling scorers and the sidelining of blueline stalwart Marc Staal to an eye injury), let alone made them a Cup contender, a Rangers fan replied, “You do realize only 10 months ago an 8th overall seed won the Stanley Cup?”
Ah yes, the “once you make the playoffs, anything can happen” rallying cry of some desperate fans of marginal NHL teams. The LA Kings march to the 2012 Stanley Cup provides inspiration to those fans.
Now, I’m not picking on Rangers fans here. Every NHL team has been a marginal playoff contender in its history, and all have their share of fans who dare to dream their club could pull off a series of miraculous upsets to win the Stanley Cup.
The Kings indeed made NHL history as the lowest seed (8th overall in the Western Conference, 14th overall in the league, with the fewest regular season victories – 40 – of last season’s playoff contenders) to win the Stanley Cup.
That achievement, however, overlooks the fact the Kings were a much better team than their regular season record. They overcame a sluggish mid-season (thanks in part to hiring Darryl Sutter as head coach in mid-December) and with the addition of Jeff Carter in a trade with Columbus rallied down the stretch.
They were, and still are, a club filled with talented young stars (most in their mid-to-late twenties) like forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, defenseman Drew Doughty, and goaltender Jonathan Quick.
Of this group, Quick had the best season, his stats ranking him among the league’s elite during the regular season (he was runner-up to the Rangers Henrik Lundqvist for the Vezina Trophy). He was well-primed for a strong playoff run, carrying the Kings to the Stanley Cup and earning the Conn Smythe trophy for his efforts.
This was no rag-tag motley crew of plucky underdogs beating superior teams, but a well-disciplined club led by young stars in their prime overcoming an inconsistent regular season to peak in the post-season.
Upsets regularly occur in the NHL playoffs, but most take place in the first couple of rounds. Underdogs don’t often reach the Conference Finals, let alone advance to the Cup Final.
Prior to the Kings championship run, the 2006 Edmonton Oilers were the last 8th seeded team to reach the Stanley Cup Final, falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven hard-fought, entertaining games.
Four seventh-seeded clubs (the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, 2003 Anaheim then-Mighty Ducks, 1999 Buffalo Sabres and the 1994 Vancouver Canucks) advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, all falling short of a championship.
The 2012 New Jersey Devils and the 2004 Calgary Flames were the only sixth seeded teams to advance to the Cup Final. They, too, fell short.
Most of those clubs could be considered underdogs, lacking the depth in talent of the 2012 Kings. The 2010 Flyers were the sole exception. Like the Kings, they were a better team than their regular season record indicated, though they lacked the latter’s depth in goal.
To summarize, in eighteen years under the current NHL playoff format, only two eighth seeds, four seventh seeds and two sixth seeds have advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Of those, only one won the Cup. That doesn’t bode well for fans of marginal playoff contenders with dreams of a championship dancing in their heads.
Sure, anything can happen in the playoffs, even an eighth seed winning the Stanley Cup. Just remember, it’s only happened once, and by a team which was superior to its regular season record.
So, cheer for your marginal playoff club, maybe they’ll pull off an upset or two, but don’t compare it to the 2012 LA Kings.