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Cup winners need good starts

Friday, 10.31.2008 / 10:32 AM / Columns

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

A fast start is no guarantee that a team will win the Stanley Cup. But if the last 12 years are any indication, a slow start makes for a good bet that it won't.

Beginning in 1995-96, the first full season after the lockout that shortened 1994-95 to 48 games, no Stanley Cup winner has finished October with a winning percentage of less than .636 -- the New Jersey Devils' mark after going 6-3-1-1. In fact, since then, no Cup winner has lost more than two games in regulation in October or finished with a winning percentage of less than .750 (New Jersey was 6-2-0 in October 2003 on the way to its third Stanley Cup in nine years.

In fact, no Cup winner has finished October with a losing record since the 1989-90 Edmonton Oilers, who rebounded from a 4-5-1 start to win their fifth Cup in seven years. The 1990-91 and 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins both took home the Cup after finishing October at the .500 mark (6-6-1 in 1990-91; 5-5-2 in 1991-92)

Two teams, the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and the 2007 Anaheim Ducks, won the Cup after not losing a game in regulation in the season's first month. The Lightning was 6-0-1; the Ducks went 9-0-0-3.

So which contenders could be in trouble this season?

Anaheim was 1-5-0 after six games but has won five in a row with a home game against Vancouver on Friday to close out the month. Even if the Ducks win, their October percentage of .583 would be lower than any Cup winner since the 1994 New York Rangers, who played .577 hockey in October. Dallas, which made the Western Conference Final last spring, is 4-4-2 entering Friday night's game at Chicago.

In the East, Philadelphia, which made the Eastern Conference Finals last spring, finished 4-3-3 -- a .550 winning percentage of available points (.400 in won-lost record, including shootouts). And Ottawa, which lost to Anaheim in the 2007 Final, had to win its last two games to get up to 4-5-1 -- a huge drop from 9-1-0 at the same point last season.

One is enough -- Tim Thomas became the first Boston goaltender in 72 years to win back-to-back 1-0 shutouts when he blanked Edmonton on Monday and Vancouver on Tuesday. The last Boston goaltender to do so was Tiny Thompson, who actually had three straight 1-0 wins (against Detroit, Chicago and the Montreal Canadiens) on March 10-15-17, 1936. Unlike Thomas' feat, all three of those games were at home.

Thomas also became only the second goaltender to win consecutive 1-0 games on the road. It had never happened in the NHL until last season, when Florida's Craig Anderson did it against the Islanders and Bruins on March 2-4.

Getting Thrashed -- Unfortunately for the Atlanta Thrashers, they have three games remaining against the Philadelphia Flyers this season. They probably won't be looking forward to them.
Few teams have another team's number the way the Flyers do against Atlanta. Tuesday night's 7-0 victory was Philadelphia's 11th in a row against the Thrashers, matching San Jose's 11-game streak against Chicago for the second-longest current winning streak by one team against another. Montreal is 12-0-0 in its last 12 regular-season meetings with Boston, though the Bruins did beat the Canadiens three times in their first-round playoff series last spring.

The Flyers have outscored Atlanta 42-17 in the 11 victories while allowing the Thrashers just one power-play goal in 46 chances (none in the last 37; Atlanta was 0-for-4 on Tuesday and hasn't scored a power-play goal against the Flyers since 2005-06).

No one enjoys playing the Thrashers more than goalie Antero Niittymaki, who got the shutout on Tuesday and is 10-0-0 lifetime against Atlanta. The only other active goaltender with a better perfect record against an opponent is Detroit's Chris Osgood, who's 16-0-0 against Tampa Bay.

Adding injury to insult, the loss to the Flyers also cost Atlanta the services of top rookie Zach Bogosian. He went down with a broken left leg during the game and is out indefinitely.

Penalty killers -- It took eight games and 25 chances, but the Minnesota Wild finally allowed a power-play goal. Dallas' Matt Niskanen scored midway through the second period in Wednesday night's 4-2 victory to end the Wild's streak of 24 straight kills. No team has gone that many games into the season since expansion; the last one not to allow a power-play goal in any of its first seven (or more) games of a season was Toronto (seven games) in 1962-63.

Turnabout -- Philadelphia's Mike Knuble got his first two goals of the season when he scored in each game of the Flyers' home-and-home sweep of New Jersey last weekend. Maybe playing the Devils was all he needed to jump-start his season. Knuble now has 10 goals in 17 games against New Jersey since the 2006-07 season began, more than anyone else in the NHL. Ironically, before his recent success, Knuble couldn't buy one against the Devils -- he had just two goals in his first 34 games against New Jersey since entering the NHL in 1996-97.

 
 
Shooting too much? -- Running up big shot totals and winning games don't go hand-in-hand for the New York Islanders. The Isles exceeded the 50-shot mark for the third time in 2008 when they pelted Carolina's Cam Ward with 60 last Saturday -- and lost 4-3. They've lost all three times this calendar year when getting 50 or more shots on goal, and have won only once in eight such games since the dynasty years (Jan. 26, 2006, a 4-3 win over Boston in which they outshot the Bruins 51-44).

No team had managed as many as 60 shots on goal in a non-OT game since Feb. 24, 1990, when the Canadiens outshot Pittsburgh 61-26 -- and beat the Penguins 11-1.

Over glass, into box -- It won't show up in the record books, but Toronto Maple Leafs apparently set some kind of bizarre mark in their game against Tampa Bay on Tuesday. Of the Leafs' five penalties, three were delay of game calls for shooting the puck over the glass and into the crowd -- the most called against a team in one game since the rule was added in 2005-06. Leafs defenseman Mike Van Ryn drew two of the penalties. Tampa Bay's Chris Gratton also was penalized for putting the puck in the seats, meaning that four of the 11 minors called were for delay of game.

Surprisingly in a game that saw three power-play goals scored on just 11 chances, none of the four delay of game calls led to a goal.

At last -- It took Steven Stamkos well into his eighth game to earn his first NHL point. The No. 1 pick in last June's Entry Draft got an assist on Vincent Lecavalier's second-period goal in Tampa Bay's 3-2 win at Toronto after going scoreless in his first seven games. Only one forward taken No. 1 has gone longer without a point -- but the Bolts and their rookie center can take solace in the fact that while Joe Thornton needed 22 games to get his first point, he seems to have done OK since then.

The assist must have done Stamkos a lot of good. He got his first two NHL goals and added another assist two nights later against Buffalo.

Double trouble -- When Detroit coach Mike Babcock talks about his team's problems in killing 5-on-3 disadvantages, he's not kidding. Through the Wings' first 11 games, they had allowed five goals when playing down two men -- no other team had allowed more than two. The five 5-on-3 goals were only one fewer than the Wings surrendered during one-man advantages -- and two fewer than they allowed all last season.

The Wings didn't give up any 5-on-3 goals in Thursday's 4-2 loss at San Jose, but they were outshot for the first time this season. Detroit had had at least 34 shots while outshooting its first 10 opponents, but was outgunned 33-27 in San Jose -- including 27-13 in the first two periods.
Quote of the Day

He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes. I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride.

— David Ekblad on his son's [Aaron Ekblad] journey to the NHL, signing with the Florida Panthers