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History shows anything can happen in playoffs

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Think the Rangers ending the regular season on a five-game slide or the Devils surging at the finish with 11 straight wins will have any bearing on the first-round playoff series that begins on Saturday in New Jersey?

Recent history strongly suggests it won't.

There's no arguing that the Devils are the hottest team in hockey right now, but a review of the past 15 NHL seasons clearly shows that a strong performance in the last 10 games of the regular season does not tend to sustain itself in the playoffs. In fact, success at the end of the regular season often sets the stage for a big playoff letdown.

Since 1990, only one eventual Stanley Cup champion won more than six of its final 10 regular-season games. That team was the 1993-94 New York Rangers, who went 7-2-1 down the stretch. Putting those legendary Blueshirts aside, the best record any Cup champion has had over its final 10 games is the 5-0-4-1 performance of the 2003 Devils. Six of the other 13 league champs were at .500 or below over their final 10 regular-season games before going on their runs to the Cup.

Winning the last game of the regular season can also be a bad sign. Since 1990, only four of 15 Cup winners won their regular-season finales, and five entered the playoffs with losing streaks of two or more games.

Further proof that late-regular season surges are rarely a rallying cry for postseason success is the performance of teams that played their best hockey at the end of the regular season and were at the top of their game when the playoffs began.

The Devils' 11-0 run over their final 11 regular-season games is an NHL team record for the longest season-ending winning streak. But going into the playoffs with a big head of steam hasn't meant all that much to other teams recent years.

Prior to the Devils' 11-0 run, the best recent performance over the final stretch of a regular season was the 2000-01 Dallas Stars, who had a 13-game unbeaten streak in which they went 10-0-3. That late surge lifted Dallas to a division title and a No. 3 seed in the West. Once the playoffs began, Dallas found itself on the ropes.

In the first round, the 2001 Stars struggled through a six-game series with Edmonton in which three of the four Dallas wins required overtime. And in the second round, the Stars were swept by St. Louis, which outscored them 13-6. St. Louis had entered the playoffs as a No. 4 seed after finishing three points behind the Stars in the regular season and splitting the regular-season series with Dallas 2-2.

Dallas wasn't alone as a team that surged late in the season before hitting the wall in the playoffs. From 1990-2004, 11 NHL teams won at least eight of their final 10 regular-season games, but none of those 11 went on to win the Stanley Cup, and four were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

The most dramatic example of a sudden change of fate might be the 1992-93 Boston Bruins, who won eight straight games to finish the regular season. Boston was then abruptly swept out of the playoffs by Buffalo, which had finished 23 points behind the Bruins in the regular season and was just two games over .500.

The Sabres opened the 1993 Cup playoffs with a shocking 5-4 win in Boston and followed it up two nights later by shutting out the Bruins 4-0. They then came home and beat the B's 4-3 and 6-5 to advance to the second round -- where they were swept themselves by eventual Cup champion Montreal.

The difference for the 1993 Sabres -- as it is for so many underdog playoff teams -- was goaltending. Grant Fuhr and Dominik Hasek literally stole the series despite strong performances by Boston forwards Adam Oates, Cam Neely and Joe Juneau.

The flip side of what happened to the Sabres -- and even more evidence that the regular season and playoffs are two different animals -- is what happened to the Minnesota North Stars in the spring of 1991.

The North Stars barely qualified for the 1991 playoffs after going 27-39-14 during the regular season. They were at their worst over the final 10 games, when they sputtered to a 1-6-3 record. Like this year's Rangers, those North Stars lost their last five games. That included a 4-3 loss to Toronto, which had the NHL's second-weakest record at the time.

Yet the 1991 North Stars rebounded from their regular-season woes in stunning fashion. They opened the playoffs by beating regular-season champion Chicago in six games. They then went on to bounce St. Louis and defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton en route to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Although they lost to Pittsburgh 4-2, the North Stars proved once and for all that anything can happen once the playoffs begin -- which is exactly why the NHL's postseason is always such an exciting time of year.
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