Let’s get the jokes out of the way. Flyers, fast starts. They don’t typically belong in the same sentence unless the words, “don’t typically have” are between them. Over the last 10 seasons, the Flyers haven’t won more than five of their first 10 games in a season. Their best start to a season was 5-4-1 last season, in 2011, and in 2010. Interestingly enough, all three of those seasons saw the Flyers make the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though interesting, they’ve also made the playoffs after starting a season 3-7-0. Needless to say, the correlation is seemingly non-existent.
However, this season comes under special circumstances. The NHL will be operating under a 56 game schedule. Fast starts could be the key to ensuring a spot come playoff time. At least that seems to be the common sentiment shared amongst many. Just how important is it for the Flyers to come out of the gates strong? Is it a necessary feat, or can a team start slow and work their way into a playoff spot as the season moves along? To put things into perspective as best as possible, it’s only fair to look at the last shortened season, the 2012/13 NHL season. Though it was a lockout that cut the season short, every team played 48 games, only eight less than what they’re slated to play this season.
|First 10||First 15||First 20|
|Pittsburgh Penguins (1E)||7-3-0||10-5-0||13-7-0|
|Chicago Blackhawks (1W)||8-0-2||12-0-3||17-0-3|
|Montreal Canadiens (2E)||6-3-1||10-4-1||13-4-3|
|Anaheim Ducks (2W)||7-2-1||12-2-1||15-3-2|
|Washington Capitals (3E)||2-7-1||5-9-1||8-11-1|
|Vancouver Canucks (3W)||6-2-2||8-3-4||11-5-4|
|Boston Bruins (4E)||8-1-1||11-2-2||14-3-3|
|St. Louis Blues (4W)||6-4-0||9-5-1||11-7-2|
|Toronto Maple Leafs (5E)||5-5-0||9-6-0||12-8-0|
|Los Angeles Kings (5W)||3-5-2||7-6-2||11-7-2|
|New York Rangers (6E)||5-5-0||8-6-1||10-8-2|
|San Jose Sharks (6W)||7-2-1||8-4-3||10-6-4|
|Ottawa Senators (7E)||6-3-1||7-6-2||12-6-2|
|Detroit Red Wings (7W)||5-4-1||7-6-2||9-8-3|
|New York Islanders (8E)||4-5-1||6-8-1||8-11-1|
|Minnesota Wild (8W)||4-5-1||7-6-2||10-8-2|
In the first 10 games of the 2013 season, there were only four playoff teams with losing records. The Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings, New York Islanders, and Minnesota Wild. Washington won their division, but to be fair, the Southeast Division had the three worst teams in the Eastern Conference. Los Angeles was in a solid Pacific Division with Anaheim (2-seed) and San Jose (6-seed.) Both Minnesota and the Islanders were only one game under .500, but were also the eighth seed in their respective conferences.
That means 12 of the 16 teams that made the playoffs started off the season with a winning record in the first 10 games. Looking five games ahead, that number jumped to 14. Both Minnesota and Los Angeles improved to 7-2-6, while Washington gained some ground by going 3-2-0 in those five games, bringing their overall record to 5-9-1. The Islanders went 2-3-0, bringing their 15-game record to 6-8-1. Things remained the same after 20 games, with New York and Washington remaining under .500 on the year, both going 8-11-1.
Fast forward to the playoffs, and three of those four initial sub-.500 teams endured a first round exit. Washington lost to the six seeded New York Rangers in seven games. The Isles lost to the first seeded Penguins in six games. Minnesota took first seeded Chicago to only five games before losing their series. Los Angeles was the only team from that group that made it past the first round. They eventually fell to Chicago in the Western Conference Finals four games to one. In all fairness, nobody was beating Chicago that year.
What About Finishing Strong?
Finishing strong has it’s advantages as well. Taking the same teams from above, three of them had a sub-.500 record in their last 10 games of the season. The second seeded Montreal Canadiens and fourth seeded Boston Bruins of the Eastern Conference, as well as the eighth seeded Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference. Each team gained less than half the points available in those last ten games. Montreal and Boston gained eight points while Minnesota gained nine.
Taking a look at the teams that made their conference finals, Pittsburgh and Boston faced off for the Eastern Conference while Chicago and Los Angeles took the ice for the Western Conference. Pittsburgh was the second hottest team coming into the playoffs with an 8-2-0 record in their last ten games. Boston was on the other end of the spectrum with the worst record in their last 10, posting a 3-5-2 record. Pittsburgh eventually prevailed. Chicago was one point behind Pittsburgh in their last 10 with a 7-2-1 record, while Los Angeles posted a 5-3-2 record for 12 points in that span. Chicago eventually came out on top.
The hottest team coming into the playoffs was the Washington Capitals. They went 8-1-1 in their last ten, accumulating 17 out of a possible 20 points in that span. Washington was ousted in the first round by the Rangers in seven games.
It makes sense that two of the hottest teams at the end of the year faced off in the Stanley Cup Finals. Washington was still in their “can’t get over the hump” period, and Boston making the Eastern Conference Finals can be attributed to their 8-1-1 start, the second best by any playoff team.
So What’s More Important?
Well, it’s not that simple. A team like Chicago dominated all year, losing only seven games in regulation. Pittsburgh was the top team in the East for a majority of the year. The two best teams represented their conference, there’s no doubt about it. However, looking at the runner-ups you see that Boston had a tremendous start to the season. They went 8-1-1 in their first 10 and 14-3-3 in their first 20. Los Angeles is a bit of an anomaly. They didn’t have a particularly good start to the season, and their last 10 games weren’t spectacular. They were solid, but not enough to say “wow.”
It really is a crapshoot. Either a strong start or finish is obviously a good thing, but it’s hard to say if either is more important. The Flyers have notoriously started slow, but have also been known to finish strong. They’re much like the Los Angeles Kings of 2013 in that regard. Making a run at the Eastern Conference Finals would be outstanding, but a strong start isn’t necessarily more important than a strong finish. Either are a welcome occurrence, but it’s tough to pinpoint whether one is more vital to the Flyers season than the other.
Photo Credit – Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire